“History Is a Protective Armor Against Being Misled”

I saw Buick Guy again the other day.

He drives an 80s-vintage Buick that’s more primer than paint. A “McCain-Palin” sticker clings resolutely to the rust bucket’s rear bumper.

I don’t get Buick Guy. Based on his wheels, he’s what the Good Book calls “the least among us.” But he voted for a millionaire U.S. senator.

I spotted Buick guy turning into a public housing project on the edge of Mayfield , Kentucky , the town where I live. Apparently, he lives in the project.

McCain’s not a big fan of government-subsidized housing or any other government help for Buick Guys. McCain’s Republican Party isn’t either.

Buick Guy appears to be in his sixties. So he’s probably eligible for Social Security and Medicare, maybe even Medicaid. All three are liberal Democratic programs that conservative Republicans opposed – and some still want to deep six.

Republicans like McCain love it when Buick Guys trash “liberal elitists.” They love it more when Buick Guys vote Republican. Never mind that that the polices of the GOP (and its conservative Southern “Blue Dog” Democratic soul mates) help make the rich richer and leave Buick Guys living in housing projects and driving heaps.

Maybe President Obama’s skin color prevented Buick Guy from voting for him. Like Pap in Huckleberry Finn, some Buick Guys don’t get it: working stiffs are working stiffs, no matter their skin color.

“The issue is not black and white – it’s green,” said the Rev. W.G. Harvey, the first African American city commissioner in Paducah , where I teach history at the community college.

Buick Guy resides a long way from Easy Street. But he thinks like an elitist, said David Nickell, who teaches sociology at my community college. He wasn’t kidding.

Buick Guys, Nickell explained, “are the least secure group in society. They are right on the edge of the poverty line. They’re a paycheck away from losing everything.”

So they look down on people poorer than they are, Nickell said. “And they readily accept the ideology of the real elite.”

Buick Guys oppose government aid for people who need it, even people like them. “They see redistributing the wealth as taking from them and giving to those below them,” Nickell said. “They don’t see it as taking from billionaires and helping them, too.”

Getting people like Buick Guy to vote their own interests is probably tougher in the United States than in any other Western industrial democracy. Part of it is our history. We’ve never had kings or nobles. Their abuse of power and wealth was obvious to Europe ’s toiling classes.

But America has always had a moneyed elite that’s been conning American workers for years. Rich folks love to claim even Buick Guys can become millionaires.

Nickell says that’s largely a myth. Almost all of us live our whole lives in the same class in which we were born, he adds.

In the first place, most rich people get their money the old-fashioned way: they inherit it. That’s always been the case, especially in the post-Civil War era when the old Robber Barons became some of the wealthiest men in U.S. history.

“While some multimillionaires started in poverty, most did not,” the late Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States. “A study of the origins of 303 textile, railroad, and steel executives of the 1870s showed that 90 percent came from middle- or upper-class families.”

Zinn added that “the Horatio Alger stories of ‘rags to riches’ were true for a few men, but were mostly myth, and a useful myth for control.”

Of course, the tycoons knew that almost no working stiffs would ever get rich, not on what they paid those who worked for them. But the tycoons also understood (modern-day millionaires and their political allies get it, too) that the prospect of getting rich – however remote – was enough to keep a lot of workers from seriously questioning the “free enterprise” system and embracing socialism, say.

America is still the only Western industrial democracy that doesn’t have a democratic socialist or social democratic party capable of winning elections. (Brian Moore, the Socialist Party USA presidential candidate in 2008, says flat out that the Republican claim that Obama and the Democrats are “socialists” is baloney.)

Anyway, film maker Michael Moore wrote that working stiffs are still “addicted to the Horatio Alger fantasy drug.” He explained, “Despite all the damage and all the evidence to the contrary, the average American still wants to hang on to this belief that maybe, just maybe, he or she (mostly he) just might make it big after all. So don’t attack the rich man, because one day that rich man may be me!”

Meanwhile, the poverty rate is greater in the United States than in other Western industrial democracies, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. At the same time, the gap between rich and poor remains wider in the U.S. than in any other Western industrial democracy, the OECD also says.

No matter, millionaire Republican conservatives want working people to keep believing they don’t need “big government.” Conservatives want workers to believe that because they happen to own a home, however humble, or a car, even a rattletrap old Buick, their interests are the same as millionaires with mansions and fleets of luxury cars and an executive jet or two.

Historically, most millionaires have voted their class interests. They give millions of dollars in campaign donations to politicians who will do their bidding. Buick Guys do their bidding for free.

Of course, any time anybody suggests working people should vote their class interests, the Republicans yelp “class warfare!”

Nickell recalled hearing the first President Bush level the “class warfare” charge against Bill Clinton in 1992. “I saw it on TV,” he said. “Senior Bush was standing on the bow of his yacht at Kennebunkport .”

The Republican con job – which includes pandering to racial, ethnic and religious prejudice, homophobia and jingoism – failed in 2008. But the rise of the Tea Baggers suggests it’s working again. It almost always has.

After the Civil War, the Robber Barons amassed colossal fortunes “…with the aid of, and at the expense of, black labor, white labor, Chinese labor, European immigrant labor, female labor, rewarding them differently by race, sex, national origin, and social class, in such a way as to create separate levels of oppression — a skillful terracing to stabilize the pyramid of wealth,” Zinn also wrote.

The pyramid is still there. Buick Guys and Tea Baggers are on the bottom or close to it. But they continue to vote for politicians who are keeping them there, and they get mad at folks who point that out.

“Liberal elitist!” they yell at the Michael Moores. For the record: Moore was born to Catholic parents of Irish ancestry in Flint , Mich. His mother was a secretary. His dad worked in an automobile factory and belonged to the United Auto Workers.

If you’re a college history teacher like me, you’re a “granola-munching liberal elitist!” For the record: I live in a one-story, two-bedroom wooden house, circa 1950, about a mile from the project where Buick Guy apparently lives. I prefer western Kentucky pork barbecue and peach fried pies to granola and have the waistline to prove it.

Anyway, the unapologetically leftist Zinn is one of my favorite historians. (I’m a big fan of Moore’s movies, too.) No doubt, conservatives who read history tagged Zinn a “liberal elitist” many times. (I don’t know if they tacked on “granola-munching.”)

For the record: Zinn was born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrant parents who were factory workers. Before he went to college (on the GI Bill) and became a college prof, Zinn was an Army Air Force bombardier who survived flak and enemy fighters flying multiple combat missions against the Nazis in World War II.

“…History,” Zinn once said, “is a protective armor against being misled.” I’ll add a Kentucky Presbyterian “amen” to that.

Berry Craig

Published by the LA Progressive on March 2, 2010
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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. He is a native of Mayfield, Ky., where he lives with his wife of 33 years and their 20-year-old son.