Thinking of the Border reivers reminded me of this book about their American descendents and caused me to spend a day re-reading it. I'm so glad I did, so thanks Sherwood, for mentioning George MacDonald Fraser! It's a great book to re-read in an election year because these are the years that we clump more firmly than ever into our tribes and the divisions in American society are stark and painful. This book is an attempt to bridge divisions between tribes, looking at how things are and how they got that way. As any book about the Borderers should be it is both lively and dour, white-hot with fury & tender with rueful love. It's also extremely funny. Joe Bageant had a wonderful way with a sentence and he really let himself rip here. What he set out to do is to explain his blood kin, the American redneck, to his adopted family, the American liberal. As he says in his introduction:
This book is written from a changing town in Virginia, but this class of mine, these people - the ones who smell like ashtrays in the checkout line, devour a carton of Little Debbies at a sitting, and praise Jesus for a truck with no spare tire - exist in every state in our nation. Maybe the next time we on the left encounter such seemingly self-screwing, stubborn, God-obsessed folks, we can be open to their trials, understand the complexity of their situation, even have enough solidarity to pop for a cheap retread tire out of our own pockets, simply because that would be a kind thing to do and surely would make the ghosts of Joe Hill, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Mohondas Ghandi smile.
Bageant introduces us to his family, friends and drinking companions in his small West Virginia town, and by going down into the details we can see how unfairly rigged and valiantly lived their lives are, with jobs that will never pay a fair wage, mobile & modular homes that are money drains with no resale value, and a medical system that will take and take and take without providing the care people need to survive. Bageant also gives us an insider's view of their tribal identification with the GOP, fundamental Christianity and guns. For me the most powerful chapter is "The Ballad of Lynddie England, one foot in Ulster, the other in Iraq" where Bageant draws on hundreds of years of history from the cattle thieves living and brawling on the border between Scotland & England, through James the First transplanting these Borderers to Ulster in a bit of socio-political-theocratic engineering, and then to the Borderers taking themselves to America where once again they found themselves fighting for what they could hold on borderlands and on to today - all to get us to understand how such an atrocity like Abu Ghraib could happen. It's an astonishing chapter, an illustration of compassion in an environment hard as stone.