by James A. Bacon
Ben Jones, the former actor and Georgia congressman, has built a small retail empire around the character Cooter he played in the “Dukes of Hazzard” television series. In addition to his Cooter’s store in Rappahannock County, Va., he has opened stores in Nashville and Gatlinburg, Tenn. But Jones has to contend with a force more formidable and arbitrary than old Boss Hogg in his home town of Sperryville: zoning laws.
Jones has announced that the Cooter’s store in Sperryville will close because, according to a Wall Street Journal account, Rappahannock County “snobs,” many of whom are refugees from the Washington metropolitan area, won’t let his customers park behind the store, an area zoned agricultural.
“It has become a cause celebre for people who don’t like us,” Jones told the Journal. “They don’t like our store. They don’t like our people. They don’t like our flags. They don’t like our culture.”
Jones, whose politics can best be described as Southern blue dog Democrat, was born poor in Portsmouth, Va. He got his big break playing Cooter, a mechanic who helped the Duke boys and cousin Daisy outwit Hazzard County’s Boss Hogg. He parlayed his celebrity into two terms in Congress in Georgia, then, after losing to Newt Gingrich, he moved to Virginia and built a business on “Dukes of Hazzard” nostalgia. He dabbled in politics here, too, running unsuccessfully against former Congressman Eric Cantor. Tens of thousands of fans attend his show reunions every year.
The owner of the Sperryville land that Jones leases asked the planning commission to recommend rezoning the fields behind the store to allow parking and an eating area, according to the Journal’s account. A few neighbors objected, wondering what might come next. In July the commission urged the county to order Cooter’s to stop using the lot on the grounds that it was an unpermitted extension of a commercial use.
Jones frames the issue as a culture clash between local elites who “stare down their noses” at other rednecks like him, and as an example of unresponsive and arrogant government.
Bacon’s bottom line: I find Jones’ argument highly plausible. Educated elites in this country do look down upon white, working class culture — especially that of Southern whites, who are widely considered to be Bible thumpers, gunhuggers and closet Klansmen. Just watch any edition of the Bill Maher show, and you’ll get the idea. Overlay upon that prejudice the Rappahannock zoning controversy in which the right of affluent landowners to live in an unspoiled environment trumps the right of Jones to grow a business and provide employment opportunities for locals. Cultural/economic elites protect their property values at the expense of income opportunities for the working class. (Don’t even get me started on the class implications of conservation easements in which big landowners unload their property tax liabilities while small landowners continue to pay the standard rate.)
I might not have paid this controversy any mind had I not had the strange experience of being solicited twice this summer, a month apart, by different crews of tree cutters claiming to live in Rappahannock County. Both truckloads of mostly white, working class men (one individual was a woman) had traveled three hours to suburban Richmond to cruise neighborhoods and look for gigs. While the Rappahannock County unemployment rate is supposedly around 4%, I’m willing to bet from my singular anecdotal experiences that the rate of under-employment is much higher. I’m also willing to bet that a lot of working poor would jump at the chance to earn a few extra bucks helping Jones run his Dukes of Hazzard extravaganzas.
While it is unlikely that the economic fortunes of working-class Rappahannock residents will rise or fall upon Jones’s ability to expand his Sperryville activities, the symbolic value of the controversy is momentous. The white, rural working class is the bedrock of Donald Trump’s electoral support. Is there any doubt why they feel like the system is stacked against them? Whether their highly flawed candidate wins or loses the 2016 presidential election, is there any doubt that cultural snobbery and class conflict will persist?