Friday, November 20, 2009

Sign of the Times

I took the photo of the sign on Grandview Avenue (shown above) a few days before the November 3rd, 2009, municipal elections. I had heard about the sign and its DON’T BE SCREWED BY A STRANGER message from someone I know called Joe, who was dissatisfied with the three mayoral candidates. Joe said he was going to write in the name on the sign as a form of protest vote. That’s apparently what the sign itself was, only a protest, because the homeowner who put the sign up was not waging a serious write-in campaign, as Jerry Skiver, one of the mayoral candidates was. He was apparently expressing his dissatisfaction with one or more of the three candidates he had to choose from.

In the past five years, Grandview Avenue has become Ground Zero, the Chernobyl of Portsmouth politics. The toxicity was not nuclear radiation but backed-up sewage. Mayor James Kalb and Ward Five councilman Howard Baughman neglected the sewer problem, but successive years of heavy rains caused flooding that angered the frustrated Grandview homeowners, who put up signs castigating the city government for its indifference and incompetence.

Facing a recall movement led by the residents of Grandview, Baughman resigned from city council; more recently the incompetent incumbent Kalb finished last in the mayoral race, in part because of Grandview. The sewage led to outrage, which led to signage, which led to the outage of Kalb and Baughman.


Because it points to something even more unpleasant than sewage, the message on the Grandview sign, DON’T BE SCREWED BY A STRANGER, deserves more scrutiny. There was a hundred-year period of Portsmouth’s history, roughly from the 1860s to the 1960s, when many residents did not think of it as Appalachian. That was the period of industrialization and population explosion. Industry and population density are not characteristics of Appalachia. But by the 1960s Portsmouth was slipping back into its rural, some would say redneck roots, and as it de-industrialized and de-populated it slipped economically into chronic recession. It slipped back, in other words, into Appalachia—to the rusting pickups up on blocks, the sofas on the porch, and the Tussies on welfare.

In the last half century, Portsmouth has shed its industrialized skin, and its Appalachian skeleton now sticks out like that of a two-hundred-pound man who has lost half his weight. In the last half century or so, Portsmouth has lost more than half its population and even more of its pride. I heard someone who had spent thirty years far away from Portsmouth say that he was surprised to learn after his return that he had grown up in Appalachia. For purposes of government assistance, and pork distribution, Portsmouth is now classified by the Department of Agriculture as a Rural Enterprise Zone. Though poor whites had probably always known better, the professional and business classes of Portsmouth, especially those on the Hill, had not realized they were living in Appalachia. But in the last twenty years, I've observed a number of foreign-born professionals unhappily discover that, in an irony reminiscent of the fable in “Appointment in Samara,” they had jumped from the Third World frying pan into the Appalachian fire. A number of them have come and gone, as have other native-born transplants from other parts of the United States.

What was not apparent for about a century, but what is all too evident now, is that Portsmouth is in Appalachia, America’s endogamous culture belt. Owing partly to geographical and topographical factors—the isolating hills and hollows in particular—and owing partly to the incestuous folkways of their borderland Scotch-Irish ancestors (see the chapter “Borderlands to Backcountry” in David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed [1989]), the people of Appalachia have tended historically toward endogamy, which is the habit of people in a particular group to marry within that group. One benefit of marrying within a group is that it strengthens your ties to that group. You feel closer to those with whom you share common values and experiences, a common dialect and heritage. Outsiders and strangers are distrusted, generally speaking, because they threaten the cohesiveness of the group. Strangers, as the Grandview sign succinctly puts it, are out to screw you.

Kissing Kin

In the two candidate forums that were held the week before the November 3rd elections, I was struck that the candidates emphasized, more than anything else, how deep their roots in the community were. The last thing a candidate could afford to be taken for is a stranger, so they took pains to prove, if they had been out of the area for any length of time, that it was just a fluke and that they were relieved to be back in Portsmouth, to be home again. Accentuating your ties to the people you want to vote for you is what candidates everywhere try to do, but in Scioto County it is imperative to prove you are not a stranger, which is the kiss of death in local politics. You must be kissing kin. The two candidate forums seemed designed to avoid debate and controversy; they seemed calculated to skirt important issues. Civility appeared to be the ultimate goal of the forums, even though civility is one of the favorite masks of corruption. Back in the 1990s, and possibly earlier, Portsmouth had as a tourist slogan, “Where Southern Hospitality Begins.” A more appropriate motto might be, “Where Southern Hostility Begins.”

The hostility toward strangers, and toward those who are considered strange, is more likely to surface during political campaigns, especially in times of economic distress. The hostility during campaigns is directed against candidates who represent change, especially if they are not conservative, straight, white males. So-called “birthers” have labeled President Obama not just a stranger but a foreigner who lacks American citizenship. He has been denounced as a Kenyan communist and an Islamo-fascist. A sign in West Plains, Missouri, showed him wearing a turban with the message: BARACK “HUSSEIN” OBAMA EQUALS MORE ABORTIONS, SAME SEX MARRIAGES, TAXES, GUN REGULATIONS.

There was no name on the Obama sign in Missouri, nor was there on the two anonymous blogs that sprang up in Porstmouth, like poisonous mushrooms, in the week before the November 3rd election. One of the anonymous Portsmouth bloggers posted a photo of the actor Edward Woodward, who starred in The Equalizer, a 1980s TV show about a former secret service agent who uses his gun, “the equalizer,” as a goniff, or law-skirting, free-lance vigilante, the bastard offspring of the same-sex marriage of James Bond and Dirty Harry.

“They don’t make TV shows like that anymore,” says the caption under the photo of Woodward. “Too bad,” the anonymous blogger continues. “Woodward knew how to deal with CAVE people.” CAVE is the anagram of the Motormouth over at WNXT. CAVE stands for Citizens Against Virtually Everything. Portsmouth’s Captain Queeg police chief has another name for the CAVE people. He calls them “domestic terrorists.”

Gun nuttiness manifests itself not just at the local but also at the national level, where the NRA, not the GOP, is the favorite organization of those disturbed people who feel threatened by “strangers” representing change. Alaska, Appalachia’s glacial, welfare-state cousin, is prone to gun nuttiness. Sarah Palin’s dad's one-liner that in resigning as Alaska’s governor she was not quitting but only just "reloading" is a sign of the times, a very disturbing sign. But signs don’t kill people: disturbed people do.

Sarah Palin's Rogue Elephantasy