Thursday, May 15, 2008

My Poor Arkansas and the FOB Club

I’ve tried to avoid making this daily blog a blather about the current U.S. federal election. I’m attempting to do that in part because people’s feelings about political choices run very deep, and in a blog that seeks to draw people together around specific issues (ones that demand imagination for social change, not to mention hope), I may alienate compa├▒eros by introducing unnecessary political divisions.

I have been thinking lately, though, about what Hillary Clinton’s apparent loss of the Democratic nomination portends for my little state, Arkansas. Today, I’d like to think through a few of the implications of this loss, without commenting explicitly on the merits of either of the Democratic candidates.
Bill and Hillary are a cottage industry in Arkansas. We’re a small, poor, relatively uneducated inland state. Having a royal couple meant much to us, even when we despise the Clintons—as some Arkansans do. We have had access to the White House. The royal glow reflected, however dimly, on the rest of us. During the Clintons’ years in the White House, we went from being an unknown cipher, a state that had historically been well-nigh inaccessible for much of the year due to annual floods of the lowlands, to being a place that was, at least, somewhere on the national radar screen. Even when people confused us with Arizona (What's it like living in a desert? I've been asked in North Carolina), or one of those blend-together heartland states where all is wheat and corn.
The attention hasn’t been good for us, frankly. We don’t know how to handle it. A saying I’ve heard in the Carolinas applies here: Po’ folks has po’ ways.
Flash a bit of green at us po' ones, and we’re likely to do just about anything you want: caper, bow, scrape, and most certainly, tear into each other to assure that we get the larger share of the fistful of money. Give us a stage and we’ll act to your hearts’ content, fulfill every ugly hillbilly stereotype in your playbook.
The Friends of Bill (FOB) cottage industry in Arkansas has assured that a few of us—a singularly unqualified lot of us—now claim royal hegemony over the rest of us. We slept in the White House. We flew to D.C. for state dinners. We pick up the phone routinely and hobnob with Bill and Hil. If there’s a scoop about the Clintons to be had, we have it. Want bright plaids and lots of glitzy gold silk scattered around? No problem. We can supply all your decorating needs.
Because we are parochial, because we are inland (and thus historically isolated) people who don’t value education, because we have historically been poor, most of us, give us a bit of flash and access to ready money, and we will preen and spend without much care for the future. Having access to the White House for those precious few dream years hasn’t benefited Arkansas much at all.
Admittedly, we now have the Clinton Library and the Clinton School. People now journey to Little Rock from “away” for reasons other than barbecue or football.
But this precious legacy, the possibility of educating both ourselves about the larger world and the rest of the world about ourselves, represented by the Clinton Library and School: it’s a legacy we routinely squander. We simply have little imagination about how to be a bigger and better people. Bigger in our minds and hearts; better in our souls. These are topics we don't intend to talk about, and we do all we can to smear and destroy anyone who nudges us to engage in that conversation.
The Clinton legacy, the cottage industry of Clintonia, are presided over by a bunch of outright buffoons, for the most part. The FOBs who have benefited so lavishly from their ability to rub shoulders with the royals have benefited themselves, not the rest of us: not their state. They have used their access to power to posture and prattle, rather than to offer hope to the rest of us.
Insofar as it has been presided over by a coterie of small-souled and little-educated hucksters, the Clinton legacy has been especially pernicious for the Democratic party of Arkansas. In Arkansas, it is possible to be a Democrat and an outright (if never plain-spoken) racist. It is possible to tell the world that you endorse the Democratic platform, while fighting tooth and nail against even the most minimal civil rights for gay and lesbian citizens.
Arkansas Democrats are to the right of moderate Republicans in places where people have more access to information and share information more freely. And no one has kept us more out of the information loop, perhaps, in recent years, than have the movers and shakers and arbitrators of the Clinton legacy.
They, after all, represent “the” voice of the Democratic party in the state’s media. They are the ones who espouse “Democratic” values in print, in official statements about what we all believe, as Arkansas Democrats.
They are the ones who have used issues of gender and race—even the gay issue—to drum up votes for the Democratic ticket, never dreaming that women, African Americans, or gay Arkansans would expect a piece of the pie, a place at the table, once we have done our duty and cast our vote. “They” are the same white good old boys (with their good old gal attach├ęs) who, with their Republican alter egos, lift glasses together at the same country clubs. These good old boys and gals, Democrats and Republicans, tell the same jokes, flock to the same ski resorts in winter, strew their houses with the same combination of tasteful taupe and oh-so-daring scarlet and gilt.
And they all love them some gays, so long as those gays stay in their place, dispense the scarlet and gilt, and don't clamor for their votes to count—really count. Count as in having access to a spot in the media to make our stories known. Count as in having even a whisper of the civil rights of normal citizens.
My hope with this election is that we may have a chance, even in Arkansas, to move our state in a new direction, if the nation itself takes a new direction in our choice of a president. Lord knows, we need it. A few more years of the FOB club, and we’ll be ruint . . . even more than we already are.

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