BOOKS & THE CULTURE America Go Home BY CARRIE FOUNTAIN Homeland By Dale Maharidge; Photographs by Michael Williamson Seven Stories Press 243 pages, $24.95 Afew months after 9/11, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dale Maharidge headed west from his home in New York City and wound his way through America’s heartland, conducting hundreds of interviews with folks from everywhere along the political spectrum, covering thousands of miles, and documenting what he saw as a forming swell of discontent: fear, racial hatred, economic desperation, violence both implied and actual. It was a great and complicated divide he sought to investigate as he entered the heart of the country while it reeled from terror attacks, plastered itself with the flag, and hunkered down in preparation for war. Homeland, his most recent book with photos by Michael Williamson, is the product of this investigation. Here, from inside a precarious moment of American history, comes a voice devoted to the art and craft of both investigative journalism and compelling narrative. Maharidge tells stories that were all but forgotten by the mainstream media after 9/11stories of mosques stormed, lives threatened, livelihoods devastated, civil liberties thwartedthe very stories that tell us what we most need to know about ourselves right now. Maharidge is nothing if not complete in his analysis of the great American chasm as he moves from anecdote to story to news item. Only after building a foundational argument strong enough for the metaphor does he enter into an eerie-to-terrifying comparison of present-day America and pre-WWII Weimar Germany. Don’t worry: He steers way clear of tired, erroneous comparisons to Hitler. Instead he focuses on the path that led Germany to such dangerous nationalism: the economic rift the country faced after WWI, with a government playing up to the rich while poverty became widespread and a fearful public was further tangled in the safety net of its own patriotism, stoked by voices at the extreme. Here he explains by comparison the great and dangerous paradox of our current America: that those among us made most vulnerable by their government’s policies \(think often those who, in perceiving their own powerlessness, most enthusiastically endorse the power, reckless or not, such a government can wield. “The word homeland?’ Maharidge writes, “rapidly became a commonly used synonym for the United States among the Bush set.” It was a word, he writes, “so redolent of the German leimat? as noted by the writer and editor Ton Engelhardt, a reference that was probably lost entirely on the people who coined the Department of Homeland Security and the Homeland Security Act.” He develops a strong argument for what he considers to be a misunderstanding about our current, polarized America. As he says in the book’s prelude: What happened on 9/11 was not a genesis, but an amplifier of unease that had long been building. Before that day we were already a nation in which executives burned shareholders’ money on $2 million toga birthday parties, while men and women who worked Wal-Mart jobs pinched pennies and still ended up begging for charity food for their children at month’s end. Homeland is arranged in a way that makes use of its meta-narratives, the people and places to which Maharidge returns throughout the book. He focuses on civil liberty issues through the story of Katie Sierra, a student first intent on forming an anarchy group at her West Virginia high school, then cast out, threatened, and consequently made both famous and disliked throughout the state. Her most heinous crime: wearing a t-shirt to school on which she’d written, “When I saw the dead and dying Afghani children on TV, I felt a newly recovered sense of national security?’ Within this, the most powerfully told of all the stories in the book, lies an eye-opening investigation into the economically depressed, insulated, rebel flag-waving culture that Sierra rubs the wrong way, those proud and paradoxical folks whose hearts and mindsand truck windowsHoward Dean thought he’d win over last fall. Maharidge himself wants, as earnestly as possible, to understand the community’s reaction to Sierra, and uses the response his own presence seems to illicit in town as a point of entry into his analysis: “…in Sissonville…anytime I walked into a store or restaurant, the place stopped forks midair, coffee pouring haltedall eyes icily on me….” He goes on to break down the region’s economic-social-psychological history, beginning with an analysis of the area’s dwindling manufacturing economy, and concluding with a kind of emotional summary from a man whose town is now plagued by floods caused by increased runoff from the mining practice of mountaintop removal: “‘We always get flicked.”‘ Maharidge concludes: In Sissonville that attitude finds its expression in the Confederate flag, which has morphed into a talismanic 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9/10/04
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