What Was Inside that Red Pickup Truck?

By Dan Kervick

Driving home from work last night here in New Hampshire, I ended up behind a man in a tidy red pickup truck. The man had written a very elaborate message on the back of the truck, carefully arranged with block letter decals of the kind you use to put a name on a mailbox. I couldn’t read the entire message without tailgating, and some of the letters toward the end of the message were smaller, but here was the part I could read:

Obama … attacking white people … Marxist ObamaCare … destroying white DNA … miscegenation … drug addicts and venereal disease.

And there was a lot more after that. But as I said, it was too small for me to read from a safe distance. The man in the red pickup truck must have spent a good deal of time purchasing the correct letters, thinking out his message and then affixing the letters carefully to his truck.

The truck had a New Hampshire license plate, but I never recall seeing anything remotely similar, and so stridently and brazenly displayed out in public, not in the 23 years I have lived here. I passed the truck to put it behind me. I had only seen the back of the man’s head, which was ordinary and unremarkable, with close-cropped gray-blonde hair. I was afraid to look at his face as I went past.

Some disturbing things are happening in this country, but it is hard to distinguish them one from another, because the many different kinds of angry thinking overlap with, and bleed into, other kinds.

I know some self-described Tea Partiers. They usually claim to be libertarians now. But when G.W. Bush was President most of them were enthusiastic defenders of John Yoo, Dick Cheney, waterboarding as needed, and the internal suppression and persecution of Muslim-Americans.

One of these Tea Partiers told me that on a business trip to New Orleans, he had panic attacks because “there were so many black people there.” He was convinced they were all looking at him funny and were out to get him. I mean “panic attack” quite literally. He had to go to a doctor fearing he was having a heart attack, such was the degree of his panic.

A friend I know, who is a university professor, recently had a conversation with an academic colleague at his school about various political issues, and in the course of the conversation the colleague asked, “Aren’t you concerned about the future of your race?” This was a person he had previously taken to be a fairly ordinary, middle-of-the-road academic. In my own 18 years as an academic earlier in my life, I never once heard a colleague express such views.

Two emotional issues that I recall from the very earliest days of the growth of the white populist reaction movement that took shape in 2008 and 2009, and now seems to dominate the Tea Party, were the flap about ACORN and black voter registration, and a spreading rumor that Obama was going to let all of the black people out of prison. There was also the one about Obama passing slavery reparations.

There is something really evil happening in this country. The election of Obama seems to have unleashed every kind of white racialist nightmare and persecution complex. Bircher and KKK views have become frighteningly public and mainstream, and have spread beyond their traditional social and regional enclaves.

But let him who is without sin cast the first stone. Resisting evil begins inside the individual human heart. All of us might  ask ourselves from time to time whether our political actions are being driven by compassion, fraternity and good will, or have their seat instead in terror and paranoia, and in the nightmares that feed on wayward, fear-driven fantasy.

My own nightmare fantasies ran free for a bit after seeing that red pickup truck: fantasies about enraged, angry people buying guns; about vengeful rebel militias scouring the countryside targeting people they regard as subversives and traitors; about a national political community descending into misery, anarchy and failure; about noble institutions of self-governance and cooperation falling into decay; about brothers and sisters, friends and countrymen, former partners in a common life, lost in whirls of suspicion, mob resentment, recrimination and hatred.

What degree of reality is represented in those fantasies? That is hard to say. But what is not hard to say is that such fears are paralyzing and self-perpetuating. Whatever is happening in our world, we need to find ways to live with courage. It is easy for us to be overwhelmed by the feeling that we are under attack; that our personal existence is threatened; or that the existence of some of our loved ones, or of some group or project with which we strongly identify, is threatened.

And in a way we are always right. We are finite and mortal. We don’t have a long time on this Earth, and the older one gets the more obvious that fact becomes. We experience many pains and agonies in the course of nature, and fear the pains and agonies others can inflict on us. We try to protect ourselves; acquire and horde the physical, emotional or intellectual materials for a self-sufficient life; barricade ourselves from society; aggrandize ourselves and buy insurance policies for our personal egos against the need for trust and dependency.

But it’s futile. The world will defeat us as individuals. Mortality always wins. Everything that is born on this earth is impermanent, and dies eventually. And the world we have dreamed is almost never close to the world we get and have to live in. All we can do is try to live so that the larger world that goes on outside us and without us is better for our having been here, and hope that when we die, we die well. As Hamlet realized toward the end, “The readiness is all.”

We can also seek out and emulate the good, strong and compassionate hearts who live among us. And if we know good people who are dying, we might think about what we can do to pick up the torches that they are releasing, and carry them forward for our own brief time. I know a man who is dying now, waiting with his wife for the end. He once told me that he was sad that he had not done more to end misery and injustice. But whether he his right or not doesn’t really depend on him, but on how much inspiration others resolve to take from him.

With courage, real life can end up finer than the finest dramatic art. Martin Luther King Jr. famously approached this realm of artistic perfection when he spoke prophetically to an audience on the eve of his assassination in 1968 at a church in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had come to support the city’s sanitation workers in their strike against the city government. After telling the congregation that he would not want to live in any other time than the late 20th century, and asking them to preserve unity and focus in the cause of justice, he famously concluded:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

Last night, I handed out Halloween candy to this year’s troupe of costumed children arriving at our door. One boy appeared with a shining hood and cowl of silver mail.

“What are you?” I asked.

“A knight!”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t figure that out.”

“I had a sword, but I accidentally left it at school,” he said despondently.

“What about your shield?”

“I didn’t make a shield.”

And two sisters came to the door, the older one gently leading the younger one by the hand. And a number of very friendly and happy parents were with the kids, complimenting my jack-o-lantern, striking up cheerful conversations, snapping pictures of their children. The youngest children always instinctively want to pet my dog, Rico, and he always lets them.

To each group I said, “You can take two.” And every child took just two, and none fought with the other kids over what to take, or tried to sneak three or four pieces from the bowl. And then they said “thank you”, although sometimes their parents had to remind them.

One little girl, who couldn’t have been more than three, came as a vampire with blood dripping down her chin from her little fangs. On Halloween, children often dress up as their nightmares, so they can rule over them. Or they dress up as heroes, and play out their heroism.

The man in the red pickup truck probably thinks of himself as a knight, courageously defending the biological phantom he calls his “race” with the sword of truth. But I know he is also surrounded all about by his nightmares, and right now is drowning in them. He has been demented by them as he attempts to shield himself against them. I know the maelstrom of his fear can easily feed and bleed into my own fears, and consume me in a compensating terror or rage.

But I am happy tonight, and not fearing any man. I would not want to live in any world but the early 21st century. This fraught period of ruthless individualism, lonely competitiveness and cowardly self-preservation cannot last. Perversity and avarice are not that powerful, and we are on the edge of something better. The coming of the Lord is in the hearts of those children at my door, and they will still be beating no matter what forces destroy me, and no matter when those forces come – as they inevitably will. Inside our little bodily vehicles and the locked doors of our manically self-aggrandizing egos, the knowing and humble human heart repudiates paranoia and greed, cowardice and injustice. It cannot tolerate for long the limits of the single, small individual life with its futile personal minutes of triumph and domination. It always finds a way to expand and connect with other hearts, and to surrender its burden of fear.

Cross-posted from Rugged Egalitarianism

Follow @DanMKervick

38 Responses to What Was Inside that Red Pickup Truck?

  1. Fascism came out of the depression. It’s not inevitable … we got FDR, not Hitler, but a poorly-functioning economy creates anger. A stirring leader who argued forcefully to put people back to work would have been nice (FDR II), but President Obama turned out not to be that man. And of course, as you point out, the fact that he is black is going to generate plenty of hatred. On the hopeful side, we are clearly much less racist than in the past, otherwise there could be no President Obama.

    • Your points are all great. One thing I would be interested in hearing more is the obstructioin tactics, such as filibusters used in the last 5 years compared to other presidencies. I believe it’s an order or two in magnitude greater. Though FDR had his own battles I understand.

    • Two books come to mind, Phillip Roth’s “The Plot Against America”, a fascinating piece of what-if fiction, and Michael Sandel’s “Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy”
      And let me echo those below by saying this was a beautiful piece of writing.

  2. Thank you Dan. I needed reminding that, really, I too am happy tonight for the same reasons.

  3. This is why the white working class is abandoning the left. You ignore legitimate grievances and fears, but never fail to notice every crank and lunatic, no matter how rare or insignificant they may be.

    If the person who said “aren’t you concerned about the future of your race?” had not been white, would you have batted an eye? Somehow I doubt it. Of course white workers are concerned about their race, they would have to be insane not to be. The real question is why aren’t progressives concerned about the white race? You are definitely concerned about other races. I have family who now live in neighborhoods where english can no longer be heard, and they feel like outsiders in the places they grew up. Am I supposed to not be concerned about this?

    I know you will probably not publish this comment. I totally agree with MMT’s economic positions, but unfortunately you seem to be just as insane and racist as the mainstream progressive movement when it comes to white interests.

    • “You are definitely concerned about other races”
      No, Josh, not other races but people generally. Race is largely a meaningless distinction which is sort of the point here. What if out distinctions were based on hair color or height or some other noticeably different characteristic. Your comment shows you focus on the differences among us that are merely accidents of birth – what legitimate grievances can arise from that? In the end we’re all human beings and the differences among us relate to things we can change or improve, like living conditions or health or quality of life.
      Get out of the red truck Josh, it’s a lonely, angry, and unhealthy place to spend your life.

      • > Race is largely a meaningless distinction which is sort of the point here.

        I have a question: if race does not exist or is a phantom concept, then there can be no such thing as racism, correct?

        • Well, demons are fictions too. But if you persecute someone because you think they are possessed by demons, that is blameworthy. So, if you persecute or resent someone due to their race, that seems blameworthy, even if the concept of race is problematic.

          • Thanks for the reply. You are clearly very intelligent and I’m happy to read your article (and agree with it too).

            However, from a practical aspect, humans are tribal in nature (in fact most apes/monkeys are) and you can’t really get rid of this hardwired behavior. It is hardwired. Race is easy (and hardwired) to see but even without it, you would have my hill vs. your hill, my village vs. your village, my tree vs. your tree and so on.

    • The idea that “race” exists has been a topic of debate for a long time. About half the scientific community doesn’t think 40,000 some years is long enough for the slightest bit of specieisation to occur. Mostly those involved with genetics and blood. “Bone anthropologists” tend to go the other way.

      I grew up in Chicago so I do understand a bit of what you are talking about. My neighborhood went so Polish that I couldn’t talk to the painters that I hired or most of my immediate neighbors. I understand the “bone” anthropologist’s view though because I could tell by facial structure for the most part if there was a good chance English wasn’t their first language. But I did learn to love perogies! And, I still loved the neighborhood!

    • Rich Reinhofer

      White isn’t a race. Black isn’t a race. Human is a race.

    • “Am I supposed to not be concerned about this?”

      It’s OK to be concerned, but what does it have to do with races?

  4. It’s always interesting to try to look at and issue from the other point of view, no matter how hate filled or fear filled it is. The guy in the pickup has to be filled with both and it is driving him to extreme positions. It’d be interesting to know his religion, his church and what they say there. Is this his entire environment. What do his parents believe and was he raised to hate blacks?

    You are right that he probably views himself as a warrior protecting his values. It’s unfortunate that some values are filled with so much hate.

    • Rich Reinhofer

      I know a guy who drives a truck like that. His parents are the same and they are all fundamentalist Mormons. He is outraged every single day about something or other, usually whatever Beck, Limbaugh, or Levin tells him to be outraged by. It’s exhausting to be him, surrounded by people who aren’t outraged enough at what the black man in the White House has done lately.

      • Yeah, most of the people I know in that camp listen to a tiny circle of angry, mutually reinforcing voices.

        • Rich Reinhofer

          and this guy now wears a bluetooth headset all day long listening to these shows…that’s 9 consecutive hours a day absorbing that mean spirited bile spewed by them…

      • I’m not a guy, I don’t drive a truck, I’m not a religious fundamentalist, and I am outraged every single day by: Wall Street, Congress, President Obama, the NSA, the Federal Reserve, Obamacare, Ohio Governor Kasich, the Ohio Legislature, ALEC, the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and people who scoop their dog poop into a plastic bag and then throw it on my tree lawn, which is just a tiny version of what all the previous violators are doing to us and our world, but a graphic illustration nonetheless, dontcha think?
        In today’s world, you don’t have to be a truck-driving right-wing fundamentalist to be mad as hell every day. Yes, it’s exhausting. And it can also energize us to work for something better than allowing plastic-bagged-sh*t to be perpetually thrown on our lawns.

  5. John Q. Public

    What is the white working class abandoning the “left”? I’m glad to hear from a spokesperson representing “them”, or what is it your representing? Are you Protestant? Catholic? Nothing but pure American? Have you been of a race born with out sin? How do I know if I am one of the elect? Do I hate those who aren’t? Please let me know, as I want to make sure I’m one of the elect and hating accordingly. As I don’t associate with “them”, I am very suspicious of their motives!

  6. George Balella

    Wow. That was powerful. Very well written. Wow!

  7. Joe Firestone

    That was beautiful, Dan. Great writing!

  8. We too had some little children at the door, although not too many as there was a light rain. But they all smiled and said thank you as their proud parents watched a short distance away. I also had an experience at the Y awhile ago. Some middle aged guy was terribly upset at the socialist President and was telling another guy about it — loudly so all could hear. We see this anger and hatred in our political leaders. How does it come to be we must take away food stamps and dismantle the safety net and do so with so obvious joy?

    I do hope this is all a passing phase bc that world is ugly. I like the trick and treaters much better.

  9. Perhaps projection has a lot to answer for, psychological that is. The fact that most human beings don’t really acknowledge the ambivalence of (their) human nature as a daily facet of human existence means we adopt outlooks on life that encourage the creation of playgrounds for sociopaths and narcissists. However, we suppress the knowledge of the darker side of our ambivalent nature in order to live with ourselves. I now look back at one of the threads of my own life being a fear of being considered sociopathic and/or narcissistic and that is natural since human societies are eusocial or nesting communities in which we rely upon each other. Try as we may to distinguish between the bogey people who lurk within (for the sake of our reputations) as opposed to those without (for the sake of social cohesion) we don’t always do very well without much educating.

  10. Fear and anger develop, when people believe they are playing by the rules while others undermine their efforts to earn a decent living. When we can’t clearly see were this cheating starts we have the genesis of paranoia. Paranoia makes long suppressed distrusts of the other surface. This manifests itself in a multitude of ways; worker is pitted against worker, politics of division are used to carve niches within the electorate, and it goes on and on.

    Simply put, many people feel cheated today. The effects of the ever widening class divide and loss of the hard won gains of labor are beginning to be felt deeply all over the world.

    MMT’rs seem to have the best (in my opinion) grasp of the root problems and hold the keys to change for the better. Economics is a somewhat camouflaged yet decisively important component in all our lives. Fair and honest application of the monetary system, no matter what the state of the real resource supply, is essential if we are to lay the fears and paranoia to rest permanently.

    If the knowledge behind the optimism reflected in this post could reach everyone Dan, there would be no stopping the rush toward real change for the better.

  11. A post full of beauty, power, truth and inspiration. Thanks very much Dan for writing it…it was just what I needed to read to start my day (and the rest of my life).

  12. Josh, my people undoubtedly grew concerned about their race shortly after yours landed upon our shores. We too rarely hear our languages spoken. When we mention these things, folks not unlike yourself tell us to ‘get over it’. The difference is while demographics are changing, your race still maintains control and those other races whose demographics outpace yours are not planning to exterminate you. If I were you I’d count my blessings that people of color are not vindictive, rather we just want to live our lives and raise and educate and provide for our children in peace. I think folks like Mr Kervick understand this intuitively.

  13. Great write Dan
    How did NW Arkansas become my digs for the past 20 yrs ? O.K. that joke is on me. In light of your great Halloween riff, here’s a joke for you.
    Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein had a son, what did they name him?

    Give up?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRaKPjSJzN0 (FRANK JR.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qM7bqiMYvVE

  14. Inspirational! Time to go be a good person, and live as if this is the last day of my life…

  15. Pingback: Links 11/3/13 « naked capitalism

  16. Ahh yes, the ultimate white status play – looking down on inferior whites. The guy in the truck was clearly an idiot but instead of passing it off you decided that many hours of prose was needed to prove your superiority over this benighted (working class) man.
    Sorry, but the last decades have been a nightmare for the white working class. They are actively discriminated against, even in prestige working class jobs like firefighting where city after city has decided that high grades on fire fighting exams is a racist way to pick fire fighters (color of ones skin and ethnicity have been decided upon as the superior method).
    The delicious irony of the middle and upper middle class “who cares they are not coming for my jobs” is that this is now happening at warp speed with institutionalized racial preferences, outsourcing of higher skilled labor and software displacement.
    There is not a serious researcher alive who disputes that races are, in fact, very real. The popular wisdom and humanities classes never catch onto this reality but the science in this field is amongst the most settled of anything outside of physics. To claim that tens of thousands of years of culture and inter breeding between what amounts to large extended families does not produce unique and fairly predictable groupings of human behavior (in other words: race) has to be amongst the most ignorant idea alive at this point in history. While the motivation may be noble – don’t be mean to people who don’t look like you – the results are increasingly stupid.
    To the inevitable hate filled replies attacking my character: my wife is brown, my kids are mixed race, the best of my friends are all colors of the rainbow and I personally don’t enjoy the company of most white Americans. I find them whiny and sanctimonious. But let’s be real for a minute: white males in every first world country (with the possible exception of Australia which is a somewhat racist country) are under attack. People I barely know at parties (and these are Masters and PHD grads) feel totally comfortable attacking the character of white men. ALL white men!
    How about we celebrate our differences? Why do all groups have to be seen as exactly the same? It is not true and deeply unfair to many who are told that their oil stained Dad is stupid and that they should study to be an architect despite their manifest lack of academic ability.

    • But what does all that have to do with somebody thinking that ObamaCare is a Marxist plot to attack white DNA?

    • “But let’s be real for a minute: white males in every first world… are under attack.”

      That’s a feature not a bug! If ALL WORKING CLASS people stopped blaming each other they would realize how bad they’re being treated by those with “the power”. God forbid they ever figure that out!

      Rule number 1 for minority control: Never allow the majority to find common ground, especially if it undermines the interests of the controlling minority.

      The fact that the “liberal establishment” plays right into this is because Rule #1 for the “intellectual class” is to never directly and openly challenge your superiors or you will lose your privileged status.

    • “what amounts to large extended families … produce(s) unique and fairly predictable groupings of human behavior (in other words: race)”

      “Race” should be more properly defined as fairly predictable groupings of human physical characteristics. Behaviour does not confine itself to these physical differences. There are going to be differences in behaviour based on environment and culture. The colonized and the colonizing behave predictably no matter the “race” of each. See the economic differences in India that correlate with the areas that were colonized by the British and those that were not. There was a time when the Germans were the barbarians and the Greeks were the civilized. When the Chinese picked a character to write the word for Mongols, they picked the one of many homonyms that means “ignorant and illiterate.” Then when the Mongols took over China, they used the character meaning “first, primary” for their dynastic name. Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum. (The official Latin motto of the Human Race, btw.)

      “white males in every first world country are under attack.”

      I think more accurately “counterattack.” Otherwise we might not call it the “first world.”

      “Why do all groups have to be seen as exactly the same? It is not true and deeply unfair to many who are told that their oil stained Dad is stupid and that they should study to be an architect despite their manifest lack of academic ability.”

      Huh? “Oil stained Dads” and “brown wives” do not make convincing arguments.

      Sincerely, filled with love, not hate…

  17. I live in the South and I hear/see this stuff all the time. Anyone who has ever listened to Rush Limbaugh objectively can see that they think they are all victims (whilst simultaneously claiming liberals are all claiming to be victims). The hypocrisy, projection and denial of reality runs deep in those whose minds have been trained to think only in soundbites. I have tried many times to explain MMT to these people but it is useless. They REFUSE to look deeply into any subject, preferring to go with whatever the latest FOXnews meme has told them their opinion is. Apparently, thinking is just too hard for most Americans.

  18. Thanks Dan. This was one of the best pieces of writing i’ve read in a very, very long time. It was heartfelt, intellectual, spiritual and authentic all at the same time. Thanks for the contribution.