24 Feb 2006

John Derbyshire Reflects on Coverage of Cheney’s Accident

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John Derbyshire discusses how press coverage of the Cheney hunting accident demonstrates the devastating impact of  suburbanization and economic change.

One of the more thoughtful takes on the Dick Cheney “Quailgate” incident was offered by The Economist. They looked at hunting from the class angle:

The proportion of the population that goes hunting has been shrinking for the past 20 years. The number of hunters fell by 7% in the decade ending in 2001; the number of small-game hunters fell by 29% …. The biggest decline in hunters is taking place among the working class — among the “Deer Hunter” crowd in the small towns of the north-east, the rednecks of the South, and the cowboys of the West.

Well, we all know what the cowboys of the West are up to nowadays, thanks to Brokeback Mountain and Willie Nelson. To judge from some recent public grumbling by Mike Helton, the president of NASCAR… well, let the man say it himself: “We believe strongly that the old Southeastern redneck heritage that we had is no longer in existence.” Northeastern deer hunters can still be found, but as The Economist’s numbers show, they are slowly fading away.

As an English small-town boy, I feel no surprise at hearing that hunting has a class aspect to it. I am old enough to recall seeing adult males from my street, railroad and brewery workers mostly, walking along in the direction of the local rookery with shotguns under their arms, with the intent to get some free game-pie fillings for their families. Meanwhile the local gentry would be gathering outside a nearby village pub, mounted and liveried, to enjoy a stirrup cup before setting out across the fields after some unlucky Reynard.

It all seems long ago and far away now. Those shotgun-bearing neighbors would not make it out of their front gates today before being clubbed to the ground by Tony Blair’s Compassion Police. The scarlet-clad upholders of England’s ancient fox-hunting tradition can similarly expect to be dragged from their mounts and kicked senseless by enforcers of Tony’s caring, classless society. (Supposing said enforcers can spare the time from more urgent crime-fighting tasks — handcuffing and booking perpetrators of anti-Muslim “hate speech,” for example.)

Here in the USA, the decline of hunting, or rather the transformation of hunting from a thing that working-class guys do in their spare time to one that fat old millionaires do to network and assert their status, has not been imposed from above by parliamentary virtuecrats, as in England, but has seeped up from beneath, driven by changes in habits, attitudes, and opinions about what constitutes a good life. It is in fact just one aspect of a much larger phenomenon, one that has yet to be properly documented: the decline of the American working class…

..I remember being a ten-year-old myself, spending hours watching my next-door neighbor, a butcher by trade but an amateur cabinet-maker by inclination, manipulating his saws, planes, chisels, and spokeshaves. My kids won’t even know what a spokeshave is, and won’t care. My neighbor was a keen gardener, too, and also a war veteran. There was nothing much unusual in 1955 about an ordinary working man of little education knowing the arts of soldiering, gardening, butchering, and cabinet-making. I suppose this man’s grandchildren occupy themselves with watching TV, day trading on their computers, and working out their income taxes. I suppose my kids will do likewise. Perhaps they will be happy, but it looks to me like lotus eating — a flight from humanity, from the basics of human existence.

An economist would of course pooh-pooh my doubts. Look (he would say), here’s how it goes. Once upon a time we were farmers. We ploughed fields, made wagons, shod horses, tended livestock, and had five or six kids per family. Then we were factory workers, putting things together, making and using machines, figuring out electrical circuits, having two or three kids. Now the world runs on information, so we’re all “symbol manipulators”, trading commodity futures, parsing laws, persuading each other to buy things made abroad, and having zero to one kids per family. That’s how it is. The world changes. Get over it.

Probably the economists have a point. Probably there are ineluctable forces at work here. Perhaps, as proponents of the “singularity” hypothesis, argue, human nature is about to be transformed by us human beings ourselves on a scale vastly greater than anything that stumbling, bumbling old Ma Nature has been able to accomplish this past 50,000 years, so that worries about us losing touch with our humanity will soon come to seem quaint, or perhaps just incomprehensible. Probably all that one can say about these developments is that one likes them, or not. All right. Put me down as a “not.”

Hat tip to Steve Bodio.

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