The bum fight, as Internet-Sensei taught me about it, traditionally involves a sadist with some cash on hand paying a cold homeless fellow fallen on hard times (the harder, the better) to start a brawl with one of his peers and then videotaping the two beating the shit out of each other. We warm homeless tend to be too discreet and well put-together to be bribed into this sort of violence, and it’s some real there but for the grace of God territory, so I’m certainly thankful to have run into the edges of that scene only fleetingly. Hell, I feel like I’m almost dolezally faking homelessness because I got a hotel room last night but not the night before last. I must be too honest for this country.
Overt bum fights rudely shock the conscience, as damn well they should. They’re too forwardly evil for a decent person to dismiss as harmless rough-and-tumble. The exploitation is too obvious to miss and too extreme to tolerate. The insidious bum fights, however, are the subtler ones, which are the vast, vast majority of bum fights. Really, anyone in a position of relative wealth and power who pits two poorer, more vulnerable parties against each other orchestrates a bum fight between them.
It’s all too safe to say that most of American politics is a series of coldly, cravenly calculated bum fights. Most divide-and-conquer politics in any society, for that matter, amount to bum fights. (The exceptions usually involve international wars provoked provoked by third parties without any overwhelming discrepancies in power between the instigator and the direct parties to the conflicts.) Stateside, though, we seem to have an exceptionally strong affinity to bum fights as our organizing political philosophy. We aren’t quite peerless in the world for our brutal contempt for the poor, but we’re close. One of the few countries that stands out as our bum-fighting peer is the UK, more specifically, jolly old England, and more specifically yet, the shittier constituencies in London and the South. A number of nations, economies, and folkways were uncomfortably cobbled together and put under the dominion of Westminster and the Germanic high inbred, first with some wars to suppress the regional insurgencies, then with some Deo Gratia Regina shit, then with some counterterrorism police statecraft, then with some more Deo Gratia Regina shit. Our Highlanders are getting a bit restive again under Nicola Sturgeon, but at least they use ballots, not bullets, and not bombs. So far, anyway. “Will the Prime Minister take this suitcase home tonight?”
Confusingly, from an American perspective, the Scots, meaning actual Scots living in actual Scotland, have pretty fully dropped the proud cracker act in recent decades and are now fuming at the South of England for not allowing enough pan-European socialism. Or maybe I should say recent centuries; my study of Scottish political history has frankly been spotty. What I consistently hear, though, is that the agitation against the Free Shit Army in the old countries comes overwhelmingly from rich parts of London and securely bourgeois parts of the Home Counties (and maybe Wales, although the main thing I’ve heard about Wales is that a Welshman once served my mother horse meat in his restaurant), while north of, say, Birmingham, there’s a great deal of popular respect for the notion of Parliament providing abundant cash tribute to normal people in the provinces instead of the bloody Queen and her extended family of failspawn. How, then, from a more parochial North American perspective (I know, Wow Big parish Much ecumenical Very confuse), do we explain why Canada, a country that still honors the Deo Gratia Regina shit and the Governor General and to this day fields a force of redcoats to maintenir le droit (yes, in French, for that much of it, anyway), is free of the rabid #TCOT opposition to socialism that we can’t escape south of the border? And why do Canada’s Scotsmen, who are legion, not do all the crazy brawling and grandstanding that ours do? Why are so many of Canada’s police scandals almost genteel? Admittedly, I traffic woke Kwesi Millington memes far too often [to be taken for an American romantic gazing lovingly towards the 49th Parallel], but why are our friends, buddies, guys, and, yes, partners to the north not a constant shitshow the way we are?
Maybe it’s the slavery thing again. But let’s be sure to define it broadly. James I, that fabulous shithead, bothered the Virginia Company to round up the vagrant boys from the neighborhood of his Newmarket Palace and transport them to the Tidewater. The same thing was done much more famously and systematically to the white founding stock of Australia. According to Nancy Isenberg, the colonists included “roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores, and an assortment of convicts,” which I’ve always thought preferable to unknown whores, hiding their light under a bushel, and certainly preferable to Melania Trump. Piles of wretched refuse were Shanghaied or lured or herded or indentured to the colonies and, over time, smeared by their betters as Rhode Islanders and West Virginians. Many conservative observers have wrung their hands about how the poories don’t do church anymore, but it made sense in the context of old-timey Puritanism, which proclaimed property qualifications for the elect, it made sense in the context of ministers who cherry-picked the Bible to defend race-based chattel slavery, and it makes sense to this day at any parish whose members or ministers simply don’t really know how to interact well with the poor, not to mention the more aggressively malignant ministries whose raison d’être is the concern-trolling of the poor as an eternally replenishing pool of properly meek clients.
Your Oxy dealer probably isn’t so obnoxious. I’m not personally down with the opiates of the masses, since they get pricey and prostitution is how I get hugs, not drugs (say, what rhymes with that? Thicke? Your thoughts?), and I rarely even touch alcohol, for roughly the same reasons. At the same time, I really can’t work up the self-righteousness to complain about dope friends for not living cleanly and industriously. Bragging about how long it’s been since I’ve had a drink would feel like bragging about how long it’s been since I’ve gone to Newport and had a cup of clam chowder. Aside from the shrimp slavery thing, I wouldn’t stay off the seafood, either, if it weren’t so expensive. Yes, some people become addicted to drugs, and it must suck to spend one’s twenties in some Camden dope shack, fleeing to dealers for refuge from the cops, but the moral panic feels awfully suspicious, and the drug community looks out for its own a lot more than is recognized by the general population. Drugs can seriously fuck a person up, but they aren’t just a pit of vice, and by the same measure, sobriety and industry aren’t just a bottomless wellspring of virtue. Given that hard drugs have become one of the most fashionable excuses for stolid bougies to get up on their soapboxes about public morality and for cops to go wilding, it’s extremely wise to be skeptical about drug panics if there’s anything suspect about their tone.
It’s pretty easy to get a sense of whether one is living in a slave society or a free society. One of the simplest questions to ask is whether the workforce has positive reasons for going to work or negative ones. Do people take pride and honor in their work, or are they scared shitless about the shame, dishonor, and destitution of not working? Do they love the virtue, or do they have a troubled love-hate relationship with the vice? By J. D. Vance’s reckoning, his neighbors back in Ohio and Kentucky are split between welfare crackers and proud crackers who fucking hate them some welfare crackers. I can’t shake the feeling that this wouldn’t happen in a society that truly valued work and productivity. When I’m out scavenging deposit bottles, I don’t resent panhandlers who aren’t also out scavenging deposit bottles. If they’re carrying on about the apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church, that’s a separate problem (but not a separate one from their complaints about Barack Obama being, of all things, a socialist). Dude gave me some deposit bottles from his trunk and a peanut butter-chocolate protein bar that I assume he got by freestuffin’ at the Port Townsend Stand Down, though, so he’s all right when it doesn’t come to political theory.
This is starting to sound like a very seedy version of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and unfortunately, I’m afraid it’s exactly that. Maybe this is the difference between midcentury prosperity and optimism and whatever the hell it is that we’ve stumbled into today. The dynamic that Vance describes is an uglier one, one of a struggling working class itching to wield the whip hand over its freeloading neighbors. This is why I refer to our political system as a bum fight. There are towns small, remote, and poor enough that everyone shops at the same IGA, plus there’s a tradition of all the local yokels being up in one another’s business anyway, and to wax tasteless but true, there’s definitely some inbreeding. The result is that the proud crackers witness the welfare crackers’ penny-ante scams and almsmongering: the reselling of food stamp groceries for petty cash (heroin money?), the purchase of fine-ass steaks with food stamps while proud crackers pay for Chef Boyardee and Top Ramen out of pocket, the parallel cash streams to pay for alcohol. They don’t personally witness, and often don’t even hear about, the ever so much more profligate waste of public funds on the vast majority of line items that have nothing whatsoever to do with USDA po’ cracka gibs.
It’s a powerful psy op, a championship gaslighting scheme. They aren’t actually being beggared by federal income tax deductions to buy some no-account neighbor a T-bone; it just looks that way. The accelerating socioeconomic segregation of the United States makes it as hard as ever for proud crackers in the provinces to see where and how their tax money is actually being spent. They rarely see, for example, how much more opulently and expensively J. D. Vance’s Yale crowd lives than some two-bit dole grifter who grills a couple of Porterhouses a month behind his trailer. Vance found seltzer water revoltingly alien the first time he was served it at a fancy law school restaurant schmoozer; I buy that shit for 89 cents a liter at Safeway every day of the week and then have to wait around for a hand count at BottleDrop because the Soleil barcodes still haven’t been programmed into the system, even though Safeway has been carrying it for, like, a full month. If I wanted to be a real toolbox, I could finally clean out my cooler, fill it with ice, and host an all-brands seltzer tasting out on Lancaster Drive. Like clam chowder or Newport in general, that would be too expensive, but I imagine it would show that Perrier isn’t really any better than Refreshe. Or I could host the tasting in front of the Truckee Starbucks and–yes, I must say this; it is a sacred internet tradition–pop some punk-ass Chips.
Few of the poor in this country understand how the affluent and the wealthy live. Maybe this is one of the things keeping the lid on the pot. We have more than one Versailles, but we keep ours at great remove from the peasantry. Don’t kid yourselves, though: those Americans who really know how to game the system game it for a great deal more than some damn steak.