RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

It Ain’t Over ’Til We Say So

As a political animal and English teacher, I am delighted that we have a candidate for President with a vocabulary. Speaking is thinking, as philosophers and neurologists can tell you, and Barack Obama, especially under pressure, is a craftsman.

Consider this paragraph, with all its fits and starts, delivered on April 11 in Pennsylvania:

“The people are mis-appre ... I think they’re misunderstanding why the demographics in our, in this, contest have broken out as they are. Because everybody just ascribes it to ‘white working-class don’t ... wanna vote for the black guy.’ ... there were intimations of that in an article in the Sunday New York Times ... people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn’t buy it.”

Demographics! Ascribes! Intimations! Betrayed! Premised! What a great off-the-cuff paragraph! And give him full credit for changing mid-stream from “mis-apprehending” to the more understandable “misunderstanding” in the first sentence. Even though the Sunday morning pundits roared, “Elitist!” as if anyone could get to the Senate without being an elitist, Obama’s responses leave the English teacher satisfied.

But my friend was thinking about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s “God damn America” statement. This, to my friend, was extremely upsetting, and even though my friend has never voted Republican and has never not voted, he thinks he’ll have to vote for McCain.

“This is the best country in the world,” said my friend. “How could that preacher say that? God damn America?”

I tried to think of an answer to connect with this guy. Something like: Do you agree with everything your preacher says? Or: Would city people understand everything your country preacher says? Or: How many stupid things did your preacher say last year?

But I couldn’t think of how to say such things, at least not in a nice way, and the storm was still blowing. I was going to recommend that he stop listening to AM radio, but I’ve been on his job sites many times and never heard him listening to that stuff. It’s usually Christian rock or sports shows. Whatever he had heard about Jeremiah Wright had come from mainstream news, and was just so shocking that it had stuck in his head permanently.

Anyway, before I could say anything, my friend picked up another theme. “I think our way of life is over,” and his big old eyes almost filled with tears. Sitting there in his big pickup, it was almost embarrassing. Here’s a guy that started on a farm, with a family that worked hard, fed themselves from the garden, and told him to go forth and prosper.

So he worked hard all his life pouring basements for houses, made a decent living, paid good wages to his help, kept up his insurance payments, gone to church, done the stuff he’s supposed to do for his family, and now it looks like he’s going to need to go back to raising his own food and what’s the sense of it all? Everything, he thinks, is falling apart. The heros are all gone. Jeremiah Wright’s statement is just a symptom.

Why is gas pushing $4 a gallon? Why does medicine cost so much, and why doesn’t it work like it’s supposed to? Why are food prices so high?

Who’s in charge of the problems? Who’s promising to fix things?

All I could say was, “Look, we just can’t keep sending our kids out to die for oil, and McCain thinks that’s the solution. He thinks if we bomb enough villages, we’ll get our way,” and my friend said, “I know. I know.”

It is increasingly clear that the American way of life—which meant big pickups, cheap oil, suburbs taking over the farmland, and weekends at the lake—is suddenly out of reach. Or maybe simply exported to China. But definitely too expensive for most of us. At the same time, we’re all figuring out that the reason we’ve had cheap oil has something to do with our military strength and nothing to do with paying a fair price to people where the oil comes from.

When the wind finally died down and I got out of the truck, I was reproaching myself for having such lame answers to such really important questions. And I was wishing for a hero to champion the small enterprise, the local, the thrifty.

And I thought, well, maybe, not just oil is over. Maybe the entire planet is finished. Maybe we’re so addicted to our comforts that we can’t let them go. Maybe we’ve actually gone past the tipping point in our own heads. We can’t figure out how to ride bikes, grow our own food, vacation at home.

OK—so that was my mindset after the storm. Then along came a petition by a group called “Renew Missouri,” a sincere lot that wants to legislate renewable electricity from sources like wind power and solar. Twenty-five states already have this legislation, and a few Missouri cities have already passed similar initiatives.

And that reminded me that hey, folks, it’s up to us!

To drive less. To use public transportation when we can. To buy stuff from close to home. To focus on local communities. To be the heros for each other.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2008

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