Well, Kentucky, this certainly is an ocean of shit you’ve decided to go snorkeling in. You went and elected a tea party governor, and to all the world, you look like someone who just broke into jail. Politically, not many people will confuse Kentucky and Sweden, but you had one of the country’s best implementations of Obamacare (excuse me, the best implementation of Kynect, which differs from Obamacare by having a slightly dumber name) and you threw it away to gamble on a sweaty, lying tax-cheat.
Governor Bevin contradicts himself so much, that he basically has two warring personas: “Asshole” and “Gaping Asshole.” Whatever the true nature of his hole, our healthcare system likely goes the way of the middle class. On top of that, the Kentucky GOP has long wanted to destroy the unions, restrict abortion access, and lower the minimum wage for state workers.
Matt Bevin is like your mother’s vibrator—you get that it exists, but you’d rather not think about it. I get that our beloved commonwealth has a plethora of people who think unions love to punish workers, who want the government to get their greedy paws of their Medicare, and who are convinced that Obama depleted the region’s coal reserves as part of his war on the Appalachian working poor. I just don’t want to think about it. Matt Bevin means that not only do we have to think about this dumbassery, but it also means that when every other state in the union thinks of Kentucky, they’ll say, “Aren’t they the dumbasses that elected that dumbass?”
I’m not sure why this election hurt more than others that didn’t go my way. I think it’s because Kentucky—red nationally but blue locally—found itself at a crossroads and took exactly the wrong turn. We are like the kid who can punch up his college application by volunteering for either Doctors Without Borders or God Hates Fags. It seems like an easy choice, but, inexplicably, he says, “Lots of people seem to like that Kim Davis. Let’s see what she thinks.”
But I don’t want to talk about Matt Bevin. I want to talk about my mother’s vibrator. Now that I’ve done that, I want to talk about the state of liberalism in Kentucky. If the left is going to spend some time in the political wilderness, then so be it. But if we don’t get real honest with ourselves real quick, then we will never break out of this pattern. Sure, we may sneak out way back to Frankfort in a decade or so, but for what? If we’re going to suffer and lose and be humiliated, then fine—but I want to suffer for a damn sight more than Jack Conway and the flavorless buffet of cauliflower, Nilla Wafers, and cottage cheese that the KDP is serving us now.
WHAT WE’RE DOING NOW IS NOT WORKING
Let’s start with the most obvious point that somehow isn’t obvious at all. What we’re doing now is not working.
I voted for Jack Conway and very much wanted him to win. Six years ago, I voted for him against Rand Paul even after he ran an ad accusing Paul of not being Christian enough (Conway definitely did not carry the Aqua Buddhist vote this time around, and it may have cost him). My wife, a lawyer, has seen him work up close, and says he is talented and exceedingly competent. Great. I love talented competence—it makes for a great lawyer. In fact, I’d consider hiring Jack Conway to defend me against the defamation suit he will inevitably file against me if he reads this article. But the impression I got from his campaign was neither talent nor competence. It was the world’s least imaginative casting director hiring an extra to play “Governor.” He looks like a governor, and there’s nothing wrong with looking like a governor, but when that becomes your chief asset, then you’re not a governor—you’re a Ken Doll. Jack Conway is a Ken Doll, from his handsome-without-being-attractive face, to his blank, joyless smile, to the flat piece of plastic where his genitals should be. Right now, this seems to be the standard for the Kentucky Democratic Party: look nice and don’t offend anyone.
It’s worth noting that the Kentucky GOP does the same thing. But Republicans—who have learned from their time in exile and who are perhaps a little more panicked with how the country is trending—went over the party heads and got someone from closer to their ideological home. Good for them. Sure, Matt Bevin scares me, but hey, if you live in a cave, then you don’t mind the smell of batshit. Make no mistake: the Democrats allowed them to nominate the radical Republican, because we nominated the moderate Republican.
It’s almost too sad to be hilarious how establishment Democrats are acting exactly like their beloved Friends of Coal. That is, they’re acting like addicts. They keep doing the same thing, refusing to admit the diminishing returns. Run a smiley, apologetic-for-being-a-Democrat Democrat who makes fun of liberals and the EPA. It worked in the 90’s. Yeah, there was coal in the ground in the 90’s too. Things change.
Look, I’m the sort of proud-Kentucky proud-liberal motherfucker that neither Kentuckians nor liberals are eager to claim. But I pulled the lever for Conway. I hate the KDP strategy of attracting conservative moderates and telling liberals “Your Choice: Someone You Dislike or Someone You Hate,” but it worked on me. I care enough about politics to vote the straight D ticket even for someone I don’t like. But people like me are a finite resource, and apparently there aren’t enough of us left to win an election.
Any honest discussion of our current political situation has to start here—what we’re doing now isn’t working. This is exactly what I say to my friends and family who disagree with me about coal. If the best industry for our future has left us the least healthy, most depressed, and the poorest region of the country, then what good is the industry? Similarly, if we trust the KDP, and make compromise after compromise to win and election, and we get our ass kicked by a candidate the GOP is lukewarm about, then what good is the Kentucky Democratic Party?
What we’re doing now is not working.
This election surely has to represent the end of the KDP strategy. Our blandly attractive Democratic politicians have distanced themselves so far from the national party that there is nowhere else to go. Are they going to sue Santa Claus for promoting the war on coal by giving it only to bad children? Alison Lundergan Grimes famously refused to admit that she voted for President Obama. What is less well reported is that President Obama did better than she did. So following her logic, if she takes another stab at the Senate, she will refuse to admit she voted for herself.
These people are a useless embarrassment. They’ve become addicted to winning and they don’t even know how to win. Just like a drunk thinks “I may have lost my job and my family, but at least I have this drink”, the KDP says, “We may have sold out all our principles, and there’s no denying we’re slimy opportunists, but at least we win.” Except we’re not winning. So we’re being assholes and cowards for what?
I jokingly called Jack Conway a Ken Doll, but of course, he’s not. He’s much, much worse. A Ken Doll has no opinions, no personality, just a vapid smile. Jack Conway sued the EPA and threatened to drug-test people on welfare. These aren’t betrayals of liberal principles as much as they are betrayals of human decency. If Matt Bevin is your mother’s vibrator, then Jack Conway is your grandfather’s homophobia. It’s the poisonous element you put with because you like the overall package. (Conway can also be your grandfather’s vibrator. I don’t like thinking of him either. It’s possible I might have lost the reins on this metaphor).
I voted for this sack of shit, but my sincere hope is that five years from now, in a saner, smarter Kentucky, I will be as ashamed of my vote as Alison Lundergan Grimes is of her vote for Obama.
First, we must admit we have a problem. We are powerless over the fleeting effects of winning to where we have made such a victory meaningless and unobtainable. Jack Conway is unworthy of Kentucky. We know this because he can’t keep us from Matt Bevin, who is worse. So we admit we must change strategy, but what do we do?
VALUES IS THE NEW “I’M NOT SAYING, I’M JUST SAYING”
Quick: What are the five most important Kentucky values?
I don’t know, but I do know that the most obnoxious phrase in the English language is “I’m just saying.” Some people say amend that to “I’m not saying, I’m just saying,” so they can let the world know that they are being a dildo intentionally. I also know that this is somewhat relevant to the question about what are “Kentucky Values.”
When we say “I’m just saying”, we’re committing the rare “double asshole” move to perfection. We are saying something we know would cause offense but we’re acting like it doesn’t matter. “I’m just saying” means “I just told you the truth about how I feel, and I’m now asking you to disregard that, and I don’t want to be held accountable if you don’t like my previous statement.” The phrase “No offense” at least knows it’s an asshole (“No offense, but if you don’t lose weight and start using a better deodorant then you’re going to die alone, and that jacket makes it you look like you rape children. No offense to you”). The phrase “I’m just saying” pretends to be nice. “These are just my thoughts, so don’t take it too seriously, because I’m just saying.” In reality, it’s a pernicious and cowardly way of saying nothing.
What does this have to do with Kentucky values?
It depends. What did you list as your five Kentucky values? Maybe you mentioned the physical things Kentuckians value: Bourbon, Basketball, Arrogant T-Shirts With The State Outline On It, Telling Indianans to Blow Us. The Kentucky mountains were founded by people who were kicked out of other more habitable regions in Scotland, Ireland, Virginia, and North Carolina, so a distrust of government and a desire for self-sufficiency still run thick in our blood. That could definitely be a Kentucky value.
Both answers are fine, but they aren’t what I’d go with. My answer is “That is an amazingly stupid question. The state has millions of people in it, and the word ‘Values’ is so amorphous and personal that it would be odd if ten people shared a set of values, much less an entire state.”
I can guarantee you what The Kentucky Democratic Party’s list of Kentucky values would be: Family, Ingenuity, Faith, Hard Work, Independence, Pride In I’m boring myself to fucking tears even writing this.
They want to take the blandest terms that could equally apply to Kentucky Republicans (or Oklahoma Greens or New Mexico Independents for that matter) and present it as though these are our core reasons for being. Voters want to know who they are voting for. Kentuckians asked the politicians to identify themselves, and the Democrats offered a resounding “I’m just saying”.
Politicians pass hot air as virtue all the time, so what does it matter? Well, it matters when the leaders try to pass off this six year-old’s list of virtues as actual policy. Shortly after the election returns, I opened a beer and turned on KET to see if they’d pulled any more bodies out of the wreckage. (A fun Tuesday of public television, hoppy beer, and endless masochism? Sorry ladies, I’m taken).
Up pops Ray Jones, the Democratic State Senator from Pikeville, who threw his hands up and moaned that there’s nothing we can do in this current climate. How are Kentuckians supposed to vote when the national party is represented Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi and people who don’t “share Kentucky values”? When pressed on what he meant by it, he sputtered and stammered like he was a twelve-year-old boy, caught with a Sears catalogue in one hand in his penis in the other, trying to find a plausible explanation. Because, of course, he doesn’t know what “Kentucky Values” means either.
Yes, he’s based his political life around it, but that just shows the shallowness of his philosophy and the uselessness of his language. Let’s take a spin on the KDP logic wheel, shall we? “You’ll never get elected in Kentucky if you align yourself with Obama and Pelosi.” “Why not?” “Because they don’t share our Kentucky values.” “Why do you think they don’t share Kentucky values?” “Because you’ll never get elected in Kentucky if you align yourself with Obama and Pelosi.” Thus completes the perfect circle of bullshit.
Sure, you can write this off as a rhetorical annoyance, but it matters. Because now even casual Democrats try to separate themselves from ”hippies” who want to attack coal because “it’s our way of life.” Step back from that logic and try to unpack it for a second. From their love of banjos and drugs to their distrust of police, hillbillies are hippies with better razors. Yet, we’re asked to believe one side of this fictitious divide resents the other so much that they declare war on them simply to disrupt their otherwise flourishing way of life.
It hardly bears mentioning that these claims are bullshit. There hasn’t been a real coal economy in East Kentucky in decades. There are more than five times as many health care workers than coal workers in coal producing counties. Also, obviously, (obviously)—obviously—you can oppose unregulated coal companies writing their own environmental and economic laws and not be a hippie or anti-coal or anything else. But the facts don’t matter once we accept the labels. The Democrats have not only accepted these labels, but they’ve let them replace any coherent policy.
When I first saw Senator Jones go into his Kentucky values spiel, it depressed me almost as much as the results itself. It meant the Democratic Party had really crawled up its own ass and now believed its own soft thinking. Over the past week though, it’s actually cheered me up. Jones says, “There’s nothing we can do with Democrats like Obama and Pelosi representing us” thinking it’s going to be our motto. Instead, let it be the epitaph for him and the entire Washington Generals starting lineup of Democratic politicians we have now. “There’s nothing we can do” is a pretty perfect summation of these Kentucky Democrats, and it’s exactly why we need to demand newer, stronger ones.
It’s worth noting that we liberals made the same “Kentucky values” mistake. When the election didn’t go our way, a lot of my liberal friends said Kentucky valued racism, ignorance, and voting against their own interests. They said they were going to leave the state. “Racism” seems like an odd charge. Obviously, race is complicated, and I suspect some of Obama’s role of Bogeyman in East Kentucky is racially motivated. Still, it’s hard to reasonably make a case that conservatives showed their racism by electing a black woman to the Lieutenant Governor. It doesn’t mean she’s going to be good at her job, but it does mean any racist who voted her into office is pretty lousy at being a racist.
I don’t understand why we look down on people “voting against their own interests.” For one, it’s remarkably condescending. Why do you assume you know their interests? If you honestly believe that every abortion is the systemic murder of a child by the state, then maybe whether or not you get an Earned Income Credit on your taxes seems less important. Secondly, voting against your own interests is incredibly noble. Putting the good of the country ahead of your own pocketbook? I salute you, my friend, and wish you had a less moronic idea of what’s good for the country.
And to those people threatening to leave the state? It’s been a week, and I imagine most of them have calmed down by now. I made a similar pronouncement in 2004, saying I’d leave America, and then briefly tried to convince my co-workers in Washington DC that I was commuting from Guadalajara.
Certainly, you should live where you love, and if you can’t stand the fact that your neighbors vote differently than you do (that they dislike Jack Conway slightly more than you dislike Jack Conway) then you won’t love it here. In fact, you won’t love it most places. I’ll be sad to see you go both because Kentucky needs liberals and because if we live only in ideologically pure neighborhoods, cities, and states, then we’re going to make it a lot easier for charlatans to sell us the bullshit of “Kentucky Values” (or “San Francisco Values” or “Portland Values” or “Texas Values”).
Besides, if the only thing that was keeping you here in the first place was the brilliant, charismatic governorship of Steve Beshear, then we are very different people.
RECOGNIZING FAILURE MEANS RECLAIMING OUR LANGUAGE
Does any of this matter? Of course, political parties let you down. Your representatives are also representing millions of other people who feel slightly different, who have their own Kentucky Values, and who have their own complaints about the party. They retool every two years, and come back with a whole new way to disappoint you, so does any of this matter?
Yes, obviously. Because Matt Bevin is our governor, a lot of poor people are going to get poorer, a lot of sick people are going to lose their healthcare, and some people are going to die. Kentucky is going to be a tangibly worse place to live and some people will die prematurely because Jack Conway and the KDP are afraid to take any position that isn’t “I’m in favor of being mildly handsome.”
So what now? Should the Kentucky Democrats take a hard left, reclaim our souls, and offer liberal, populist alternatives to this horrorshow on the right? Sure, I’d love that. I think that’d be swell. It would also be a confusingly sensible reaction to every one of your positions being unpopular with voters. But that’s not primarily what I’m talking about. This is ultimately an article about language, about why it matters and why changing it may be the most important issue facing the Democrats going forward.
The more we value the words we use, the more we value the content our words are describing. The more precise we are with our language, the better we can see what we are talking about. It’s long been said that the Eskimos have over 300 words for snow. That means that they can see snow in 300 times the detail as native English speakers, and probably care about 300 times as much. In some languages, there is no separate word for blue and green, and no separate word for red, orange, or pink. As a result, the speakers don’t see the difference between those colors. There’s nothing wrong with their eyes. If someone points out the difference, they can see it. But because they don’t have the language to distinguish the difference, they don’t see the difference.
In Kentucky, we don’t have the language to distinguish between the person who cares about the environment and a “hippie who doesn’t care about our jobs.” We don’t have the language to distinguish between someone who points out our current reliance on coal isn’t working and someone who doesn’t share “Kentucky Values.” Even if you support mining for more coal, even if you support mountaintop removal, but you also support developing solar energy alongside of it, you will be labeled “anti-coal” because that’s the only language we have to describe it. You support the coal companies unconditionally or you don’t have Kentucky Values. We don’t have the language for nuance.
The Kentucky Democratic Party accepts this language to its own detriment. The damage it does isn’t just in the terrible policy. It hurts our mind. I would be a lot happier to support a conservative Democrat who offers a reasonable, adult defense of unregulated coal. Even if I don’t agree with it, I want to hear it because right now I don’t believe it exists. Because we don’t have that, we have this infant labeling: are you “pro-coal” or “anti-coal”? These words mean nothing, and it not only devalues the debate we’re having, it devalues the region we are talking about.
There’s not an elected official in Kentucky—Republican or Democrat—that actually believes that coal mining is our future. Democrats say it because they feel like they have to say it. Republicans say it because they can’t believe they’ve been blessed with such stupid enemies.
This isn’t just about coal and it isn’t even just about issues where Democrats are wrong. Consider Kim Davis, currently our lowest ranking elected national laughing stock. She compared herself to Martin Luther King, despite the fact that they disagree about bigotry. Republicans loved Kim Davis more than Kim Davis loves traditional marriage and adultery.
Let’s break this down: Is Kim Davis correct in comparing herself to Martin Luther King? Of course she is. Kim Davis defied a federal law that she found prejudiced, did so openly, withstood extreme pressure, went to jail for her beliefs, and came back unchanged in her convictions. That is exactly what Martin Luther King did. The only difference is that Kim Davis’s principles suck dicks. In this particular case, she was wrong in defying this particular law.
What did the Kentucky Democrats say? “Well, you have to obey the law. No matter what you think, it’s the law of the land, so you have to suck it up and change with the time.“ By that logic, Martin Luther King was wrong as well. By that logic, a principled county clerk issuing marriage licenses for gay couples last year would be wrong. Someone issuing marriage licenses for interracial couples in 1950 Mississippi would be wrong. Do we believe that? My problem with Kim Davis isn’t that she broke the law. My problem is that she’s a horrible bigot.
Bumper Sticker slogans are fine for Bumper Stickers. You have eight inches to get your argument across. Twitter slogans are fine for Twitter. You have 140 characters to make your point. But actual policy requires an actual language that gets into the dark crevices of dark argument. We have to talk to each other like adults or else we’ll only think like bumper stickers or Twitter Handles. Am I “Friend of Coal” or am I a “Friend of Mountains” (clearly a false choice—talk about it.). Do I think #blacklivesmatter or #alllivesmatter (it’s the same thing—talk about it).
So that’s my moral. Talk about it. Whenever you hear someone say he wants to support your shared values, you need to ask what he means by that. Your values are your own, and when someone assumes yours are theirs make them explain why. You explain why as well. Language can only add value. More importantly, people who go back to catchphrases and reflexive speech, can only diminish the value of our actual thoughts.
My moral beyond the moral is don’t despair. Life is too valuable to let the world grind you down. We are, for what it’s worth, still Kentucky. We are a good land and a good, diverse group of people, a plurality of whom vote like assholes. Our politicians are about the only Kentuckians who don’t have a clue how to use language. Anyway, we have a beautiful Autumn, and basketball season is almost here. Our life is still pretty great.
If someone makes fun of you, saying that Kentucky has elected the dumbest person from the state to be its Governor, we can laugh and say, “Joke’s on you, motherfucker. He’s from Connecticut.”