When there’s coal dust on your shoes, you’re not surprised at the results

 

I wasn’t surprised by the outcome of the presidential election. Left-leaning, liberal Presbyterian, white, nasty city-girl journalist that I am, I also come with sawmills, tobacco fields, boiled peanuts, coal mines and hollers in my bones.

I was born in Mingo County, West Virginia, and no one shakes the coal dust off completely. Like so many of West Virginia’s long-gone children, I believe Mountaineers are always free.

There are, in some branches of my family tree and certainly in my extended friends circles, a bunch of what Clinton called the deplorables and even more at whom my hard-left elitist friends would sniff down their noses. Without doing an official show of hands, I’m betting that my family’s presidential voting mirrored the national numbers.

They are not Kluxers, bigots, misogynists, poor-white-uneducated-trash. They don’t come to the dog whistles. Not any more than I am a godless, un-churched socialist with no morals, no values and an abiding belief that the government ought to be a nanny state.

But, there’s a catch here. Your great-grandpa used to warn us kids that “if you swim in blue water, you’ll get blue.” When we choose to support with our votes people who don’t believe in or model the values important to us, we can’t escape being tainted by them. Stuck your foot in blue water? Then, be darned sure you’re speaking out against the bad stuff.

We use those sweeping, over-arching descriptions as shorthand to get our points across. That’s OK, and that shorthand comes in handy, but we’ve got to be a whole lot less careless in how we apply them.

Our penchant for marginalizing people with a couple of loaded code words scares me —  though I fall in that trap, too. Like the folks who once they learn I spent 40 years as a journalist lump me into the “liberal media” bucket, which they never say without what I hear as a sneer. They hear me do an elitist sniff, I suspect, when I call them out for living in their protected white privilege bubbles.

See what I mean by loaded code words? Just seeing them in writing sparks a visceral, defensive push back. How much more so when we hurl them at each other.

Right before the election, i spent 10 days with your great-grandmother in the Shenandoah Valley. We talked a lot of politics (and a lot of recipes and family legends). And, I spent lovely long hours with three brothers and two of their spouses.

My brothers and I don’t talk a lot of politics because, well, we know better.

No point in creating a scene. Mostly we disagree around the edges. We disagree on some big things a little. And we disagree on a few big things a lot.

We also recognize that ignoring our differences is as dangerous as bringing them out and waving them around all the time. We know that carrying grudges and broad-brushing conclusions are surefire family-dinner trouble.

An aside: When your Great-aunt Beth’s around, she and I go outside to talk liberal politics. She and I are at loggerheads about lots of things, but politics isn’t one of them.

These are my folks. I know them. I love them always. I like them most of time and I think the feeling is mutual. We learned a long time ago that our strength as a family was in seeking and supporting our shared values and the faith that powers our beliefs in doing the right things.

I know this for absolute sure: If one of us gets on a high horse and gallops out of the group, some one of us is going to gallop after and carry ’em back kicking and screaming. It ain’t pretty, but we don’t let family wander away.

Americans ought start thinking that way, too, before half this country dismisses the other half as not worthy of breaking bread with. We’ll fast-step into a Civil War if we don’t.

Stop with the positioning that claims Trump voters are called with a dog-whistle, uneducated, sheet-wearing white trash and that Clinton voters are soft-in-the-head, wine-sipping, Birkenstock-wearing elitists — or welfare cheats, undocumented immigrants and terrorists.

We persist at our peril in pigeonholing the “other side” as personifications of evil.

Put another leaf in the table and make it big enough for everyone to pull up. Even Crazy Aunt Tilly who IS called with a dog whistle and Nuts Uncle Pete who is so leftist that he won’t wear Birkenstocks because they’re made of leather.

We will draw the line at the hard-core wingnuts at the fringes. I’m not inviting haters to my table. They’re not welcome. Period. We need to do whatever we have to to keep the haters corralled. I will continue to fight for civil rights and social justice. There must be no sliding back. And, we must recognize that some of the things we call hate are born of not knowing.

But, Connor, there are no where near as many willful haters as the headlines and Facebook posts would have you believe. For sure, it’s not half and half.

 

“Dear Connor” is a collection of essays written for Connor Cunningham by his grandmother, Linda Grist Cunningham. I began writing these as my construct for making sense of the unraveling American community. Connor may never read them, nor might others; but they’ll help me distill solutions from the cacophony that passes for discourse in final crisis generational turning of America.