The freighted death of Bill Sparkman

Appalachia, where poverty becomes gothic

Appalachia, where poverty becomes gothic

The death of Bill Sparkman, the part-time Census Bureau worker whose body was found tied to a tree in Clay County, Kentucky, must surely mean something. According to early reports, Sparkman was found with the word “fed” written—most news outlets have used “scrawled”—across his chest, and he happens to have been a government employee killed in a time and place that happen to be particularly charged with anti-government sentiment. He also died in meth country, where the Appalachian suspicion of outsiders is compounded by the practical considerations of manufacturing and selling narcotics in the woods. It is possible he was killed for being a stranger in Clay County. It’s possible he committed suicide. It’s possible that his death is evidence in the case to be made against a particularly virulent type of right-wing rhetoric, and it’s possible that to treat it as such is to engage in a particularly cynical type of hysteria. The only thing certain is that Bill Sparkman is dead and, even more than usual, we desperately want there to be a reason.

For commentators who have been warning against anti-government rhetoric and the extremism it supposedly encourages, the reason is obvious and suspiciously useful. The first-glance interpretation of what little is known about Sparkman’s story is so clear as to have immediately mobilized its own refutation. Conservative provocateur (or, depending on whom you ask, second-string Ann Coulter) Michelle Malkin, for example, launched a testy (or, depending on whom you ask, straight-up offensive) defense of herself and her right-wing colleagues entitled “I Killed the Kentucky Census Worker.” She is, of course, being sarcastic, which I’m sure Sparkman’s family appreciates. Malkin is so defensive about the HuffPo interpretation of events that she asserts there is no proof Sparkman was hanged—only found with a noose around his neck, and the other end of that noose tied to a tree, and ruled dead by asphyxiation. “He wasn’t hanging from the tree,” Malkin points out, and she is right, but her argument is so tenuous and semantic that one wonders whether she is defending herself against accusations from without or within. The same speculation can be applied to Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, who publicly implied that the census was a tool of some nebulous government takeover. I don’t imagine she slept well last night.

But neither should Allison Kilkenny, whose insistence that Sparkman’s death reveals the pervasiveness of anti-government paranoia leads her to perform an exegesis of the word “fed” that insists it is an Obama-specific epithet used only to express opposition to big government. (Kilkenny is evidently not familiar with, you know, The Fed.) “Fed” probably does mean “federal,” and when it’s written in magic marker on a dead body it probably bears a negative connotation, but it by no means must have a political meaning. A bunch of backwoods drug dealers who believed they had captured a federal narcotics agent in disguise might send the same message. Kilkenny’s interpretation provides more evidence of her own totalizing worldview than of the danger posed by anti-government rhetoric.

Most liberal commentators are more measured in their assessments. It took me longer to find a far-left interpretation of events than it did to find a right-wing defense, and that is probably because one of the few known truths of this event is both ubiquitous and unspoken: there is something seductive about the apocalyptic interpretation. We want Bill Sparkman’s death to be proof that right-wing, anti-federal populism has gotten out of control. We want, on some sad level that transcends any conscious decency, for people like Glenn Beck and Michele Bachmann to be real and dangerous demagogues, not just anything-for-a-buck blowhards chattering inconsequentially into space. This desire is, of course, completely wrong, and a world in which it is fulfilled is undeniably a worse one. Cross your fingers that nobody takes Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly seriously, and all our fretting over their supposedly pernicious influence is overwrought and misplaced. Ask yourself, though, if you really hope that’s true.

There is something shameful in the brief “aha!” I permitted myself when I heard about Bill Sparkman’s death. It’s not that I interpreted a man’s death through the lens of my personal politics; a tragedy that comes to us in 500 words via the internet is not something that’s easy to empathize with, and I think we can be forgiven for failing to fully appreciate the loss. What’s shameful, I think, is that for a moment I chose an awful, understandable world over a slightly better and more senseless one. I know I should hope that Bill Sparkman died for reasons totally unrelated to popular American politics. In my mind, I do. Somewhere else, though, I want to be told that right-wing hicks killed him because he worked for the fed. That’s an uglier world, and maybe we’re all uglier people for wanting it.

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