Virginia has lately been the brunt of some unkind jokes. The problem began when a resident of Williamsburg opened fire on a helicopter, which he assumed was being used to transport terrorists. The problem continued when a fellow from Nashville released a song that’s somewhat sympathetic to one of Virginia’s most highly prized jailbirds, John Walker, the former foot soldier in the Islamist Infantry.
We’re all about good humor down here, but a little perspective is in order.
First, the Williamsburg story. No one disputes that the helicopter pilot buzzed John Chwaszczewski’s garage in a provocative fashion. So provocative, in fact, that the pilot will be punished for his reckless behavior. The larger point is that anyone with the slightest generosity of spirit can sympathize with this construction worker’s reaction: He grabbed his AR-15 and cut loose.
While we realize there are people in some parts of this country who take aerial assault lying down, that’s not the prevailing attitude around here, especially in these perilous times. Like everyone else, we have heard the warnings about crop dusters and further airline hijackings. In addition, one of the doomed 9-11 jetliners hit a Virginia landmark — the Pentagon — and recently a pipe bomb was found in the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, not too far down the road from Williamsburg and close by the Norfolk Naval Base.
So, we’re on high alert. Besides that, a few of us wonder why firing a few shots at a menacing aircraft is considered a greater violation of civil order than what’s going on inside airports these days. Within the past few months my 79-year-old father, who served in the Naval air corps during World War Two, has been pulled from line and searched, a search that included forcing him to remove his shoes. A similar outrage was visited on my 73-year-old mother, who served the nation as a public school teacher.
In the light of such an officially-sanctioned hysteria, you can hardly condemn guys like Mr. Chwaszczewski for defending his airspace. “Maybe I overreacted,” he said, “but I did feel this was terrorism at its utmost.” He faces eight years in the jug and a $10,000 fine; if our governor is half the great guy he tells us he is, he will pardon Mr. Chwaszczewski — then perhaps direct his fire on Mr. Steve Earle, a Nashville singer-songwriter.
Mr. Earle is under scrutiny because of a new song entitled “Johnny Walker’s Blues.” It is not that we necessarily interpret the tune as being uncritically sympathetic to the American Taliban. Mr. Earle’s flacks argue that he was trying to represent the mindset of someone who would leave Marin County, California — a place of richly-documented shallowness — to find deeper meaning in the world. Unfortunately, Mr. Walker’s road to Damascus ended up dumping him in Afghanistan, where he took up arms with the Taliban faithful.
That’s not a bad subject for a song. We are, after all, up to our noses in popular songs — country and otherwise — with much less interesting story lines. What bothers us is that Mr. Earle’s apologists insist this song is yet another case of Mr. Earle taking up the plight of an underdog. We’re catching a strong whiff of BS.
Taking up the side of the underdog, to be sure, is a long and honored tradition in American music, as countless paeans to bank robbers, jilted lovers, ugly girls, lame racehorses and similar hard luck cases makes clear. And while Mr. Earle has written from the perspective of the underdog, as he sees it (in order, among other things, to promote his opposition to the death penalty), it is also true that he is also quick to side with the Overdog when it suits him.
Consider one Mr. Earle’s most stirring compositions, which is entitled “Dixieland.” This song is written from the perspective of a Civil War combatant. As is widely recognized, there was a dominant side in that war, and there were the underdogs. If Mr. Earle was truly on the side of the underdog, “Dixieland” would have been written from the perspective of Johnny Reb. Yet brother Earle’s protagonist is a yank who came to America from Ireland, then marched into Dixieland to slaughter the sons of the Confederacy. There is a triumphalist air about the song. It is not sung widely on Lee-Jackson Day.
There’s something else to consider. There should be limits to sympathy. The Taliban, after all, went so far as to outlaw music. Not even the Nazis did that. Quite the contrary. The goose-steppers made music central to their pageantry. The Taliban also banned the miniskirt, beer, cable television, and most other things Americans hold dear. Given the opportunity, they’d run all of us off a very high cliff.
So to hell with Johnny. It’s good he came marching home in handcuffs and if anything he’s getting off easy. If Mr. Earle wants to champion a true underdog, he should write an Ode to Chwaszczewski.