The Unity Feared By The Rich Men North Of Richmond

Oliver Anthony

Those who read my posts here on a regular basis know that I grew up in a lower- to working-class, racially diverse neighborhood in a small Pennsylvania city and currently live in a lower- to working-class small Pennsylvania town.

This has helped to shape my perspective on certain issues in our nation. What also shaped my perspective was growing up in a FDR/JFK/MLK house in my childhood neighborhood. So, on this Labor Day, I want to talk about the so-called blue-collar anthem “Rich Men North of Richmond.”

This song has become a viral hit by a guy named Oliver Anthony, who dabbles in songwriting. Mr. Anthony claims to live “off the grid” and yet has a TikTok account for his songs and that has me trying to figure out what “off the grid” means these days. Up is down, down is up, and I am off the grid like some Amish person, I keep telling you that on my TikTok videos.

This is a very weird time to be alive.

Anyway, Anthony’s lil’ ditty starts out solid, could be a John Prine or Bruce Springsteen song, singing about struggling to make ends meet but after the first verse it begins to traffic in some pretty unsavory stuff. He sings about right-wing conspiracy theories about Jeffrey Epstein, and some quite classic putdowns of people on welfare that have reared their ugly head for decades (imagery of obese welfare recipients eating expensive snacks). This definitely is the opposite of a Prine or Bruce song, because neither of those guys punched down. It is also imagery that for a very long time was coded as “lazy fat Black people” by racists.

Then the chorus, which as this Jewish writer points out is full of tropes that are anti-semitic or at least can be used that way in today’s world.

So there was a mixed response to the song. The right loved it from the beginning, and the left criticized it for the reasons I outlined. Predictably, the Very Reasoned Minds of the Discourse focused on criticizing the left for questioning the song’s imagery.

Lots of demands for understanding for people like Anthony, and crying out for unity. But as always, these demands are always curiously aimed at the left. This is not to say Democrats are perfect on working-class economic issues, but they certainly are more empathetic at the level that actually means something, policy, than the Republicans. Biden has managed to push through some pro-worker legislation (Inflation Reduction Act, CHIPS and Science Act) while being openly pro-union. Republicans in response offer mean-spirited and often bizarre culture war battles that in the long run do not matter, and are in fact much more divisive.

Also, unity is never a true, significant unity when one side is targeting a specific group. A kind of unity that throws a specific group (such as trans people) under the bus is not really unity. Too many Americans define the absence of tension as unity, which is tragically wrong if you are the group being told to shut up or worse. History shows us that so-called compromise is often built on the backs of Black Americans, which is hardly what anyone can honestly refer to as unity (for example, the Missouri Compromise).

To his credit, Anthony seems bewildered by all the attention. He made a point of telling Republican politicians that he meant them, too, when he sings about the rich men north of Richmond. He also seemed a little put out that what he was singing was racist, using examples of his other songs that he states demonstrate empathy for all.

But why sing those lines about overweight welfare recipients at all, using coded language that racists have used for years? There really are people of color who are not on welfare and are working-class, despite what some may want to believe. There really are overweight people on public assistance in rural areas, often due to the fact that healthy food is expensive and many people in cities and in rural areas live in food deserts. Perhaps Anthony wrote this song because he is immersed in the kind of propaganda peddled for a very long time by Republicans, racist and cruel views about low-income people that were popularized during the Reagan era. Anthony includes the usual complaints about taxes as well, and the wealthy definitely need to pay more. But taxes also provide the fuel for our society, from parks to roads to assistance for someone like Oliver Anthony when he needs it. That’s truly a form of social unity when executed properly. It means that all of us are actually “taking care of our own” to coin a phrase from country music that too often is solely for a specific type of human being and not all of us.

I have no idea whether Anthony thinks twice about what he is singing in that song, as sometimes it seems like such thoughts are second nature for white rural Republicans (and even some non-rural independents). This is probably one of the biggest achievements of the Reagan Revolution, that such anti-tax, anti-society, and anti-minority sentiment is so embedded in our society.

Perhaps Anthony’s seemingly sincere dismay at how his song is being used can be a real teaching moment. That the Oliver Anthonys of the world have much more in common with the Black plumber in inner-city Philadelphia or the Hispanic handyman in Chicago than they do with someone like Real Estate Grifter Donald Trump. That perhaps if they joined forces politically they could make a lot of noise and drive some very positive changes.

This would be a remarkable statement of unity, something that Martin Luther King was attempting with the Poor People’s Campaign right before his murder. This was about justice not just for impoverished Black people, but low-income white Americans as well.

“In the treatment of poverty nationally,” King wrote, “One fact stands out: There are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore, I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.”

This sounds to me like real unity. And the kind of unity that would terrify many of the wealthy in this nation, the ones who hold much, much more power than any welfare recipient. On this Labor Day, here’s to that kind of united nation.

The last word goes to the Good Times theme song which is strangely enough a pretty powerful look at the struggles of the working class in the 1970s.

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