When my family and I moved to Purcellville nearly ten years ago, I was surprised by how much traffic came through our little town. Purcellville had a population of less than 2,000 then, and the Old Colonial Highway, which doubles as the town’s Main Street, began piling up well before 6:00 A.M. on the weekdays, a steady stream of trucks and cars crowding the two-lane road on their way to the new highway. Route 7, which leads to Washington, D.C., and its environs. By the hundreds and thousands, the economic nomads from the rural Blue Ridge area and their poorer relations from West Virginia poured through town, stopping off for gas and coffee at the 7-Eleven and its rival, the Amoco station, both situated at the crossroads between Purcellville and Lincoln. Many of these folks’ ancestors made a living as farmers (and, later, as coal miners) in an era that now seems as remote as the Middle Ages, but the descendants of the mountain people have survived by working on construction sites, driving trucks, and performing other assorted blue-collar jobs. They are mostly employees now, not the yeomanry Jefferson correctly saw as the only real bulwark of a republic. Still, it’s a living. Many West Virginia counties, in particular, depend on the influx of dollars from those jobs to survive, if not to prosper.

In my memory, the fate of the American working class is now connected with those lines of predawn headlights and the sights and sounds of the gradual displacement of the mountain people by little brown men (and women) from Mexico, El Salvador, and other points south of the Rio Grande. Ten years ago, the “Hispanic” population of Purcellville was virtually nil. Not anymore. I can see the coming defeat of the mountain people every day at the convenience stores (all of which now offer cut rates for long-distance calls to Mexico and El Salvador), at a school construction site in neighboring Hamilton (there are few white or black men working there), and in a house, packed with Spanish-speaking immigrants, in my own neighborhood.

In my mind’s eye, I saw the headlights and the faces of the mountain people as I scanned the front page of the Washington Times on Mareh 3 and felt an anger I could barely contain. The headline read “Salvador Illegals Get Bush Reprieve.” President George W. Bush, the “compassionate conservative” (as if other traditionalists aren’t), pledged to halt deportations of illegal immigrants from El Salvador for the next 18 months in view of the recent earthquake in that unfortunate country. Salvadoran President Francisco Flores hailed the decision as more important than direct U.S. aid. (Congress has appropriated $110 million for earthquake relief, while President Bush has promised more to come; the United States also responded by sending rescue workers to the stricken country.) It seems that the hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran illegals living in the United States are responsible for a large part of the estimated $1.7 billion that makes its way to their country each year, about 14 percent of the country’s GDP. President Bush’s action, in his words, allows Salvadorans to “continue to work here” and to “remit some of their wages back home” to “support” the country’s “recovery effort.” He failed to mention that it allows them to violate U.S. law.

So what’s wrong with such “compassion?” No decent person can help but feel pity for those who have suffered in El Salvador, and the United States appears to have been more than generous in response to the tragedy. (Especially noteworthy are rescue workers who volunteered to help and the humanitarian aid gathered by church groups, which apparently did not need Washington’s moral guidance.) Nevertheless, President Bush’s “reprieve” is wrongheaded, even wrong hearted, as is his pledge to pour more U.S. funds into that sad country. President Bush’s misconception of “compassion” is the same as that of most others living in an atomized urban society where bonds of community, kinship, and patriotism have been seriously diluted, where CNN’s cameras divert our attention from the plight of our neighbors by exploiting the suffering of distant strangers, and where the notion of personal responsibility, which “compassionate conservatism” reportedly seeks to boost, has practically disappeared.

President Bush is soothing his own conscience by freely dispensing other people’s money. Undoubtedly, he “feels the pain” of Salvadorans (after all, he can see the pictures on TV) and is either ignorant of, or numb to, the hardships his “compassion” may be imposing on his own people. Allegedly the President of a republic, he is making a grand gesture akin to an emperor opening the temple granaries for the luckless lower castes. He apparently has no idea what the traditional “conservative” view of the state’s proper role is.

The President appeared very self-satisfied with his gesture. He often does these days, with his promises of school vouchers to “help” the “disadvantaged” (and possibly extend federal control to private schools), his plans for lending a federal hand to “faith-based” organizations (I noticed a personalized license plate recently that read “ALAKBAR” on a vehicle carrying a fellow “person of faith” on his merry way), and his promises to show generosity to our poor Latin American neighbors (but not West Virginians). President Bush, it appears, is as much a child of the 60’s as his corrupt and bloated predecessor, practicing telescopic philanthropy from the comfort and safety of the White House, ever ready to spend money that is not his own, to send other people’s children to fight and the in alien lands, and to initiate grand schemes in which he will play no personal role. There is nothing “compassionate” nor “conservative” about Mr. Bush’s fuzzy ideology.