Morning’s Minion is right to contest the rhetoric surrounding Sarah Palin’s supposed representation of “normal, white, rural” (er — “average,” whatever word you choose) america from the perspective of those who do not identify with that culture. Such talk obscures the power relationships involved in defining who is “normal” in the united states.
One thing he misses — and some of our commenters who take issue with his post have pointed this out — is that all the talk about “normal, white rural” culture, for or against, also obscures the fact that there simply is no one “white rural culture,” not matter how much as some commentators continually insist that there is. Rather than being a simple matter of drawing a line between “big city” folks and “the rest of the country” (“real people,” “rednecks”), the images of “normal america” are a social construction, as I have discussed here before. Appalachian scholars, for example, have shown how much of what passes for “redneck” culture (the images exalted on contemporary “I’m a redneck and proud of it” country radio) is actually an embrace of a completely fabricated image of the hillbilly, an image that was created with political and economic ends in view. Discourse about what is considered “normal” in rural america involves a historically-traceable process of political, economic, and cultural colonization by elites very much like the colonial processes of the Global South.
Colonization? Really? Today? Yes. Think about it: It is interesting, isn’t it, that most of the time when we hear rhetoric about “normal rural” values it is coming from media pundits, CNN reports about Obama’s “Appalachia problem,” politicians, and Catholic right-wing blogging lawyers. Who truly speaks for “normal, rural” america and of its values? Catholic bloggers? Seriously?!?! The rhetoric of Sarah Palin, the corporate media, and “proud to be an upper class redneck” Catholic bloggers is simply the latest attempt to reinscribe rural stereotypes through a process of colonization for the sake of political gain.
The “redneck” construct has been used historically for various political goals, and because of this it is fraught with contradictions. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century local color writers, sociologists, and historians described rural people as both romanticized traditional folk and lawless barbaric savages, depending on the goals they aimed to facilitate. Today, rednecks are often described as a minority who preserve a rapidly-disappearing “traditional” way of life, and who are the targets of america’s “last acceptable prejudice” (except of course, by self-described Catholic rednecks who then suddenly have an appreciation for the concept of “multiple oppressions,” being the victims of BOTH of america’s “last acceptable prejudices!”). On the other hand, when it suits them, “redneck” culture is proclaimed as being “real american culture,” the “normal” or “average” culture whose interests are finally being “represented” by politicians such as Sarah Palin. (Note, too, how Palin’s “regular redneck” supporters boast that she is “one of them,” and then object when she is actually called a redneck.)
The “redneck rhetoric’s” equation of “rural, redneck” culture and “middle-class” is also incredibly contradictory. Middle class, country radio redneck culture is not the same as “rural” culture. Appalachian scholars have shown how traditional Appalachian rural culture was colonized precisely by the forces of the american middle class for the sake of “lifting” Appalachia into mainstream american capitalist society. The result was the weakening and near-death of non-capitalist rural tradition and the commodification of a rural, hillbilly image that survives in the form of pop country music and an atrocious set of political options that supposedly represent the perspectives of “true” americans.
In reality, “rural” american values are much more complex than FOX News and Catholic bloggers make it out to be. “Redneck rhetoric” obscures the fact that incredibly important progressive social, political movements have originated in the South, in Appalachia, and in other marginalized communities in the united states. Appalachia, for example, has a tremendous radical history of labor movements which could be described as anti-capitalist. Despite the insistence that the republican party is the party of “normal redneck americans,” consider that West Virginia was, until the first (s)election of George W. Bush (in which about 50% of our country went a little bit crazy), a solidly democratic state. (For an account of Appalachia’s radical political tradition, see the collection Fighting Back in Appalachia: Traditions of Resistance and Change edited by Stephen L. Fisher.) Appalachia’s tradition of radical politics — a politics that has nothing in common with those of Gov. Palin — continues today in eco-justice movements, most visibly against the practice of mountaintop removal mining. Countless groups exist today that give expression to alternative rural american values that demolish essentialized descriptions of what “real rednecks” believe and that complexify the picture of rural america. Consider, from the Appalachian context alone:
- Appalachian Sustainable Development
- Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment
- Appalachian Community Economics
- Appalachian Voices
- The Highlander Center
- Catholic Committee of Appalachia
- Mountain Justice Summer
- Appalachian Greens
- Bethlehem Farm
Even if the dominant image of the “normal rural american” were true and unfabricated, Republican upper middle-class “rednecks” who attempt to promote their values through the cipher of “rural america” reveal yet another contradiction embedded in their tactics: since when is it true that just because something is supposedly “normal” in the wider culture that that phenomenon should be glorified and assumed to be right? The same people who glorify their “normal rural america” construct are the same people who denounce the increasing “normalization” of homosexuality, for example, even within supposedly “traditional, rural” populations, and the same people who denounce our over sexualized american culture, insisting that this “normal” cultural trait should be resisted. Which is it? Is “normal” to be resisted, or is it to be glorified? Shall we glorify every aspect of what is called “normal, white, rural” america, including alcoholism and domestic abuse? Rather than mindlessly romanticize “normal, white, rural” culture, shouldn’t we nurture the ability to think critically about which aspects of that, or any other, culture are healthy and in keeping with the Gospel, and which are not?
And again, assuming the constructed image of the middle-class redneck is true, why should Christians be clamoring for a political candidate that represents “middle-class” america when our Catholic faith explicitly teaches us that our political candidates and our political life together should primarily represent the poor? Vatican II and subsequent Catholic social thought has taught us that we are to be a Church of the poor and that the measure of the moral health of any society is the poor. As Jon Sobrino reminds us, the poor should be at the very center of our political and ecclesial life. We are not a Church that makes an option for “middle-class normal white america,” but a Church that opts for the poor. Republican insistence that good Catholics should embrace Palin’s “normal, middle-class” values obscures the radical challenge of discipleship that the option for the poor demands of Catholics.
So in addition to thinking about non-white cultures in america that rightly represent excluded voices, one could also think about white rural voices who do not simply parrot the imposed narrative of what “rural” means. In addition to the friends Morning’s Minion listed who do not fit the “normal white” description, we could also call to mind our rural family and friends (whose who are “white” and those who are not) who, for example, may “love” their guns but who would never in a million years vote for the McCain-Palin ticket. More and more “country folk” that I know personally never ever had such hateful politics, or if they did, they’re quickly learning the contradictions and dangers of Republican ideology.
In this election, and in our national and local political life, we cannot allow colonizing forces to speak for “normal” americans, whether they are “rural” or from any other culture. Those of us from peripheral regions of the united states, regions that should obviously have a say about what “rural values” are, must not allow republican elites to define “rural america” according to their politics of fear and hate. History is not on their side, nor is the present existence of progressive counter-traditions among rural folks. We need to remind ourselves of these counter-traditions and keep them visible, talking back to those who continually tell us what our values are.
And if we keep contesting the empire’s definitions, I’m willing to bet that “rural america” surprises everyone this time around by clearly shouting that they — that we — can see through the bullshit.