The Appeal of ‘Richmond’ Extends Beyond the Small Town – The American Spectator
Since retiring from government service, I tend to think of myself first as a novelist and, more recently, as a contributor to The American Spectator on national security topics, drawing upon a lifetime of professional experience. I have avoided cultural and domestic political topics except to the extent that they impinge upon matters of national security and international relations. I sequestered myself last week in order to work on my next novel, and because I’m easily distracted, I deliberately avoided reading the news.
Coming up for air, however, I found that the latest controversy struck a chord with me so deeply that I couldn’t walk away from the topic. I speak of the roaring debate surrounding Oliver Anthony’s explosively popular song, “Rich Men North of Richmond.” It seems as if everyone is talking about it, and, even more interestingly, the argument departs from the usual “progressives vs. conservatives” dividing line. To be sure, the usual progressive suspects have panned the song and professed their horror at its soaring popularity. But it’s the surprisingly harsh back and forth among conservative commentators that I find truly fascinating. I won’t try to reprise all this, since The American Spectator’s own Scott McKay has already done an excellent job of that. (READ THE ARTICLE: Oliver Anthony’s Army Is Here to Stay)
I have no interest in joining what seems to me an increasingly sterile debate on the subject of “agency.” I’ve read Kevin D. Williamson and his followers on the subject, and, with all due respect — and Kevin, at least, is a writer I admire — I fail to see “Rich Men North of Richmond” as simply another depiction of a broken, rural, and small-town underclass. On the contrary, I believe that it speaks to a much broader and more powerful element as, frankly, does Jason Aldean’s “Try That In A Small Town.” In my reading, these songs aren’t the anthems of drug-addicted hillbilly layabouts but instead are something deeper and richer that strikes a deep chord across much of America — and across the Atlantic as well.
‘Culture Eats Policy for Breakfast’
I’ve lived north of Richmond for over three decades, and I worked in relatively senior staff positions in government. Before that, albeit briefly, I was a college professor with a Ph.D. in history, one of the increasingly tainted ultra-liberal professions — not rich, then, but, by all obvious measures, a denizen of “the Swamp” and well-removed from a farmer and factory worker in a small town south of Richmond. Worse, I’ve lived, worked, and studied in England, Germany, and Austria. Heck, I’ve read the Economist regularly for the better part of 50 years. So not only do I have well-burnished credentials as a Swamp creature, but I could also qualify as a globalist.
On the other hand — and it’s the other hand that means the most — I grew up in a small town in northeast Georgia, on the southern edge of Appalachia. My father’s family were farmers and storekeepers from middle Georgia, and my mother’s family was from well up in the Blue Ridge mountains. On both sides, my family is largely Scotch-Irish, which is to say we’re products of that hard-edged culture described so beautifully by former Sen. Jim Webb in Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. For nearly three centuries, we’ve been citizens of the mountain South, the region so often dismissed as backward, racist, and even depraved. My mother’s family actually comes from the area so brutally caricatured in Deliverance. (RELATED: Music Elites and the Oliver Anthony Conundrum)
The noted business guru Peter Drucker famously — and perhaps apocryphally — observed that “culture eats policy for breakfast.” I’ve lived most of my 70-plus years in small towns, in the South, the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, Germany, and England. I’ve found that, in identifying with the people of these places, I’ve placed myself squarely on the wrong side of a deeply embedded cultural contempt. This takes many forms, but the common denominator is well-expressed in the phrase “flyover country,” that vast region where no right-thinking member of the progressive elite would ever choose to live.
It is, after all, a land inhabited by “deplorables,” benighted souls who “bitterly cling to their guns and their religion.” These are the people who boycott Bud Light, who care about the life of the unborn, who are infuriated when told that parents should have no say in what public schools teach their children. They are insulted when athletes take a knee during the National Anthem and doubly insulted when professional sports organizations and professional sports journalists applaud the kneelers instead of those who remain standing. And they were duly outraged when the national response to COVID went from “we’re all in this together” to “let’s force everyone to stay away from family, friends, and the church, but make an exception for rioting,” an outrage felt all the more keenly for being so utterly and nakedly unfair.
“Cultural contempt” clearly extends far beyond the meth heads in dying small towns in Appalachia. Instead, it’s being applied to a huge swath of the American public, roughly but not precisely measurable by the 70-odd million who voted for Donald Trump in two presidential elections. A look at the county-by-county electoral maps for these elections shows a striking disconnect. On the one hand, vast stretches of the U.S. voted for the Republican candidate. If one simply went by geographic extent, the U.S. would appear to be overwhelmingly conservative. A discerning eye, however, would detect dots of blue in every red state, usually associated with the largest city or with the location of the state university. Then, decisively, one would see big patches of blue in southern California and the region “north of Richmond,” stretching from Washington, D.C., to Boston. (READ MORE: Fani Willis Indicts Free Speech)
Significantly, however, the objects of progressive contempt don’t always reside in the vast American “flyover country.” Many fellow “Swamp dwellers” in the federal bureaucracy felt the insult to their religious and moral values every day. Think, too, of the divisions that exist within our major cities; proverbially, progressive Manhattanites despise their near neighbors in Staten Island or Queens. Class contempt arises everywhere, not just across the urban/rural divide. Consider the contempt for the police in every city that exploded during the “defund the police” moment. Consider the apparent belief that the only professions that matter are those requiring a college degree — craftsmen and tradesmen of every stripe are somehow “second-class” citizens. Consider, finally, the contempt for the professional military demonstrated by the idea that its purpose is no longer warfighting but rather to be a laboratory for “social justice” experimentation.
Contempt Divides Elites From the Common Man Across the West
What divides us these days is the contempt for the common man represented by Oliver Anthony in “Rich Men North of Richmond.” It seems scarcely accidental that the song includes an oblique but unmistakable reference to Jeffrey Epstein and his posse of rich and influential friends. What I find really interesting, however, is that the objects of elite contempt are now pushing back. The popularity of an anti-Disney movie such as Sound of Freedom is one marker, as are “Try That In A Small Town” and, of course, Oliver Anthony’s song as well. Some of his other songs are musically more accomplished, but “Rich Men North of Richmond” speaks powerfully to all those who’ve felt themselves on the wrong side of progressive disdain.
If one pays attention to politics in Europe, it’s clear that a similar pushback now animates virtually every country, particularly the ones that, in recent memory, have been dominated by progressive elites. The specific issues may vary, but the unwillingness to endure elite silliness is everywhere evident. Dutch farmers refuse to bow before the idiocies of their country’s environmental fanatics. Irish farmers won’t take the slaughter of their cattle lying down. The gilets jaunes in France, the Brexiteers in the U.K., and the increasingly assertive conservatives in Germany and Scandinavia may have different issues, but they no longer are willing to sit back and accept the dictates from their own national capitals — or from Brussels. And some issues unite virtually everyone, such as anger at being swamped by uncontrolled waves of immigration or being asked to countenance the mutilation of children in the name of “gender-affirming care.”
One can disagree about the relevance of Viktor Orbán for American conservatives while recognizing that he speaks for a significant impulse in the worldwide conservative movement….