OldVet: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

This post is by OldVet…

The great photographer Walker Evans and the writer Philip Agee were employed to document the lives of the rural South in 1937, which became the book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” It documented the lives of three sharecropper families in northern Alabama at that time. They had been warned by the landowners that Evans and Agee were communists sent by Franklin Roosevelt, so it took them some time to secure the words and images of the people they were supposed to describe.

In light of the Obama word “bitterness” and the Angry Bear discussion on the topic this weekend, I took the opportunity to ask my wife’s nephew (let’s call him Zachariah) a few questions last evening. He’d stopped by to hunt wild turkey in the woods behind our house and in our neighbor’s field at sunset. Zach’s face resembles the man in the Walker Evans photo, above.

Zach is an engineer who commutes 120 miles roundtrip to Nashville to work; has two kids, is more or less a fundamentalist protestant, with parents more liberal than himself. He’s unhappy his kids will have to move away to get good jobs, and wishes he didn’t have to commute himself, but all the factories are disappearing in the county. He has no faith in Washington politicians to improve our economy or our lives. He dislikes “socialized medicine” but is glad his father could get Medicare coverage for a serious cancer discovered last year, and has no health insurance for his own family from his present company. He pays $12,000 a year for health insurance.

His two brothers both have families, factory jobs, but no health insurance coverage either. Both of them complain about illegal immigrants flooding the market and depressing wages in their two small factories. Their bosses constantly remind them they can be replaced cheaply. Zach worries about their prospects if they lose their jobs, since they don’t have the education he does.

I asked him if he was bitter, and he thought about it, and nodded but wouldn’t elaborate. He said after his dad got sick, and insurance salesman in his town (population 1,500) had started coming around to sell his parents an annuity in exchange for their life savings, and asked what we thought about it. We told him it was expensive, and a poor choice for most old people. Being OldVet, I pointed out how insurance salesmen had remade themselves into Financial Advisors in rural towns in order to get greater commissions off confused old people. He expressed some real disgust and promised to warn his parents against being hustled.

Zach’s dad is much more liberal then himself, and he said his dad thought Democrats should be easily winning the discussion over the economy and the Iraq war, but were wasting their breath attacking each other. The father is gloomy and resigned to another term with McCain, whom the dad calls “an ignorant man” and a “warmonger.” Zach’s mother voted for Mrs. Clinton in the primary, but now favors Mr. Obama, who she feels is more in tune with people who are struggling. She thinks no black and no woman can be elected in the South, however. The father and mother both credit (a) economic disappointments and (b) Rush Limbaugh and the constant stream of divisive insinuations he puts out as big factors in rural conservatism.

Zach is conservative, or believes he is. He said it’s because big city politicians and Washington politicians don’t like rural people. I asked why that was so, and he said probably because they lived in structured urban environments, worked paperwork jobs, and had little attachment to the fields and the wide spaces and the forests of this country. He pointed out that the rural South is the most American part of America, meaning the least changed by successive waves of immigration in the last century. He said if rising incomes had come to rural areas it might have been a different matter. Manual workers get $2 to $5 an hour less for the same work than they did five years ago, in his estimation.

That’s the report – and the political challenge – from rural Tennessee.

This one was by OldVet.