Silly me. I had assumed that the right wing had moved on from the incredible rabid, paranoid Clinton hatred that it indulged in at the national expense for most of the 1990s, but apparently not.

I didn’t think that it had moved on to anything better, what with its hearty interests in imperial jingoism, plutocratic pseudoeconomics, Crusader bloodlust and presidential tyranny, but I figured that it had left that particular strain of Starr-crossed stupidity in the past, where it belongs. After all, if the reactionaries truly wanted to check the Clintons’ power, they failed miserably. This assumes, of course, that their moralistic broadsides on Billary were aboveboard; in other words, that they didn’t appreciate keeping the Clintons around as convenient scapegoats to keep the goober herd’s attention on the perpetual war on decency and freedom and whatever other contradictory nefarious schemes they were allegedly cooking up, since losing the herd’s attention means losing its financial engagement with “family values” nonprofits and Jeremiad publishers. Periodically scourging such trolls is good for business, but scourging them unto terminal exsanguination is not. That would be like bludgeoning a top-grossing prizefighter to death.

Besides, if your strategy is to aggressively traffic noxious extremism, you can’t afford to lose the hardcore paranoid bigots because they’re all you’ve got. That kind of thing alienates reasonable people of goodwill. That way lies the creepy finger-wagging of Larry “Wide Stance” Craig, jealously calling the president a “nasty, naughty boy” on television, Rush Limbaugh’s discourse on the contraceptive needs of “sluts,” and the political downfall of Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin. Even in the United States, only a modest segment of the population is interested in being governed by inelegantly repressed sexual deviants. The reactionary extremist who loses them has likely lost his critical mass; in fact, the very gain of their enthusiastic support is often enough to scotch an electoral majority, so horrific is their theocratic bent to decent people.

The Clintons, then, were lucky to have the enemies that they had. To put it mildly, they were not a reputable couple. Their private treatment of their staff, particularly nonpolitical career employees, was execrable. In their public life, they were corrupt, predatory rentiers and graft peddlers. Regardless of whether or not they murdered Vince Foster, Bill Clinton had a severely retarded man executed for political gain during his 1992 presidential campaign; there is little moral distinction between the Clintons’ rumored gangland hits and signing a death warrant for a man so retarded that he told his jailers he was saving his last dessert “for afterwards.” Hillary’s apparent insider trading of commodities futures looked seedy, and Whitewater was a Arkie mortgage scam that would have been illegal in practically any other state.

The Clintons didn’t exactly have a character for their opponents to besmirch, and yet they garnered great public sympathy because their opponents were too arrogant, extreme or tone-deaf not to make creepy asses of themselves. Hillary, a rather abrasive, condescending, authoritarian battle axe, got sympathy from women who perceived a misogynistic tinge to the attacks leveled by her political adversaries; Rush Limbaugh didn’t help the loyal opposition by spending the decade foaming at the mouth about “Feminazis.” For his part, Bill charmed the hell out of a majority, if not a supermajority, of his countrymen, and more so his countrywomen, who regarded him as eminently bangable, and who didn’t care to see him cockblocked by a funny-looking, smirking scold who published perhaps the most dreadful pornographic nonfiction ever to make the New York Times bestseller list. (The federal government should stick to things it knows how to do, like running railroads, but the modern-day GOP gets surly over small-ticket subsidies for public services that work most of the time and operate with the consent of their customers.) Then there was the fever-swamp litany of farfetched grievances: black helicopters, world government, the Soviet incompetence and depravity of socialized medicine, subversion of the Constitution,  subversion of authoritarian sexual and social strictures which were inimical to the self-determination protected by the Constitution but whose observance was conflated with reverence for the Constitution as a matter of political expediency. This stuff was too cuckoo for anyone not on the extreme fringes to take seriously. Instead of focusing on the Clintons’ substantiated disregard for the rule of law, such as Hillary’s suggestion that there should be a gatekeeper on the information superhighway, they impulsively aired a laundry list of febrile, unsubstantiated hard-right and libertarian bugaboos. Their politics of eternal grievance got a lot of traction, but as it became more extreme and petty it discomfited more people in the center and on the left, and the Clintons left the White House with a better popular reputation than the smarmy freaks who had tried to destroy them.

You may remember the brief but furious freakout over Joycelyn Elders, Bill Clinton’s first Surgeon General. After a short, controversial tenure, Elders was fired for admitting at a UN AIDS conference that she considered it appropriate to encourage adolescents to masturbate as an alternative to high-risk sexual activity. Previously, she had stirred up a conservative firestorm by saying that any young woman going out on a date should carry a condom in her purse. Clinton fired her not because he judged her objectively unfit for the job but because she had pissed off easily offended reactionaries by preaching common-sense harm reduction one too many times, limiting Clinton’s ability to cravenly curry their favor with his spineless triangulation. Actually, it’s quite reasonable to infer that Clinton greatly appreciated Elders’ combination of raunchy vulgarity, frank realism and respect for sexual self-determination but threw her under the bus because she had become too easy a target for his authoritarian opposition and he didn’t want word to get out that he was a shameless libertine at heart. He was too needy of the support of voters who took angry offense at the suggestion that their pure, precious daughters might be sluts to have the courage to say that, yes, some of them are sluts, so we absolutely ought to do what we can to help them not come to harm from their promiscuity. The Big Dog was not one to go on the record about his respect for the sexual free agency of teenage girls and his disrespect for the base desire of paterfamilias to keep that little tramp’s legs shut with threats of violence and disease.

I wouldn’t have had a thought about Joycelyn Elders but for a patient who drew my parents and me into a fraught conversation about gun control at a Geisinger Hospital outpatient clinic a couple of weeks ago. Geisinger is a sort of Mayo Clinic for rednecks. It has a huge main campus towering over Danville, an otherwise obscure town on the Susquehanna River between Scranton and Williamsport, and scores of other campuses across Northern Pennsylvania. Captain Bones, who went to high school in Danville, agrees with my assessment. It’s an impressive operation for a fairly poor, backwards region, not just in size but also in quality. Unlike most podunk hospitals, it is very highly regarded by clinicians at competing groups, a reputation that makes its brief, troubled merger with the Penn State Hershey center of make-believe excellence all the more incomprehensible. In a country where the industry standard is for hospital groups to speak loudly about the quality of their care in the hope of snaring the kind of goobers who choose their cardiac surgeons based on radio advertisements, Geisinger is one of the rare groups that largely lets the quality of its care speak for itself. Even my mom, who is merciless in her critiques of physicians and nurses she considers superficial or incompetent, had overwhelmingly good things to say about the Geisinger staff she encountered and the quality of care that my dad received. (Her complaints about his being needlessly tanked up on IV fluids post-op were directed at all surgeons everywhere.)

But as I said: rednecks. Central Pennsylvania is infested. Between the hospital and the state university, Danville and Bloomsburg apparently have the critical mass of people who aren’t proudly and hopelessly ignorant needed to attract top-notch medical staff, but pretty much the rest of the region is under the domination of know-nothings whose reverence for peasant bigotry and a political system combining mob rule with feudal despotism is incompatible with the study of anything learned. This includes medicine, but it also includes nursing, unless you’re an incompetent nurse with thin skin and delusions of grandeur, i.e., an administrator. I’ve known many such people in South Central Pennsylvania, so our several days in Danville were for me an unfortunate but appropriate reminder of what I escaped, along with the joyously fertile rural beauty of the landscape, when I left Pennsyltucky.

Redneckery per se isn’t the problem. There exist honest-to-God rednecks who aren’t trolls or paranoid, atavistic asshats. The problem is that, redneck or not, few of Jefferson’s natural aristocrats in hillbilly counties have the courage and the energy to call out the really stupid and malicious rednecks for what they are. Culturally alien outsiders with no skin in the game accurately name and shame that kind of thing all the time, but decent locals, the ones who have some street cred in those parts, are usually resigned to the ambient evil. Balls aren’t enough; no amount of moral courage can supply the sheer intellectual and emotional energy needed to debate that kind of proud, tautological chauvinism and bigotry.

Innocent bystanders, no matter how reflexively they shrink away from inflammatory debate and cherish polite company, can easily get swept into this trollish fray. Some old, heavily accented Dutch redneck from the hills outside Sunbury may pull out a picture of his elementary school class in which he’s posing with the teacher’s Irish Setter by way of telling a story about how that teacher allowed the boys to bring their rifles to school; back then, he’ll say, students were allowed to bring guns to school, but nobody got shot; and next thing you know, you’re ensnared in a hideous conversation about politics with a stranger. It wasn’t a talk that you wanted to have, but at the same time it wasn’t your choice.

You can fill in the rest of the nostalgic rant accurately enough, except for the part about Joycelyn Elders. There was, of course, nothing hypothetical about the rant whose genesis I just described; my parents and I were there at outpatient dermatology to experience it in its full glory. If I do say so myself, I have a huge fund of knowledge about political history and a memory so sharp that I worry about how I’ll purge the useless shit to make room for, say, case law or pharmacology that I may need to memorize by rote, but it had probably been years since I’d given any thought to Joycelyn Elders. So I was very much impressed to hear her name from a stranger in a hospital waiting room, let alone from a simpleminded reactionary historical revisionist.

Central Pennsylvania is teeming with such people, inversions of Francis Fukuyama who seem to believe that history started sometime in the 1950s or 60s, when the Edenic paradise of old-timey moral living was spoiled by the original sin of dirty heathen liberals interfering in the parenting and schooling process. It is exhausting and intellectually degrading to talk to these people about anything bearing the faintest scent of religion or politics. In a sense, then, it’s a great advancement from the mean to be trolled by a throwback who can spontaneously name a forgotten official like Elders and describe a position she held that he found objectionable. Most people peddling that brand of bigoted revisionism don’t present any data points at all to back up their claims, and any factual rigor that the revisionists can bring to the table is cause for thanksgiving that the conversation is not a Metrolink-grade intellectual train wreck.

But it was only a relative lack of abject idiocy. This Dutch redneck troll complained that Joycelyn Elders was wrong to declare that people shouldn’t mix alcohol and firearms in hunting camps. Why, every hunting camp has its supply of beer, and hunters don’t murder each other at camps. They’re responsible with guns, so they don’t need a Surgeon General telling them to not to use guns just because they’ve been doing a little drinking; why doesn’t that woman trust hunters?

When I heard this, my bullshit meter hit the roof. Any of the people who instructed me in the use of guns, whether in an informal capacity or through Boy Scouts or the YMCA, would instantly agree with me that this guy was out of his fucking mind. The safety culture at the Boy Scout camp firing ranges where I learned to shoot .22 rifles was so strict and serious that the notion of showing up at the range under the slightest influence of alcohol was inconceivable. Our instructors made it clear to us that we would have our balls stapled to the wall at the first hint of contempt for gun safety. We were given no latitude to point our rifles at anything but the ground away from our feet when carrying them, or to leave the safety off when we weren’t actively shooting, or to have fingers anywhere near the trigger when not aiming or shooting, or to shoot without official permission from the rangemaster, or to prematurely aim downrange, or even to prematurely lay a hand on guns that had been staged at the head of the range. We weren’t a bunch of teetotaler saints, but it never would have occurred to any of us that alcohol had a role in this regime except for the densest of ass clowns, the kind of guys we’d point and laugh at for weeks if we ever came across one. The closest buffoonery we had to that came in two lesser forms: “All I want right now is a fifty-gallon thing of WAH-terrrr,” and “Give me back my fucking pencil!” (As in a two-foot tall stuffed pencil with eyes, which some low-level bullies had stolen from a Tourette’s case and spirited around the church annexes during a troop meeting; dude hadn’t had the sense not to bring his fucking pencil along for companionship. Waterboy was a different, more pedestrian, kind of dork.) We had a lot of socially stunted weirdos hanging around, usually at the insistence of their desperate parents, and the BSA didn’t always contribute much to their adjustment (the policy of usually excluding women and girls didn’t help), but nobody was stupid enough to engage in horseplay with knives when leaders were on site, or with guns ever. That much they taught us well.

Had we not learned that lesson from Boy Scouts, we might have learned it from the news. Every hunting season, local and regional news reports in Pennsylvania carry stories of stupid hunting accidents: morons who shoot at rustling leaves without first laying eyes on their target, killing or injuring their colleagues; guys who shoot themselves or their friends while incompetently cleaning their guns; out-of-shape middle-aged guys who don’t get any exercise for fifty weeks of the year and keel over dead from heart attacks brought on by a combination of exertion and doe-induced stiffies. Anyone with a lick of sense knows that that kind of thing happens on a regular basis and that only an idiot doesn’t take precautions to minimize his chances of getting prematurely dead in the field. It’s one thing to have a drink in the camp after hours when the guns have been put away, but there is absolutely not a consensus in the hunting community that alcohol and firearms should be mixed. Those hunters who are cavalier about handling guns while inebriated are regarded with a combination of horror, sick mirth and righteous disgust by those who understand and respect the dangers of firearms. Hunters who consume alcohol while armed constitute a fringe of atavistic dipshits and alcoholics; they are widely considered dangerous amateurs by the kind who go out into the field with a thermos of hot coffee.

Elders, then, wasn’t advising against doing anything that wasn’t already discouraged by responsible hunters and totally out of the question at Boy Scout camps. It takes a special brand of arrogant nuttery to dispute her premise. Of course there are reckless shitheads who like to get drunk and play around with guns, and of course they shouldn’t be allowed to do that at hunting camps, where they might injure or kill innocent, and probably more responsible, bystanders. Of course it’s a threat to the public health for yahoos to brandish firearms while in a drug-induced state of diminished alertness and agility. This was a case where the epidemiological research showing drunks with guns to be dangerous was corroborated by easily appreciated anecdotal evidence that any responsible shooter could recite from some combination of news reports, stories from friends and personal experience. Taking an Opposing Viewpoint serves no purpose but to be ornery, arrogant and nihilistic.

That sounds like it would be a bad thing, but American politics is so degraded that orneriness, arrogance and nihilism (and worse) are widely considered appropriate and honorable responses to know-it-all elitist academics and politicians who don’t fucking understand “our” culture and “values.” In these circles, it isn’t considered shameful to resort to ad hominems and tautologies instead of substantive rebuttals when one’s adversaries are regarded as somehow snobbish or haughty. It’s a rare Democrat (maybe a Clinton or an Obama) who is capable of engaging lower-class gunslingers in that minefield without getting splattered all over the trees (Obama’s “bitter” comment went over a lot better on the ground in flyover country that one would think judging from the reports in major news outlets). Most Democrats who weren’t raised in hunting constituencies are reliably thrown off their game by accusations that they’re against guns and are far too witless to credibly align themselves with responsible gun users against trigger-happy yahoos, a nuance that some of them can’t even imagine.

This dynamic is exacerbated by American federalism, which nominally devolves rights and responsibilities to state and local governments but in practice tends to give small, backwards, inefficient constituencies disproportionate political power to compel disproportionate financial support and services from a federal government that they profess to despise. This dynamic may be most exquisitely absurd in the Mountain West, where it is a time-honored political custom for the beneficiaries of large net federal inputs to rabidly accuse the federal government of insatiable vampirism. You might get a bit pissy, too, if you considered it your birthright to graze your cattle at below cost on BLM land that you are assigned no responsibility to steward for future users, only to have your grazing rights restricted or canceled because the BLM scientists are worried that the land is becoming denuded. In your fit of pique over the infringement of your right to use the commons however you see fit and externalize the costs onto the national treasury, you might lose sight of the fact that your county owes its settlement and ongoing economic vitality to federal subsidies: not just below-cost use of public lands, but also aqueducts, electrical lines, highways, railroads, essential air service, pork barrel boondoggles from your loyal Congressman, and various transfer payments, some of them for articulated reasons and some of them just kind of, well, because.

At this point, maybe you’re thinking, surely the Founding Fathers didn’t mean for the federal system to be contorted into something as greedy, disingenuous and resentful as that; surely they meant for for the states to serve as checks and balances on the national government, as laboratories for democracy, as regional governments more directly answerable to their constituents. In that case, then, you mean the white constituents, do you not? Because the black ones didn’t count, especially south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Well, they counted for census purposes, after a fashion, and they would have been fully counted had the slaveholders of Dixieland gotten their way. But that wretched little dispute over the counting of slaves, in which the two sides took equally ironic and equally craven positions, wasn’t even three fifths of the problem. (Heehee!) For all the highminded talk about striking a balance between tyranny of the executive and tyranny of the majority, between national and local interest, and all that, there were also some gallingly base motivations for the rather ad hoc manner in which the original federal crazy quilt was stitched together. The new nation was assembled from a bunch of disparate colonies with incompatible values. Some of these colonies used threats of secession as a bargaining chip to extort concessions from the others. The other colonies faced a stark choice: submit to extortion from these petulant little shits, or submit to more tyranny from the Redcoats. They all had to hang together lest they hang separately, so those colonists with a relatively strong respect for the commonweal decided to allow the more self-interested ones to more or less do their own thing at the state level.

We all know how swimmingly that went in the 1860s.

And so, just as Parliament and the Crown were once responsible for governing us, we are now responsible for governing the atavistic ignorami of our own hinterlands. The parallel is a bit too close for comfort. Setting aside principles of self-determination, is there any empirical evidence that the state of Arkansas can properly govern itself? Dwight Eisenhower didn’t particularly think so, and in the intervening decades since he deployed troops to integrate Little Rock Central High School, Arkansas has exported the egregious, purposeful labor violations of Wal Mart and the predatory official corruption of the Clintons. To its credit, it also managed to give the country Mike Huckabee, who didn’t really ramp up his authoritarian asshattery until he had become a big deal on the national stage, but whose support at home was bolstered by his mostly discreet but unmistakable appeals to religious bigotry.

This may sound either asshattish or sardonic, but I mean it earnestly: would conditions really be worse for the people of Arkansas if the state were relieved of the burden of self-government, placed into federal receivership, and governed as an agricultural resource colony in exchange for federal noblesse oblige? This question applies to a number of other Southern states as well. It would be a horrible question if these states didn’t have such atrocious records of feudal predation upon the vulnerable and marginalized and wanton disregard for their welfare. Readers familiar with the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction will realize that I am far from the first person to ask such a question, and that government along those lines was briefly and haphazardly implemented at the point of Union guns in the early postbellum South. There was a certain condescension to it, to be sure, but is condescension really a sin worth naming when the alternative is an entrenched, bloodthirsty, officially racist tyranny of craven, haughty aristocrats and their unwashed, ferally brutal enforcers?

Reforming such a place inevitably involves changing its culture. This tends to piss people off, and understandably so, but the sad truth is that some cultures are simply not worth preserving because they’re patently evil and destructive. There’s little, if anything, to cherish about the Southern cultures that really appall Yankees and sentient Southerners. These are cultures that claim to be all about decency and good manners but are driven by thinly veiled hypocrisy, terror, wrath, paranoia, bigotry and violence. It tends to get worse as one goes south. Some of the worst things that one is likely to hear about South Carolina and its citizenry come from Virginians. Florida is a cesspool of official disregard for the Constitution, of an inhuman tone that rarely occurs to asshats in the Upper 47 states; Louisiana, a cesspool of hotheaded vigilante assault in the name of ethnic and clan pride, and often under color of authority; Arkansas and Oklahoma together are a morass of highlander Baptist altar call theocrats, lost to time and to the hills, Arkansas additionally occupying a special place among the several states as a den of robbery by contract and workplace intimidation.

The Arkie-Okie borderlands further distinguish themselves with their penchant for stark raving mad regressive sexism. Wal Mart’s tradition of denying qualified women promotion to managerial positions, a violation of federal labor law egregious enough to make conservatives in most of the country blanch, grew out of an ancient Ozark farmers’ belief that a woman should never have authority over a man. Tom Coburn, usually a sensible enough man, publicly claimed that lesbianism had become so rampant in Southeast Oklahoma high schools that only one girl was allowed to go to the bathroom at a time.

Thoughtful, observant people have a hard time living in such places. There’s just too much of teh stoopid, taking too many different forms and, in a great many cases, rearing its ugly head completely needlessly: the impulsive violence, the nihilistic drug abuse (alcoholic and otherwise), the contraction of venereal diseases and unplanned pregnancies by people who are horny and vulgar but ignorant of the most basic sexual hygiene and mechanics, gambling as an investment strategy by superstitious idiots who are of course exactly the people who can least afford such a stupid diversion. Feel free to add your own hillbilly pathologies; there’s always room in the Dutch oven to add some more foul ingredients to this country mixxy-uppy, so don’t be bashful. It can make for mighty fine eatin’ for city folk, too.

People who are steeped in this toxic brew but know better aren’t always consummately gracious in their criticisms. They spend their lives watching ignorant, uncritical people make exceedingly stupid decisions, generation after generation, often with the full blessing of the civil or religious authorities, and they get disgusted with the cultures and social structures that encourage this idiotic behavior. Then they’re accused of being bitter or conspiratorial when they complain, since normal people hold their peace when confronted with cultures of stubborn, atavistic recklessness that are backed up by churches whose public ministries amount to an attack on science and civics. But really, it doesn’t take much bitterness or conspiratorial logic to piss off the throwbacks. Expressing a reasoned, measured counterpoint in a scrupulously restrained tone is enough. You dasn’t accuse our men of being unable to hold their liquor or their guns, now, or our women of being unable to hold their legs shut on command.

Why should a white redneck listen to a liberal, even libertine, black physician about these things? Because she’s right. That’s why. Joycelyn Elders was right about not getting drunk and brandishing firearms, BSA firearms instructors would back her up 100%, and if you disagree with them you’re a fucking idiot. The same thing goes for aviation safety. The FAA and NTSB know more about that than you do as a defiantly ignorant redneck, and that’s why your tax dollars, if you’re actually paying any to the treasury general fund, are appropriated for air traffic controllers, inspectors and crash investigators, whose mission is to make sure that that 737 doesn’t crash into your trailer. And you know what? They’ve pretty much been accomplishing that mission in recent years, in large part because they don’t tolerate hillbilly tautologies about “the way things work around here.” They’ve been known to hire hillbillies, but not the stupid kind; those they leave behind, where they belong.

You should also listen to Joycelyn Elders about sex. Why? Because there’s no downside to carrying some condoms if you aren’t a slut and a huge upside if you are one. It’s like Pascal’s wager, but for not getting knocked up. Learn how to use the fucking things, and then use them. Be (a) professional about it. If your parents or your pastor regard disease and unplanned pregnancies as proper punishments for the unchaste, they’re asshats whose counsel should be promptly disregarded in favor of advice from people who can teach you how to be an ethical and healthy slut. Because statistically speaking, that’s what you are if you’re from that milieu. You’re kind of slutty, certainly sluttier than the consensus at your church, and maybe even hella slutty, which includes blowjobs, by the way. Having unwanted babies and gonorrhea because you didn’t fucking wrap his junk is as intelligent as coming down with dermatitis by not bathing regularly. Don’t let him bust a nut straight up your snatch unless he’s clean as far as you can tell and y’all are ready to have babies and have given some real thought to it.

Listen to the doctor, and to Levi and Bristol. “Most of the time” may not be enough. Don’t be a stupid redneck. Be a smart redneck.

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