Toby Keith is weird. My first exposure to his music was as a teenager listening to country on the radio, specifically this song:
Even though I found the song amusing then, and still do, in a way, for the most part I think it’s creepily jingoistic and in incredibly poor taste. Because of this song and others (“American Soldier”, “Made in America”) I long assumed that Toby was about as far Right politically as you can get. Immediately after “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” came out, in fact, he publicly feuded with Natalie Mains of the Dixie Chicks (who were vocal G.W. Bush critics)over the song’s message and content.
However, despite the fact that he supported the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004, Toby Keith used to be a Democrat, albeit a “conservative” one (in 2008, he re-registered as an independent). He publicly stated his belief that Obama would likely make a “great leader”, and was “the best Democratic candidate we’ve had since Bill Clinton”, even though he said he’d probably vote for McCain because of his respect for Sarah Palin. He’s a vocal patriot and supporter of our enlisted men and women, although he opposed the Iraq war from the start. The seeming incongruity of these viewpoints is not as strange as it might at first seem, however. Take “Made in America”:
A straightforward, patriotic anthem appealing to conservative sentiments, right? In one sense, yes. However, on closer inspection, it’s not that simple.
My old man’s that old man
Spent his life livin’ off the land
Dirty hands and a clean soul
Yep, he’s a farmer, living off the land, an honest, hardworking soul. But given the images in the music video and the references to the “heartland”, this old man isn’t practicing small-scale, off-the-grid agriculture a la Joel Salatin and his libertarian ilk. Nope, this farmer’s running a multi-thousand acre mono-crop operation and receiving federal farm subsidies to do so. The opposition on the Right to government meddling and the welfare state has rarely applied to farmers. The weakening of trade barriers and the relaxation of tariffs , favored by many conservatives and championed by Neoliberal economists, is the very force that made these government subsidies necessary in the first place. That, and the extreme government meddling represented by the Green Revolution, which transformed small family farms into the massive fields of chemically fertilized corn, wheat and soybeans that dwindling numbers of God-fearing middle-Americans tend today.
It breaks his heart seeing foreign cars
Filled with fuel that isn’t ours
And wearing cotton we didn’t grow
Similar forces are behind the ascendency of “foreign cars”. Why did America’s auto industry collapse? In a free market, cheaper, better products are supposed to rise to the top. According to this logic, foreign cars have begun to dominate because they offer better performance at a lower cost (which is often true). Instead of investing in American manufacturing and infrastructure, proponents of the mighty free market would outsource jobs and manufacturing to where it’s cheaper. And the “fuel that isn’t ours” has, in large measure, been won by the blood of the brave and dutiful men and women who serve their country in the armed forces. How elegantly perverse!
He’s got the red, white and blue flyin’ high on the farm
Semper Fi tattooed on his left arm
Spent a little more in the store for a tag in the back that says “USA”
Here’s the clincher, and the line that led me to contemplate all of this in the first place. The “old man” of Toby Keith’s song goes out of his way to buy American products. Which means he almost certainly doesn’t shop at Wallmart. So he has a significant commonality with all of those single-origin coffee-sipping urban Lefties: he believes that it’s worthwhile to invest in his community by buying local (although America is a vast country, for the purposes of this discussion I’m considering anything made in the USA local). While conservative politicians and pundits are busy decrying anyone who doesn’t shop at Wallmart as an elitist Commie, pushing trade agreements that flood our country with ever more cheap, foreign-made goods, and rolling back consumer protections that reduce the likelihood of our children being poisoned by toxic Chinese toys, Toby Keith would have us believe that patriots in the heartland are willing to spend more of their hard-earned dollars to support American manufacturing. The hard work and sacrifice of Americans represented by the flag and the Marine Corps tattoo, and thus American greatness itself, is integrally tied to American economic independence. For after all, where is the staying-power of our tradition and heritage, and where is our military might, if we are crippled by foreign debt and unable to provide jobs for American workers?