It's sort of amazing the things people will say in front of you. I'm not sure if they think being on the other side of an open doorway means you can't hear them or if they just imagine you won't care, but every once in a while I'll encounter a bit of indiscretion that completely floors me.
"Obama's tryin' to take the assault rifles," one of the greasy men drawled to the other. They were repairing my car as they talked, and it occurred to me that both the manner and substance of their conversation did not necessarily need to materialize in an auto shop in Mountain Town. Their dialect, a vaguely drawn-out twang shared by workingmen from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains, might have popped up anywhere across the American continent, as might the faux-libertarian sentiment that accompanied it.
"He's tryin' to override the Constitution," one of them informed the other with all the solemnity of the completely uneducated. "And I heard some Republican senators were saying, 'It ain't gonna happen.' You know, he already raised all the taxes with that fiscal cliff."
I exhaled through my nose but kept my mouth shut. This wasn't my fight and there was nothing I could say that would change these men's minds.
When they came into the room where I was waiting, though, they continued.
"What we need," said one to the other. "Is another Lee Harvey Oswald."
He grinned the way a grandfather might grin at a small child awaiting a present. It all just seemed so damn pleasant, this talk of our president being violently murdered, and I was reminded once more how deceptive the South can be. It is a land of natural beauty prone to economic privation. It is a land whose residents imagine themselves courteous but whose knowledge of actual courtesy stops at the words "sir"and "ma'am" (never, incidentally, "madam"). It is a land whose political culture extols democracy but whose politicians exploit a deep undercurrent of petty fascism. And it is a land where extremism can appear less virulent than it really is because it is shared by so many.
"Lee Harvey Oswald?" I asked, finally unable to hold my tongue. "Are you talking about the new book on him? Is that what it is?"
One looked at the other and smiled.
"Yeah," he said. "I heard there was a new book."
I wonder what they must think of me? I'm tall and thin in a region of walking sows, with long hair and a delicate face and an accent that to them must sound somewhat foreign. I can't imagine they see me as one of their own. So what had they been thinking?
"You know," the first one said, looking at me with contrition. "Obama wants to roll over the Constitution and that's not right. You can't do that."
In an instant he was remorseful, then genial and talkative again. But his true feelings were still there, just beneath the surface. Just waiting to come out.
These people and the overlords who profit from them will never simply allow us to enact finance reform, or gun safety, or marriage equality, or anything else that this country needs to move forward. They are the same men who fomented Jim Crow. They are the same men who invented the term "right to work." They are the same men who propagated massive resistance when the Supreme Court had the audacity to state that black children and white children were equal.
We sometimes forget, in this comparatively tranquil era, that the civil rights movement was not won with words. The North did not transform the South through compromise and agreement; it transformed it through force. And when the public high schools of Little Rock, Arkansas were at last integrated, it was at the bayonet tips of the 101st Airborne. The duplicitous forces of conservatism have never willingly given us anything. Each time, in all matters, we've taken it.
That's something to remember now.