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Perriello’s Health Care Town Hall: Fear and Respect in VA-5

Last week I attended a couple of town halls: one in Maryland for Donna Edwards, and one in Danville, VA for Tom Perriello. Going into them, I kinda figured that Edwards’ event would be pretty tame, but Tom Perriello’s would be raucous, if not violent. Edwards’ district is urban/suburban and solidly Democratic. Perriello’s district is much more diverse, but the area surrounding Danville is rural, conservative, economically floundering and not very far removed from the Old South. Let me tell the Danville story:

Brett Vaughn, the documentarian I’ve been working with, arrived at the event about an hour early. We were the first in the parking lot, but not by much. Almost immediately cars began arriving. From the tailgate atmosphere that was quickly established, it was obvious that many of these people knew each other and had organized beforehand.

Before too long, the party had moved into the venue (a high school). I decided to mingle a bit and followed them inside. Almost immediately, I “came out” and identified myself as an Obama supporter there to document the event. A passionate discussion ensued and, man, I’ve got to tell you… these were not bad people. What came through in the conversations I had with them is that they are genuinely afraid of change. These are people that were raised in the 60s and 70s (or earlier). They remember “duck and cover” and the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” and those evil Cuban socialists pointing missiles at us… If you came of age in that time, you also witnessed Carter’s difficult (read “weak”… “malaise”…) presidency and Reagan’s bellicose speechifying that coincided with the beginnings of the collapse of the Soviet Union. After Vietnam, Reagan’s “proud and muscular” — and successful — America must’ve been cathartic. I’m hypothesizing here, but this was also the era that brought us Rush Limbaugh and a new generation of conservative talk radio. I’m thinking that an era was defined – millions of people became Republicans for life.

And that’s not mentioning the Southern Strategy and all the “welfare queens” and Willie Hortons that were manufactured in furtherance of Republican power-mongering.

So, what we’re left with is a huge number of seniors and baby-boomers that indisputably love their country — or at least their idea of what their country is and/or should be. Today, they see what is for them, a radical, radical departure. Remember, their political reality has been shaped by talk radio, the corporate media, and a lifetime of intellectual laziness.

Domestically, these folks made some trade-offs. In exchange for lower wages and fewer benefits, millions of families went from single-earners to both Mom and Dad competing in the rat race. In exchange for less time with their kids, these folks got to spend more time watching television and eating convenience foods. In exchange for taking a second job, this generation earned an entitlement to robotic singing fish, the clapper and waistline expanding extra value meals. And if that wasn’t enough, well… they could always watch our nifty new war machine on the TV in the comfort of their living-room recliner.

The point is that as a nation, Americans worked more, and turned away from more traditional pursuits like “citizenship”. Thirty-second television commercials told everything anyone needed to know about politics; who had time for politics or world affairs?

But that doesn’t translate into indifference to your country. Instead, we got superficial, bumper-sticker, brand-loyalty to the Red, White and Blue. And now we’re left fighting over politics like a bunch of soccer hooligans.

So anyway, back to Danville.

These folks were passionate about loving their country and not wanting to see it become a “socialist state.” They’ve been hyped up on fear – fear of the government killing seniors, rationing health care and, surprisingly, running the country into insurmountable debt. They are convinced the government fucks up everything it touches. They know in their hearts that if the government takes over health care, this country will cease to exist as they’ve known it all of their lives.

These folks were not the savvy lobbyists and Astroturf professionals that have been uncovered at other town halls. These were mostly white, mostly senior neighbors that had organized through email (similar to the way MoveOn has organized) because they are exercised about something that scares them.

The good news is that for all of their fear, they hadn’t given up on what binds us: our love for country and the American ideal of (relatively) civil debate.

Perriello arrived to the auditorium to a smattering of applause. This applause was quickly drowned out by about twice as many boos. Soon enough, everyone settled down and Perriello started taking questions.

Of the ten or so people that got to ask questions, only one that I remember was supportive of health care reform. Perriello answered each and every question by validating the questioners concerns and providing the best answer he could. His sincerity and decency was unmistakable.

At the end of the presentation, the crowd left with nothing but cheers. Not a catcall or boo was heard. Sure, many may have been silent, and some may have fumed that they could not change the Congressman’s mind, but… they seemed to have a new respect — a respect for Perriello that they hadn’t arrived with.

I chatted with a lot of the same people I spoke with before the town hall. I couldn’t find a person willing to say a bad word about the Congressman. Many still vehemently disagreed with his policies, but nobody I spoke with harbored animosity toward the man.

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Perriello’s Health Care Town Hall: Fear and Respect in VA-5

Last week I attended a couple of town halls: one in Maryland for Donna Edwards, and one in Danville, VA for Tom Perriello. Going into them, I kinda figured that Edwards’ event would be pretty tame, but Tom Perriello’s would be raucous, if not violent. Edwards’ district is urban/suburban and solidly Democratic. Perriello’s district is much more diverse, but the area surrounding Danville is rural, conservative, economically floundering and not very far removed from the Old South. Let me tell the Danville story:

Brett Vaughn, the documentarian I’ve been working with, arrived at the event about an hour early. We were the first in the parking lot, but not by much. Almost immediately cars began arriving. From the tailgate atmosphere that was quickly established, it was obvious that many of these people knew each other and had organized beforehand.

Before too long, the party had moved into the venue (a high school). I decided to mingle a bit and followed them inside. Almost immediately, I “came out” and identified myself as an Obama supporter there to document the event. A passionate discussion ensued and, man, I’ve got to tell you… these were not bad people. What came through in the conversations I had with them is that they are genuinely afraid of change. These are people that were raised in the 60s and 70s (or earlier). They remember “duck and cover” and the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” and those evil Cuban socialists pointing missiles at us… If you came of age in that time, you also witnessed Carter’s difficult (read “weak”… “malaise”…) presidency and Reagan’s bellicose speechifying that coincided with the beginnings of the collapse of the Soviet Union. After Vietnam, Reagan’s “proud and muscular” — and successful — America must’ve been cathartic. I’m hypothesizing here, but this was also the era that brought us Rush Limbaugh and a new generation of conservative talk radio. I’m thinking that an era was defined – millions of people became Republicans for life.

And that’s not mentioning the Southern Strategy and all the “welfare queens” and Willie Hortons that were manufactured in furtherance of Republican power-mongering.

So, what we’re left with is a huge number of seniors and baby-boomers that indisputably love their country — or at least their idea of what their country is and/or should be. Today, they see what is for them, a radical, radical departure. Remember, their political reality has been shaped by talk radio, the corporate media, and a lifetime of intellectual laziness.

Domestically, these folks made some trade-offs. In exchange for lower wages and fewer benefits, millions of families went from single-earners to both Mom and Dad competing in the rat race. In exchange for less time with their kids, these folks got to spend more time watching television and eating convenience foods. In exchange for taking a second job, this generation earned an entitlement to robotic singing fish, the clapper and waistline expanding extra value meals. And if that wasn’t enough, well… they could always watch our nifty new war machine on the TV in the comfort of their living-room recliner.

The point is that as a nation, Americans worked more, and turned away from more traditional pursuits like “citizenship”. Thirty-second television commercials told everything anyone needed to know about politics; who had time for politics or world affairs?

But that doesn’t translate into indifference to your country. Instead, we got superficial, bumper-sticker, brand-loyalty to the Red, White and Blue. And now we’re left fighting over politics like a bunch of soccer hooligans.

So anyway, back to Danville.

These folks were passionate about loving their country and not wanting to see it become a “socialist state”. They’ve been hyped up on fear – fear of the government killing seniors, rationing health care and, surprisingly, running the country into insurmountable debt. They are convinced the government fucks up everything it touches. They know in their hearts that if the government takes over health care, this country will cease to exist as they’ve known it all of their lives.

These folks were not the savvy lobbyists and Astroturf professionals that have been uncovered at other town halls. These were mostly white, mostly senior neighbors that had organized through email (similar to the way MoveOn has organized) because they are exercised about something that scares them.

The good news is that for all of their fear, they hadn’t given up on what binds us: our love for country and the American ideal of (relatively) civil debate.

Perriello arrived to the auditorium to a smattering of applause. This applause was quickly drowned out by about twice as many boos. Soon enough, everyone settled down and Perriello started taking questions.

Of the ten or so people that got to ask questions, only one that I remember was supportive of health care reform. Perriello answered each and every question by validating the questioners concerns and providing the best answer he could. His sincerity and decency was unmistakable.

At the end of the presentation, the crowd left with nothing but cheers. Not a catcall or boo was heard. Sure, many may have been silent, and some may have fumed that they could not change the Congressman’s mind, but… they seemed to have a new respect — a respect for Perriello that they hadn’t arrived with.

I chatted with a lot of the same people I spoke with before the town hall. I couldn’t find a person willing to say a bad word about the Congressman. Many still vehemently disagreed with his policies, but nobody I spoke with harbored animosity toward the man.

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Mike Stark

Mike Stark