Sharpening the Contrasts: From Greece to NOV

“NOVA” is the acronym for Northern Virginia.  Since I do my best to avoid the small regional airport in Virginia nearest to where I live (the main airline serving it is my nemesis United– “Come fly the friendly skies” is its somewhat inapt motto), I usually fly from the Washington Dulles airport on my trips.

Doing this involves driving into Washington DC and its exurbs, which necessitates dealing with its drivers, who feature regularly in any number of lists– most use as their yardstick the number of crashes per miles travelled– of the top 5 US cities with the worst drivers.   And you can see why, since an awful lot of the drivers one encounters on NOVA’s roads would have made ideal kamikaze pilots had they been Japanese and old enough during World War II.

But the most striking feature of making the drive from rural southwest Virginia (SWVA) to NOVA are the obvious disparities in prosperity. The NOVA economy is driven not only by federal-government jobs, but also by a range of high-skill and high-wage sectors including information and especially professional, scientific and technical services (see Chart 1 below).

As of November this year, 3 NOVA counties — Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington — have added more than 70,000 jobs since 2007, constituting 60% of all the new jobs in Virginia.  By contrast SWVA– heavily reliant on farming, coal, and furniture-making (the latter two declining industries)—  continues to lose jobs at a significant rate.

The contrasting employment situations between NOVA and SWVA is paralleled by disparities in income levels.  NOVA’s 2014 median income was $102,499, SWVA’s $37,663.  One indicator of this gap is provided by the Washington DC exurb of Bethesda in Maryland.  A family member who lives there says the nearest Wal-Mart is 50 miles away.  Wal-Mart’s strategy is of course to concentrate on poorer areas, where labour is cheap and the low-income customer base much bigger.

The Orange Swindler lost Virginia overall, but won SWVA by 291,000 votes, almost 96,000 more than Mitt Romney in 2012.  The Democrats have given up on rural America, and the Republicans likewise espouse economic policies which screw people who aren’t well off.  For decades, SWVA has seen growing numbers of “let behinds”.  However, the Republicans also provide the soothing balm of a 4 G’s “values” agenda– God and guns (both good), gays and gummint (both bad) — which induces many people thus solaced to vote against their own interests.

And yet, and yet.  Returning from Greece, one of the poorest EU countries, I was struck by the fact that I hardly saw any beggars on the streets in Greece, whereas at nearly every traffic light on a main road in NOVA bedraggled supplicants carrying signs which read “Homeless, please help” or “Will work for food” waited for drivers to give them something.

The richest country in the world has one-third of its children living in poverty.  Cuba, despite being crippled economically by the cruel US blockade, would be deeply ashamed if a mere fraction of its children were in this situation, but here in the US very few seem to care.

As I remarked in my CounterPunch piece last week, a striking feature of Greek life, in the midst of all the adversity Greeks have faced since 2007, is the strength and durability of its solidaristic networks.

In the US, one does not need to read Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, with its reliance on the highly problematic notion of “social capital”, to see that such networks have been undermined, severely, in many parts of the country.  It is little wonder that Americans are so reliant on churches and other religious organizations for sources of social support– without these they would have little to counter the devastating effects of American hyper-individualism.

On a lighter note, nowhere in Greece did I see any trace of Halloween, a quintessentially deracinated “festival” deprived of all its cultural anchorages when celebrated in the US.  For me this was a relief.

On the other hand, walking around Corinth on Saturday 28th October, I encountered a parade with a large crowd waving Greek flags.  I was informed that this was Oxi Day, marking Greece’s entry into World War II when it rejected Mussolini’s ultimatum to allow his troops into Greece “for strategic purposes” or else face an invasion.  Inclined at first to think it strange to celebrate entering a war, I soon concluded that Greece was giving Mussolini the middle finger at that time, and this was worth celebrating, despite all the ensuing suffering caused by the war.

On 5th November I leave for the UK, this being the day when Brits celebrate Guy Fawkes Night with fireworks and bonfires.  Fawkes was involved in a plot to blow up the House of Lords in 1605.  The celebration was intended as a day of thanksgiving for the plot’s failure, though I suspect a bit more vim might enter the celebration, at any rate for those who view the Lords as a dreadful and useless anachronism, if it was celebrated as a harbinger of attempts that may come in future.

A final point of contrast between Greece and the US– the latter’s inhabitants shoot each other with an orgiastic abandon certainly not seen in the former.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.