I’m not really a bourbon man, but ‘when in Rome …’ she said.
She told me she’d never been outside of western Kentucky. I told her the bourbon tasted like cotton candy, but not that it was causing Johnny Cash by Jason Aldean to play on a loop in my head.
Throw your suitcase in the back.
Done gassed up the Pontiac
Blastin’ out the Johnny Cash
Headin’ down the highway, baby we ain’t ever comin’ back.
I woke up the next day in a camper van, the same way I had for the previous ten days – if slightly more hungover this time – now some 2500 miles into a journey from Port Angeles, Washington to Savannah, Georgia.
I glanced at the small battery-operated alarm clock on the ledge beside me: running late; got to move!
I was parked in the place I had been the night before, in the now-empty lot of Murray, Kentucky’s somewhat ironically named ‘Big Apple Café’ – a place so out-of-the-way that the regulars treated me like a man, previously lost, stumbling out of the wilderness when I came in.
One bartender was a former professional wrestling manager, a man deeply versed in the ins and outs of back-country North America; the other spoke Japanese and told stories that would make the more delicate among us blush. The regulars played darts and cornhole; they talked about fishing, something to which I brought tales of ice-fishing through six feet of frozen glory, much to their amusement.
I stayed until closing.
After glancing at my blaring alarm clock the next morning, I briefly considered rolling over, squeezing my eyes shut tight, and hugging an extra pillow like a small child on a teddy bear until the clock ran out of batteries.
Luckily for me, the meeting I was scheduled to be at, with congressional candidate Paul Walker, was about one and a half minutes away. In fact, the Big Apple was, he would later tell me, his “local.”
But more than that, the meeting was much too vital to consider missing, and growing in importance every day.
Last week, at least 13 pipe bombs were sent to prominent liberals across the country – people like President Obama, the Clinton’s, George Soros, Robert DeNiro, and so on – allegedly by Florida man and ardent Trump supporter Cesar Sayoc.
This, the latest and among the most dramatic violence in an increasingly polarized country. From “The Crusaders,” to Nikolas Cruz, to James Hodgkinson, to Charlottesville, to the Proud Boys vs. Antifa, to students rioting to shut down speakers, and so much more.
When the President of the country appears to repeatedly be inciting violence, when conservative personalities speak of socialists committing treason, it has the effect of dehumanizing groups of people – the same tactics used in war – making violence easier, more justifiable.
Similarly, when Trump supporters, or, more broadly, people in states which tend to vote Republican, are called ‘deplorables,’ when Maxine Waters speaks of opponents being “not welcome anymore, anywhere,” when Andrew Cuomo says “extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York,” when Cory Booker tells his supporters to “get in the face of some congresspeople,” it has the same dehumanizing effect.
The result is two sides at each other’s throats, more and more, literally; each side believing the other not to be those with differing opinions, but those who must be eradicated.
Which was why my meeting with Paul Walker was so important.
Paul Walker is a progressive running for the house in Kentucky’s 1st district, and he’s building momentum. You can go ahead and re-read that last sentence if you need to.
In a state where even modestly right-wing Democrats get trounced, how is this possible?
It’s possible because Walker seems able to step outside the rigid parameters of the national conversation, those lines in the sand which have led so quickly to violence on both sides. He has done this, not by watering down his progressive message in an attempt to make it more palatable to a supposed red-state audience, but by translating the message so it makes sense to those in western Kentucky.
Here is a not-so-secret: most people, broadly, want the same things. Walker seems able to, respectfully and without inflammatory rhetoric, explain why progressive positions are the best way to get these things.
Take the ‘Fight for $15,’ which has become like Kleenex to tissue, that is, a brand name for a broad concept. What the ‘Fight for $15’ is really about is workers earning a living wage … but a living wage is considerably different in San Francisco and Murray, KY.
Come out in favor of a national $15 minimum wage in western Kentucky and people will stop listening before you begin; but come out in support of workers earning a living wage, then collaborate with small-business owners, workers, and students to find out what that number is, and that is the type of community-building policy which will fly in most states.
Or, Walker seems to be one of few Democrats who passionately supports single-payer healthcare without explicitly defending the disaster that is Obamacare. Proposing all-encompassing government healthcare and saying Obamacare is good probably brings you to a line in the sand in western Kentucky.
But, in a state with libertarian leanings, the question really becomes what baseline services one envisions the government providing, unless, I suppose, one is an anarchist and the answer is ‘none.’ Most likely the list would include the military, police, roads … so why not healthcare, which seems every bit as crucial to the health and well-being of the population as the military.
We talked, Walker and I, about these and many other things as a mid-morning meeting turned into evening drinks at the Big Apple.
I asked him if, with all the violence and his own increasing profile, he was worried for his safety. He told me that at the time of our first meeting, somewhere in the coffee shop we sat down in, sitting inconspicuously but close to him as always, was his bodyguard – an ex-military man who volunteered his services despite constant offers of pay because he liked Walker’s message; a man with, as Liam Neeson would say, a “particular set of skills.”
As we sat under a television playing stories of pipe-bombs and caravans, Walker explained to me how he interacted with people in his district who openly supported the President. His methods were essentially the opposite of those advocated by Waters, Booker, or Cuomo, instead, as though he were interacting with someone who, like most of us, had a desire to see their district, their state, and their country succeed.
Whether or not Paul Walker wins the election in western Kentucky remains to be seen. But what he has already done is arguably more important.
He has removed himself, through deeds not words, from the hateful and dehumanizing rhetoric on both sides of the national conversation, and in doing so has shown the way for progressives who live in places other than the liberal coasts, who live in the so-called ‘flyover states’ that Democrats forgot.