Cheney, Appalachian humor, and American imperial logic

Cheney, Appalachian humor, and American imperial logic June 4, 2008

Dick “Don’t Let the Door Hit Ya” Cheney made headlines yesterday after he made a joke at the expense of West Virginians in front of the National Press Club, a joke centering around the oh-so original image of Appalachian incest. West Virginia’s Democratic governor Joe Manchin promptly slammed Cheney for disrespecting his state and his people, demanding an apology — funny, coming from a politician whose eerily Republican policies have done more harm to West Virginians than any demeaning joke ever could.

But Cheney’s joke — and subsequent apology — is but the latest in a recent string of demeaning references to Appalachia in the media, set off by Hillary Clinton’s recent victories in Appalachian states such as West Virginia and Kentucky. The Appalachian Front Porch blog focused recently on the way the media — especially the so-called “progressive” media such as Jon Stewart, Grist, and the New York Times — reacted to Obama’s “Appalachia problem.”

But c’mon — Jeff Foxworthy, Jon Stewart, Dick Cheney — they’re all just making harmless jokes, right?

Wrong.

Appalachian stereotyping, like all stereotyping, is not harmless. Regardless of whether or not Appalachian stereotypes correspond to reality (most, of course, do not), Appalachian scholars have shown how images of the region function socially and politically as expressions of power and superiority, rendering an entire people inferior and thus worthy of exploitation. Coinciding with the physical colonization of the region through resource extraction and industry was the invention of Appalachia as a distinct region within the United States. Since the 1970’s, numerous studies have examined the development of the idea of Appalachia and how this idea functioned in post-Civil War American society. Allen Batteau, for example, writes:

The image of Appalachia as a strange land and peculiar people was elaborated at the very same time that the relationships of external domination and control of the Southern Mountain Region’s natural and human resources were being elaborated…. For better or worse… the imagery of Appalachia and the social forms of its propagation are implicated in federal policy and the stance that public and private social agencies have taken toward the region…. Appalachia — read-about Appalachia, personally experienced Appalachia, laughed-at Appalachia, inspired-by Appalachia — is just as much a social construction as the cowboy or, for that matter, the Indian. This invention was accomplished not in a professor’s study but in the hurly-burly of politics and commerce and industry. And further, it was pursued with some very specific political ends in view.

Most Appalachian scholars locate the origin of the idea of Appalachia within various literary narratives, particularly the popular postbellum “local color” writers who constructed fiction centering around the curiosities of regional cultures which helped to define middle class American values by creating and gazing at exotic “others.” As has been the experience of other colonized peoples, a number of scholars have noted that the creation of a distinct, homogeneous region called Appalachia, as well as its colonization, was also facilitated by the missionary activity of the churches after the Civil War, who spread the political ideologies and values of middle class America to the people they served.

Take William Frost, for example, a missionary and president of Kentucky’s Berea College from 1892-1920. In the face of dwindling enrollment and funding upon taking office, Frost actively recruited students and money with speaking tours highlighting Berea College’s mission to mountain people whom he called “our contemporary ancestors,” and “belated Americans” who had fallen into a “Rip Van Winkle sleep.” In the process, he appealed to the mountain people’s ties to colonial America as well as their ethnic purity, claiming that the region was free of foreign immigrants, and he became the first to name the region, calling it “one of God’s grand divisions, and in default of any other name we shall call it Appalachian America.” According to Batteau, many of the most vivid images of Appalachia come from the efforts of figures like Frost, “that of Appalachia as a region behind the times that needs help catching up, that of Appalachians as a wilderness ‘folk,’ and the image of Appalachia as a suitable expanse for pioneering.”

Despite the complex sources and forces that contributed to the development of the image or idea of Appalachia, what developed, and continues to exist today, is a two-sided and contradictory image of Appalachians: that of a romanticized proud people steeped in tradition and “original” American values, or its opposite, a culture of backward, ignorant, and violent savages. Both images have been intimately related to definitions of mainstream American middle-class values, either by providing sentimentalized, inspiring images of the nation’s origins, or by presenting an image of the boundaries of civilization. In his 1987 book Apples on the Flood: Minority Discourse and Appalachia, Appalachianist Rodger Cunningham connects many of the loose threads described above, such as Frost’s “discovery” of Appalachia, early missionary activity, and economic exploitation and reads them in light of the United States’ colonization and extermination of indigenous peoples. Cunningham suggests that the “dynamic of ‘American’ character” requires a frontier to be conquered, and with the increasing extermination and displacement of Indian peoples, he says “‘America’ was on the lookout for another barbarism to subdue.”

In the course of his argument, Cunningham points to two statements made about two different groups in Appalachia: Indians and mountain people. The first is a quote from an 1818 House Committee on Indian Affairs report:

In the present state of our country one of two things seem to be necessary, either that these sons of the forest should be moralized or exterminated.

A Virginia newspaper editorial, about a century later, read:

The majority of mountain people are unprincipled ruffians. . . . There are two remedies only — education or extermination. Mountaineers, like the red Indian, must learn this lesson.

As part of the Appalachian-as-savage myth, the “inbred white trash” stereotype emerged around this time, positing that Appalachian “poor whites” were set apart from other whites as a result of genetic deficiencies caused by inbreeding or race-mixing. Indeed, “poor, lazy hillbilly whites” were included in the well-known eugenics projects in the United States just as Native people were. Contemporary forms of inbreeding jokes and “white trash” humor are every bit as racial and political as these earlier patterns of thought. Then and now, the term “white trash” designates a white person who has crossed the boundary of acceptable characteristics or behavior for “being white.” The notion of “white trash” combines racism and classism into one pejorative term that is insulting to the person being ridiculed, but which is also inherently racist in its insinuation that “only people who are not white act that way.” “White trash” humor says that there is a standard for “whiteness” that must not be crossed.

Whether ridiculed as the inbred barbarian or romanticized as the “contemporary ancestor” — the result is the same: Appalachians become dehumanized, childlike “others,” spoken for by the dominant culture, who as Cunningham says, “can fulfill their destiny only by becoming essentially like the obvserver.” Even in the case of the idealized, traditional pioneer, Cunningham says, “sentimentalism only replaces the injunction ‘Grow up!’ with the injunction ‘Do not grow up!’—and both injunctions are equally false to the subject’s real maturity and integrity.”

And just as Appalachian stereotypes developed in tandem with the beginnings of economic exploitation in the region, the same stereotypes continue to serve the interests of capitalism and U.S. political and cultural imperialism. Appalachian politicians such as WV’s Governor Manchin “sell” Appalachian poverty to outside companies by advertising the region’s low wages, “docile” work force, low unionization rates, etc. The “throw away people” of Appalachia also continue to bear the burden of environmental injustice such as the ongoing practice of mountaintop removal mining, all for the “common good” of America’s energy needs.

And not only are a disproportionate number of Appalachian bodies exploited, generation after generation, to serve in the U.S. military, Appalachian stereotypes are invoked as part of the mythological narratives that drive U.S. imperialism, especially the War on Terror, as Carol Mason demonstrated in a recent journal article. Mason provides a fascinating analysis of two female soldiers from West Virginia, Jessica Lynch and Lynndie England, who made headlines over the last few years and who embodied the two contradictory hillbilly images we referred to earlier, Lynch representing the good country girl rescued from barbaric Iraqis, and England representing the barbaric savage who was photographed torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Attending to the role of class, gender, and race in the two stories, Mason showed how each used Appalachian hillbilly stereotypes either to inspire support for the war on terror or to explain away U.S. torture tactics by blaming them on a “gender-bending hillbilly.”

In light of the connections between “harmless” Appalachian stereotypes and economic exploitation in the region, we should not be surprised by Cheney’s remarks. His obviously dehumanizing view of Appalachians fits well with his administration’s policies which are animated by a contempt for “throw away people” of all sorts, all over the globe. While the internal colonization of Appalachia continues, Cheney’s heartless parroting of Appalachian stereotypes reveals the continuation of the American imperial logic that colonizes peoples both foreign and domestic. In the minds of many Americans — and of one of America’s chief imperial architects — Appalachians continue to be one of America’s strange “others”: “trash” to be exploited in the service of capital, bodies to be mobilized in defense of a self-centered way of life, and scapegoats to point to when America’s dysfunctional tendencies come back to haunt it.

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  • Mark DeFrancisis

    Michael,

    Excellent, brilliant post!

    Recent colonial studies are a boon for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ sake.

  • Magdalena

    On the local radio station today the host spent half an hour fielding West Virginia jokes from the audience, to “take the heat off Vice President Cheney.” Most fell in the incest or dental hygiene category. Then the host pointed out that Appalachians are the only group of people that the general public still feels comfortable mocking with stereotypes in this way. If the VP had said something similar about black people (or Hispanics or Catholics or even Muslims) the reaction would be a lot less forgiving, and rightfully so. But somehow when it’s people from Appalachia it’s supposed to be acceptable?

    But I have to say that the Bush Administration did not invent hillbilly jokes. Regional humor (Californians are airheads, Floridians are bluehaired retirees, Texans are… well?) is as old as the hills, if you will forgive the expression. Vice President Cheney’s remarks come off less as heartless and more as a thoughtless cultural reference… I went to college in the Appalachian foothills, and even though we had direct contact with the reality of Appalachia, the students still embraced the stereotypes to a degree.

    I don’t know too much about Governor Manchin, other than that he is a Democrat, but I doubt he views his economic efforts to be akin to “selling” Appalachian poverty. I am sure the idea is to bring West Virginians out of poverty by bringing in jobs. Certainly most of his constituents would rather make $6 a hour working a low wage job than $0 on the unemployment rolls. Don’t get me wrong, $6 an hour is not satisfactory, either, but he has to start somewhere.

  • Dustin

    Thanks, Michael. When these discussions were loudest in the days preceding the WV primary, and the Post ran its article on instances of anti-Obama racism, and the problems Obama seemed to have with “hard-working white Americans” were localized onto the Appalachian states, I wondered what you were thinking about all this. I’ll confess to being very concerned about the reports that came to my attention–the interviews and accounts in that Post piece were frightful, if they were as endemic as the article seemed to insinuate. But I don’t have to tell you that a reliance on the major media organs for too long a period of time will produce in anyone a distorted view of the way the world is.
    I’m grateful for the Cunningham reference. I’ve been meditating over the last year on the peculiar psychopathologies of American culture, ever since having read Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream and a memoir by Jody Aliesan, an American poet who fled to Canada after the invasion of Iraq, called True North/ Nord Vrai, who both write on the will to subjugate, given the annihilation and forced reeducation of Native peoples and the history of American warmaking in the 20th and 21st Centuries. All, significantly, done with a chivalric veneer–America needs, as it destroys, to think it’s bringing salvation. Faludi’s especially sharp on these points.

    Given that the blogosphere was quite full a few weeks back with discussion of the influence of the Southern and Appalachian “Scots-Irish” on American history and politics, I’d like to ask you what you think of David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed?

  • Thank you for demonstrating the genealogy of the VP’s statement.

    My wife spent a portion of time in WV recently for work, unfortunately her experience there was quite negative and she came home having most of prejudices about the area reinforced. The weekend I went down to visit her, I was called “Yankee” in a pejorative manner twice by different service people in a mall, so I don’t know.

    There’s a good article about this same issue here:
    http://www.americanpopularculture.com/archive/style/homo_redneckus.htm

  • Thank you, Michael.

    Likewise, I’ve taken offense at liberal ridicule of the land and people of my childhood being the subject of parody — i.e., RedStateUpdate.com — and appreciate your speaking out for us minorities. Your voice against this injustice is greatly appreciated.

  • Zak

    I too thought of Albion’s Seed, which suggested to me that some of Appalachia’s problems are rooted in the Scotch-Irish worldview, particularly regarding violence and liberty (association with license, in contrast to conceptions-both Catholic and Protestant-that root it in the natural law). That is not to dismiss the exploitation of Appalachia by corporations, particularly those involved in coal mining, or other factors. But I think a cultural argument could be made, and now I envision Michael I’s wrath coming upon me.

    Also, could you detail (perhaps in a separate post) why Joe Manchin has been a bad governor? It isn’t celebrating or exploiting poverty to tell companies that they can invest in a region where costs are lower. Has he actually undermined or prevented labor laws in accord with Catholic Social Teaching in order to attract these companies?

  • jh

    “England representing the barbaric savage who was photographed torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Attending to the role of class, gender, and race in the two stories, Mason showed how each used Appalachian hillbilly stereotypes either to inspire support for the war on terror or to explain away U.S. torture tactics by blaming them on a “gender-bending hillbilly.”

    Wow!!!! I mean wow. I follow the news pretty closely and I never really associalted her with WV. I suspect that if you had doen a poll at the time and asked most Americans during the whole time of this episode of where she was from most would have no clue

    THe Jessica Lynch operation was a fast moving news story that was indeed a big human interest story and indeed an exciting one.

    I see where you are coming from in part. However the self depreciating humor we have to our fellow Americans and ourselves has a long tradition. THe line btween funny and hurtful is sometimes crossed.

    I have learned thought that most people that do this and lets face most of us a do (it is not just WV) do not have such motives as exploitation or the like.

  • Mark DeFrancisis

    I share in Adamv’s concerns.

    I was called “N…. lover” and other such choice phrases by more than too many Appalachians during my volunteering/canvassing for Senator Obama.

  • Mark DeFrancisis

    sorry…”more than one too many”…

  • Mike Petrik

    I think Jeff Foxworthy is pretty funny, myself. Of course, I can distinguish harmless humor from malicious ridicule. Most well-adjusted people can.

  • jh — The Jessica Lynch story, of course, was all a fabrication. The fact that she was from WV was a huge part of that story. I think in the England case it may have been talked about less, but the Pentagon did publicly claim that the torture was carried out by a “bunch of rednecks” in order to make it look like a deviation rather than policy.

    But I have to say that the Bush Administration did not invent hillbilly jokes…. Vice President Cheney’s remarks come off less as heartless and more as a thoughtless cultural reference…

    You must have missed the majority of my post were I talk about the origins of these jokes. No where did I claim that the Bush administration invented hillbilly jokes.

    I don’t know too much about Governor Manchin, other than that he is a Democrat, but I doubt he views his economic efforts to be akin to “selling” Appalachian poverty.

    I have discussed Manchin elsewhere, on this blog and on my own. There is a history of this style of politics in Appalachia, especially in West Virginia. It is well documented. What I am saying is hardly controversial.

    It isn’t celebrating or exploiting poverty to tell companies that they can invest in a region where costs are lower.

    Sure it is, because those “lower costs” refer to low wages and lack of social programs. Again, this is well documented. I’ll try to do a post on Manchin though.

    AdamV – I am surprised about the “Yankee” comment. From my experience that is pretty uncommon in WV. I’m not saying that various dysfunctions do not exist in WV or Appalachia as a whole. They do. I am concerned when they become exaggerated and turned into stereotypes, and I am concerned about how those stereotypes are used socially and politically.

    I have heard of buut am not familiar with Albion’s Seed.

    I have learned thought that most people that do this and lets face most of us a do (it is not just WV) do not have such motives as exploitation or the like.

    Not consciously, most of the time. But they do in fact benefit from the perpetuation of these ideas.

    I think Jeff Foxworthy is pretty funny, myself. Of course, I can distinguish harmless humor from malicious ridicule. Most well-adjusted people can.

    Don’t tell me I’m not “well-adjusted” because I disapprove of humor made at the expense of entire peoples. That’s precisely the language of colonization: “grow up.” It’s language to which the colonized must reply, “go to hell.”

  • Michael,

    Specifically, my wife went to buy a book, and struck up a conversation the cashier. I wasn’t privy to most of the conversation, but towards the end the cashier scowled and said “We don’t do that Yankee thing here.” Later that day a sales person at Sears finished helping us then went to talk to a coworker and said Yankees in a loud voice and looked over at us during his conversation with his coworker.

    That’s just what I saw, my wife also had several racist comments made to her, unsolicited, during the course of her stay.

  • I’ll be moderating comments here. Comments that include jokes of a racist or culturally superior nature will be deleted.

  • Mark DeFrancisis

    MI,

    I simply cannot believe someone would do such a thing on this this very post.

    Sad.

  • Hmm – I posted a comment that was immediately deleted. I linked to a related story on my blog – if that’s a no-no, I apologize, Michael.

  • Mark – Believe it. It happened.

    Matt – I didn’t delete anything of yours… Might have happened automatically if it had some word in it that we have banned in our settings… Try again?

  • It might also be worth pondering what sort of response all of you Cheney defenders would have had his joke been about Catholics.

  • I posted on a related topic – the shameful acceptability of the term “trailer Trash” – from a more personal direction on my blog a few years ago:

    http://populisthope.blogspot.com/2004/08/trailer-trash.html

  • oopsie – NOW they all post 🙁

    Please delete the extras

  • The spam filter had caught them. Mr. Talbot.

  • Thanks, MZ – I was wondering what was going on

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  • JoMac

    Adamv is obviously uneducated about the treatment of Appalachian peoples following the civil war. He should also check the information concerning which side of the war (Northern or Southern) that many of the peoples of the Appalachian fought on. There is an historical basis for the hostilities based mistreatment of people following the war (regardless of loyalties during the war). The treatment of the areas and the depletion of many natural resources by outside companies also play a part in these hostilities. I have spent a lifetime weathering the insults and jokes, but I make no apologies for who I am and where I was raised. It was a wonderful and enriching childhood.

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