Loyalty To What? All They Have Kept Is The Name
- Loyalty To What? All They Have Kept Is The Name
July 29, 2004
by Fred Reed
As a boy I lived at times in Hampden-Sydney, a small college town in
Virginia, where my family had lived for generations. H-S was the Old
South of idyllic imagination. Georgian buildings stood on rolling
green laws shaded by ancient oaks. Quiet reigned. At night stars
shone and frogs creaked. In the woods nearby a stream splashed and
chortled over Slippery Rock, where you could slide bare-bottomed into
a moss-lined pool. My father knew Slippery Rock. So did my
People were socially conservative, literate, friendly, living in
houses they had lived in forever. Many were professors, stately men
of great learning. They knew the classics and shared a respect for
English. Courtesy was taken for granted, along with a pleasant
formality. My grandfather, who had been dean and professor of
mathematics, wore a coat and tie at meals.
Seven miles away in Farmville, the country seat, lovely old houses
lined High Street, not far from the statue of the Confederate
soldier. On Main Street one passed stores where people had known each
other for generations. A Southern mannerliness prevailed here too.
When the wind was right the rich sweet smell of tobacco came peppery
from the ancient processing floors at the end of town. There was a
sense of permanence, of locality. Farmville, like Hampden-Sydney,
like Athens, Alabama in 1957, like New Orleans once, like so many
towns, was its own place, shaped by the people who lived there. You
could feel a loyalty to it. I did.
Perhaps all loyalty is essentially local. America was once a
sprawling tapestry of locality. Boone, North Carolina wasn't Barstow
and Barstow wasn't Bluefield and Bluefield wasn't Amarillo, but they
were all what they were and had their distinctiveness and dignity,
their quirky idiosyncrasy.
As a young man I hitchhiked the big roads of the land, roads that
were not the bland isolating limited-access interstates of today. A
memorable thing it was to stand beside a highway in the sprawling
western deserts with your thumb out and the big trucks blasting by
with tires whining and the wind rocking you. It was a wilder America,
less controlled. And my God it was worth seeing.
The mountain men of West Virginia were rougher than they are now, but
they were self-reliant and hardy. Key Westhot, eerily quiet, with a
ratty lived-in feel and a smell of salt water--had not become a tee-
shirt outlet. On the back roads of Georgia, ramshackle country stores
sold Moon Pies and pickled sausage and RC Cola. In all of them people
decided locally what they wanted to be.
It didn't last. It doesn't last. Sooner or later, the shopping mall
comes to the outskirts. With it come Gap, Penny's, McDonald's,
Hecht's, Wal-Mart, Sam's, Office Depot, Staples, Wendy's. Main Street
dies because Wal-Mart is cheaper. People no longer stroll down Main
saying hello to friends. They drive to the mall and park.
Ruby Tuesday arrives, mass cheer designed at corporate. Red's Rib Pit
dies. Red's belonged where it was, with the stuffed buck's head and
the deer rifle under it on a rack made of antlers. Ruby Tuesday
glittered more and had a better menu.
A man has a certain dignity when he stands in his own farm or when he
owns his store and talks politics with customers. Whether he knows
what he is talking about is not important. Few people do. When he
becomes a salaried warehouseman for a remote office in Milwaukee, the
dignity goes. He is a number, and afraid of his boss.
The localness that made towns memorable withers further under the
onslaught of television. Regional accents vanish. Across the
continent people gawp in electronic synchronicity at sitcoms devised
in Hollywood and New York. These carefully, deliberately, gnaw away
at local views of things and replace them with Appropriate Values.
People no longer raise their children. The box does. Their schooling
is determined by texts written far off, also designed to instill the
politics of elsewhere.
Music is the soul of a locality. Zydeco is Louisiana, los mariachis
are Mexico, Presley was the small-town South. New York now determines
our music. Everything is decided from afar. Everything moves toward
And towards degradation. We suffer under a plague of rappers, human
cockroaches scuttling across the sores of a necrotic civilization. If
people in the Bible Belt don't want to hear muthufuckuhmuthuhfuckuh
all day, don't want their children exposed to it, why, New York says
they must. The Supreme Court says they must.
How much loyalty do I owe to profits at Warner Brothers? To nine
presumptuous apparitions in black robes who care nothing about me?
How much fondness should I feel for a government that slowly,
grindingly destroys all that made me care about America?
Washington once seemed benign. It was the capital of a magnificent
country that had promulgated freedom and defeated the Nazis and was
defending the world from communism. Not all of this stood up to
analysis, but at least Washington wasn't the enemy. It managed
diplomacy and the military and ran the post office. Otherwise it
pretty much left people alone.
Not now. People no longer live as they like, by standards and habits
that seem right to them, within reasonable laws. We live as
Washington tells us. The government tells us who to hire, who to sell
our houses to, whether we can have the Ten Commandments on a
courthouse wall or a Christmas display on the town square, what names
we can call each other without going to jail, whether our daughters
have to tell us before having an abortion, how far off the floor
toilet seats have to be in factories.
Today the government regards me if not as an enemy, then as a
suspect. I begin to reciprocate. Once at airports I got a smile and
a "Welcome back." Now, going or coming, I encounter unfriendly
police, semi-strip searches, and questions about things that are none
of the government's business. It is Washington's business to
determine at the border that I am a citizen, and perhaps that I am
not a wanted criminal. It has no other business.
Or didn't. Now I must be watched, and I am watched. Now the
immigrations official slides my passport through a reader, and looks
at a screen carefully placed so that I can't see it. Everywhere the
cameras go in, the data bases breed, and the FBI reads my email. Yes,
I know they are just doing their jobs. Yes, I know it's because of
terrorism. I don't care.
I can obey, or I can leave. I cannot like it. That is beyond me.
©Fred Reed 2004
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Fred Reed,columnist for The Washington Times, former Marine, streety
police writer, occasional terrified war correspondent,and afficionado
of raffish bars, offers weekly his unique, often satirical and
arguably opinionated views on ...everything. You'll grind your teeth.
(He denies that he gets a kickback from the dental lobby, though no
one believes him.) But you'll think. "I'm an equal-opportunity
irritant," says Fred democratically. Visit his website here.