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Eye of the storm / August 14, 2019
As ill winds blow in seemingly every direction — mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, political upheavals here at home and around the globe, a world that seems to get meaner and more intolerant by the day — here in our corner of Southside Virginia it’s tempting to want to sit tight and ride out the storm. None of this, however, makes us passive actors in a story of someone else’s choosing. We all play a role in influencing the course of events, with choices to make, even if those choices are fraught with consequence and risk of failure. May people consider their actions wisely.

Our thoughts today are focused on two areas where ominous developments could strike the region like a hurricane. Across the border in the Tarheel State, the Raleigh News-Observer takes note of troubles on the farm: “’It really hits North Carolina’: China goes after tobacco in latest tariff fight” (Aug. 4, 2019 edition):

Though North Carolina tobacco exports to China, the world’s most populous nation, have decreased in recent years, overall agriculture imports from the state to China have increased. North Carolina exported almost $599 million in agricultural products to China in 2017. Wood and wood charcoal ($222 million), tobacco ($156 million) and pork products ($137 million) led the way.

Sampson, Johnston and Nash counties are among the largest tobacco-producing counties in the state. Wooten [Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau] said North Carolina produces about 50 percent of the nation’s tobacco and exports about 75 percent of the tobacco it grows …

“If this were to continue and go into effect, it could impact the incomes of our farmers in a very direct way,” he said. “We’re going to be working hard to say this is really problematic for American agriculture.”

Wooten, the Farm Bureau state president, was speaking at the time about the impact of Chinese tariffs on North Carolina’s farm sector, and presumably he offered those comments before China announced Aug. 5 (one day after the News & Observer story first came out) that it is ending purchases of U.S. agricultural products altogether. This bombshell comes after China already halved U.S. farm imports in 2018, buying $9.1 billion in commodity products — soybeans, dairy, pork and, yes, tobacco — compared to purchases of $19.5 billion in 2017, according to the American Farm Bureau.

All of this, of course, is the result of the “good, and easy to win” trade war that our president launched against China — with no end game, no allies in the fight, and no real hope of reviving industries such as textiles that succumbed to competition from China and other low-wage competitors a long time ago. Trade policy by tweet: If that sounds like a really bad idea, that’s because it is.

Tobacco is particularly vulnerable to the downside of a poorly-planned and -executed — that is to say, idiotic — trade war because of the role that export sales play in propping up the leaf business as a whole. You don’t have to be plugged too deep into farm circles to know how the story goes: with domestic consumption of cigarettes falling, the billions-strong Asian market is the hope for the future (and income) of Southside tobacco farmers. That is, it’s the hope of the future so long as American growers can fend off competition from rivals such as Brazil. And you do have to wonder how that story will play out as hostilities stiffen and trading partners such as China and the European Union make long-term arrangements to lessen their exposure to the rage-mongering inside the Oval Office.

For now, let’s see how the upcoming tobacco season goes. As they say in the movies, I have a bad feeling about this ….


While the farm sector braces for the impact from China, all of Southside (and rural Virginia) is struggling to stay politically relevant here at home. In recent weeks, the Weldon Cooper Center at University of Virginia — the state’s premier tracker of demographic trends — released data to support what we mostly already know: Southside is shedding population, Northern Virginia and Tidewater are gaining and the imbalances between rural and urban Virginia continue to grow. You don’t have to be a poli-sci major to grasp that rising numbers of people equate to greater political power, and diminishing population threatens our region’s already-waning influence in Richmond.

This is unsettling news. Then again: Are we really so sure it’s such a bad thing? I wouldn’t ask the question — and to be clear, I don’t really believe the answer is “yes” — except for the fact that we truly do have some miserable representation in Richmond, irrespective of demographic trends. State Sen. Frank Ruff’s column on the subject of gun massacres and Virginia’s gun laws can be found here, demonstrating once again the pathetic quality of our local political leadership. I can save you the trouble of reading Ruff’s piece by fairly and accurately summing up the main points:

One: Whataboutism — so you say people were gunned down in El Paso and Dayton? Well, what about Chicago?

Two: There is nothing anyone can possibly do to stop mass shootings (perhaps Ruff was drawing inspiration from probably the greatest headline ever to appear in The Onion: ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens)

Three: Video games are bad! So is not going to church! And violent TV shows! Even the ones I like!

Four: Don’t forget the thoughts and prayers!

That, folks, is basically the sum total of wisdom that the dean of Southside lawmakers has to offer on the subject of gun-related violence. You’re invited to read Ruff’s column and come back and argue otherwise. My favorite part of the piece is the sin of omission: our senator has much to say about the influence of popular culture on the impressionable minds of mass murderers, but he’s strangely silent on the topic of how the manifesto of the El Paso shooter lines up neatly with the nightly spew emanating from Fox News. The New York Times published an excellent article this week noting similarities in the rhetoric used by the El Paso killer and right-wing personages such as Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh on the topic of immigration (and more). “The El Paso suspect, who confessed to the mass shooting last week, claimed in the document he posted to be defending against a ‘Hispanic invasion of Texas,’” reported The Times. “The words ‘invasion’ and ‘invaders’ appear six times in the text, a stark parallel to the language heard on conservative television and talk radio today.” So much for a frank discussion by Ruff on how the nation’s worst-ever violence against Hispanics could possibly have been avoided.

But let’s return to our chief concern here, the region’s tenuous political standing: Southside’s legislative delegation is entirely Republican, and its influence, such as it is, is entirely dependent on Republican control of the General Assembly. (A Republican candidate hasn’t won statewide in Virginia for a decade, and there’s no real reason to think this pattern will change anytime soon.) As recently as two years ago, the GOP held the statehouse with solid majorities, but those days are over and now the November election may deliver unified control of state government to Virginia Democrats. Democrats need to flip two seats in the House of Delegates and one in the State Senate to end GOP legislative control — and with it, pretty much any say-so in Virginia government decision-making.

Prediction is ripe with folly, and we’ll wait to see what the voters have to say on the matter on Nov. 5, but one thing we do know: Wedge issues often decide the outcome of elections, and this year probably the biggest wedge issue is … guns. (Republicans may come to regret their decision to shut down a special session on gun violence in the wake of the Virginia Beach mass shooting earlier this summer. One proposal offered by Democrats in the wake of that tragedy was a “red flag” law that could keep guns out of the hands of emotionally unstable people. After El Paso and Dayton, even Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell say they support a federal red flag law. Virginia Republican refused to so much as give the idea a hearing.)

If Democrats gain control of the Assembly, the chances of fairly comprehensive gun legislation becoming law rises to a number that’s much closer to 100 percent than zero. It’s only because of Republican obstructionism that Virginia hasn’t already adopted commonsense gun safety laws, which, true, may never be enough to stop a deranged killer from obtaining a firearm (although we don’t know this for sure), but surely would help lessen the day-to-day mayhem of gun-related violence. Frank Ruff likes to pretend there’s no linkage between lax gun laws and gun deaths, but research and experience tell us otherwise. Point is, if you’re wondering how waning political influence would play out in Southside — and paradoxically, how the region would be better off for it — then the looming specter of gun control legislation, passed over the objections of a future Republican minority in the General Assembly, is a good place to start.

Will actual events unfold in such a way? We’ll see. But before we shed tears over Southside’s looming political irrelevance, let’s keep in mind that the sting would be so much worse if that relevance had been put to good use in the first place. Our first concern shouldn’t be the people and political power we may lose in the future. It should be focused on the actions of our so-called leadership in the here and now. Better to shrivel than to squander.

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