The contradictions of “redneck rhetoric,” or why Palin does not represent “rural culture”

The contradictions of “redneck rhetoric,” or why Palin does not represent “rural culture” September 17, 2008

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:

These examples could be multiplied, of course, and I encourage readers to contribute examples from your own context in the combox. The existence of these groups prove that there is no one “normal, white, rural” culture, and that “rural folks” hardly unanimously subscribe to the McCain-Palin program. Far from it. I’m sorry, but where I come from, global imperialism is not a “rural value.” But the media, of course, prefers simple definitions of “rural,” “Southern,” “Appalachian,” “Alaskan,” “redneck,” and “traditional.” The media, of course, will not report the fact that more people turned out for an Alaska Women Reject Palin rally than for the down-home “Welcome Home Sarah” rally held on the very same day. Such realities do not jive with the master “redneck narrative” that the media seeks to preserve.

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.


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  • Deleted by author

  • I’m willing to entertain substantive comments and questions in this thread and not the usual garbage and sarcasm we’ve had here lately. Comments that fit the latter description will be deleted.

    I am especially interested in folks sharing further examples of alternative rural traditions and values, as I stated in the post.

  • Great post, Michael. It reminds me of super-rich “elitist” George Bush conning people into thinking he was somehow “normal” because he liked clearing brush instead of windsurfing.

  • Mark DeFrancisis

    My older relatives and their friends have shot, skinned and cooked more deer in the woods of Westen PA than all the commercial country ditties put together could even merely adequately glorify in song.

    But they look at Sarah Palin and now see just a political gimmick, whom the rash John McCain picked in seeming desperation and with whom–much to their delight– the older guy has peaked way too early in his overall efforts.

  • Mark DeFrancisis

    And what would Woody Guthrie think of the Palinator?

  • Magdalena

    The movement against Mountain-Top removal is probably a good example. There is this idea that rural people are not going to be big environmentalists and are just going to gobble up whatever corporate mining jobs are thrown that way, consequences be damned, but that’s not true for all of them. I went to school in Athens, OH and it wasn’t just the college kids who were interested in preserving the environment.

    However it would be a mistake to just focus on Appalachia in addressing this topic. I think Palin’s appeal is more Wild West than simply “rural.” If I were to make a generalization it would be that in states like Wyoming, Texas or Idaho there is a lot less emphasis on poverty/social justice etc than in Appalachia, where poverty is generational and acute. But even so there are tensions – Palin’s “family values” rhetoric in many ways conflicts with the Western ethos of libertarianism.

    And I stand by the use of the word average! 🙂 She just seems more… gulp… average than Obama, in the same way that Biden seems more average than John McCain. As you ably point out in your post these appearances do not necessarily match reality, the same way that all stereotypes fail when they move from the general to the particular. But in many ways politics is all about appearances and the manipulation thereof, and most stereotypes exist because they do conform to a portion of the truth.

  • JohnH

    I’d hesitate to describe myself as a native Vermonter, mainly because the people who are native Vermonters hesitate to apply that definition to anyone who hasn’t had three or more generations in the state. My family moved to the rather economically depressed Eastern part of the state (the Northeast Kingdom, as they call it) when I was two years old.

    I grew up in a town of around 7000. The median income was astonishingly high, but only because of the wealthy people, including Walter Cronkite, mostly from Boston and New York, who owned “summer cottages” (ahem, mansions) along the river in town. Most of the people worked in farming, the local paper mill, a local trucking company, and a few other mainly industrial jobs, such as mining and logging.

    I was used to the fact, growing up, that the rich people were all Democrats. The lower middle-class, such as my own family, tended to be Republican or independent. The vast majority of the native born Vermonters, so far as I could tell, didn’t vote at all in national elections. We had a town meeting each year, where local laws were voted on and politicians voted in or out.

    The main concern among the wealthy in town seemed to be maintaining the picture postcard feel of the locale. Usually this was couched in psuedo-environmental language, like lobbying against the local logging companies, despite the fact that the entire township was covered in second-growth fir trees, which as any forester would tell you impedes the growth of good hardwood. They would also come up with proposals to eliminate “blight”, usually aimed at the smaller farms who had old tractors and cars out by the barn to cannibalize in case of breakdowns.

    I worked on one of the small farms myself as a teenager, starting at age 12— breaking a bunch of child labor laws. This was the 1990’s, so pretty recent. Two or three times students from the local liberal arts college came by and photographed me working— without asking me for permission, which annoyed the hell out of me. The money from working often went to my family, since my parents didn’t ever want to go on welfare again.

    My parents had made use of WIC for a time, but the standard procedure among the nurses and other staff was to heavily push for sterilization or birth control or abortion among women with more than three kids already. We did make use of food stamps, but avoided WIC after too many bad experiences.

    In my mid teens, Wal-Mart tried to open a store in town. Opposition was led by the local preservationists; mostly the wealthy people. The state stepped in to help push against the store, and Wal-Mart opened its doors across state lines in New Hampshire. That was pretty much the death knell for the local economy. Locals started shopping much more often in New Hampshire, where the town that had allowed Wal-Mart saw a substantial increase in new businesses moving in.

    Vermont, on the other hand, was now under Howard Dean pushing to discourage new businesses that specialized in anything industrial, instead trying to draw the newer tech businesses. The local paper mill closed up, as did the trucking company and several other manufacturers. The tech sector brought in younger workers from out of state, but no locals.

    I moved out at age 18 and haven’t been back since except to visit. My town of 7000 now has a methadone clinic, though.

    Having come from that background… I tend to favor the more business friendly policies. I also think we need welfare. But on the whole, having watched the policies of the state Democratic party drive the economy into the tank and ruin the working prospects for native Vermonters, I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the Democrats. Not a lot in the Republicans either, but they do tend to be more friendly to economic practices that work.

    Try driving through Vermont and then drive through New Hampshire. You’ll see the difference between restrictive business practices coupled with Utopian environmentalism and a thriving state economy bolstered by low tax rates and permissive business laws. It’s not a left versus right thing, it’s a common sense versus wishful thinking thing.

  • david

    Please offer some solutions to the problems. How do we ( the U.S.) demonstrate a preference for the poor? Through education? Through welfare?

  • I actually prefer “Catholic ultra right wing blogging lawyer.”

  • I find it interesting that you mention Republican Capitalists and the global South. But what about the American South. They border appalacia too. Where do they fit into this equation?

  • Michael,

    When you say things like “the measure of the moral health of any society is the poor” are you using poor in a spiritual or material sense?

    If you are using it in a material sense, are you using some absolute standard to measure poverty or are you using the term relatively?

    If relatively, I think you are suggesting, whether you want to or not, that the moral health of the United States is quite good, especially when considered relative to almost any other nation in the world.

    If absolutely, then, by definition, the moral health of every society is bad. The poor aren’t well off in any country, because they are poor. Some societies may attempt to aid the poor, but when they are successful, the poor people helped are no longer poor and therefore the group of people used to determine the moral health of the country changes, and it reverts back to being bad because there are still poor people.

  • Jack L

    I’ve been reading this blog for a few weeks now, and this is the first time I’ve been especially inclined to respond to a post here. Mr. Iafrate, I applaud your essay, and throw in a couple of virtual *Hail, yeah*s for good measure.

    Just to put that remark in some kind of perspective, I’m a working class, male, heterosexual, former US Navy petty officer (and current military contractor, of all things!) with a North Florida background, predominantly European ancestry, a trade-school education, and a closet full of guns which I’m not ashamed of knowing how to use. Oh, and I’m a convert to Catholicism. Given these factors, I think we all know where I’m supposed to stand on the political spectrum.

    Sometimes we know things that just ain’t so. Issue for issue, I swing “left” about three times as often as I swing “right” (to the extent that those terms actually mean anything).

    To put this as charitably as I can: Governor Palin is overrated, Senator McCain is certifiable, and the GOP have neither the ability nor the will to do anything meaningful about the issues they’ve been using for the past three decades to play “my people” like a two-stringed bleepin’ fiddle.

    So, what about those social issues? Well, if I support the nearest crisis pregnancy center to the extent of my ability, I’ve already done more to help minimize abortion than I could have done by voting a straight Republican ticket since 19 [deleted] 80. (Which, BTW, I did not.) Gay marriage? *Yawn*. Sorry, but if Harry Bear and Tommy Twink want to do the groom ‘n’ groom thing, then however much I might question the morality and aesthetic appeal of their arrangement there’s no secular/political reason for me to get all bent out of shape about it. (As long as they don’t try to make the Government force my Church to perform the ceremony. If it ever comes to that, then yeah, Tommy and Harry and I are gonna go seriously round and round.)

    At this point, it looks as if my home state is in the bag for Mad Mac to such an extent that my vote won’t affect anything one way or another. If that remains the case then I’ll cast my usual token protest, probably for the Greens this time despite their indefensible position on abortion. If it gets too close to call, then dammit, I’ll probably have to go with Obama despite his ditto. (The Libertarian Party? Riiight. How are naked atheist dope-fiend Republicans any more appealing than the regular kind?) I’m not all that keen on abortion and buggery, but at least Obama & Co. aren’t forcing either of those on anyone. On the other hand war and torture, by their nature, pretty have to be forced on somebody.

    Arrrgh. I didn’t set out to post a rant … But to reiterate, Mr. I, your essay will bear repeated reading. Thank you.

  • sc

    The small town I grew up (on the other side of Pennsylvania) had the values of personal responsibility and charity towards our neighbor. There was not a believe that a nameless bureaucrat would have any real human compassion for the individuals in need. Rather that compassion and care came from their neighbors.

    The town I grew up in understood standing up for true injustice – unsafe conditions, denial of a living wage, and being beholden to a nameless entity many times by force that the original ‘red necks’ experienced. That same town today looks at job actions by public servants to demand better than what the residents earn that then drive taxes as an outrage. But yet the progressives see the taxes as a necessary redistribution.

    Historically, redistribution schemes fail due to the separation from individual response of compassion. Rather, the redistribution favors those in power regardless of left/right/liberal/conservative. Redistribution schemes are a means of building a power base for those in charge, or an interesting intellectual exercise for the academic.

    The small towns I am familiar with see government as providing the necessities and the local organizations (churches and clubs) helping those in need. While this is not programmatic, it did preserve the personal and individual aspects of helping those in need – the charity of the Gospels. This is not the ‘community organizers’ popularized in the 60s and now are mega political action organizations. Supporting government programs through taxes is not the same effect as charitably loving your neighbor. This does not condone the materialistic and greed driven society, but today at the heart of the small towns I know, we still care for our neighbors with the means that the government feels we can be trusted with.

    There also was a healthy distrust of corporations and their motivations. We did not expect anything other than the profit driven motive that the organization was intended to be. There is a strong correlation of the watchful eye on corporations as well as on government saviors.

    From my brother in-law and his family in Western PA, the perspectives seem very familiar. The biggest obstacle tends to be Eagles vs. Steelers (this weekend!), Flyers vs. Penguins, and a true disregard for Penn State athletics in the middle.

  • digbydolben

    Not only is this post beautiful and valuable, Michael, but the responses of some of your commenters, such as “JohnH” and “Michael L,” are also important, in reminding us just who it is you are talking about. “John H” is absolutely right in reminding us that too many “liberals” are actually elitists who refuse to take the “poor” like they actually are, in their true needs, and “Michael L” is absolutely right in reminding us that the Republicans constantly take their votes for granted, and then betray them, in the interests of the “entrepreneurs.”

    The basic question for “Christian liberals” in America is, I suppose, why do they generally DISLIKE the actual “poor people,” and not try to understand why they’re constantly voting against their own and their families’ economic interests? I think it’s because they understand that those who so ofter pose as their “liberators” just don’t like them.

    I myself think that Obama, despite his silly gaffe about “guns and God,” actually DOES like them, because he remembers that his immediate family members and those of his wife were members of that group all during their lives. McCain and his second wife were princes of the plutocracy who lack the “common touch.” Only Palin has that, and, unfortunately, she’s NOT the pillar of integrity that McCain first took her for.

    “The poor” probably WILL be voting their true economic interest this time, and America will be better off for it.

  • But what about the American South. They border appalacia too. Where do they fit into this equation?

    I mentioned the american south as well. They are typicaly lumped in with all the other “traditional, rural” cultures with no attempt to distinguish the various traditions and counter-traditions.

    When you say things like “the measure of the moral health of any society is the poor” are you using poor in a spiritual or material sense?

    Both. I don’t see a clear separation between the two, a la Gutierrez. (Started reading him yet?)

    If you are using it in a material sense, are you using some absolute standard to measure poverty or are you using the term relatively?

    If relatively, I think you are suggesting, whether you want to or not, that the moral health of the United States is quite good, especially when considered relative to almost any other nation in the world.

    I think there is some truth to this claim but it is mostly used to make americans feel better about the poverty that exists within its borders. “Oh it ain’t that bad….”

    If absolutely, then, by definition, the moral health of every society is bad.

    Perhaps, but it need not be. This also obscures the relationships between nations. Even if we concede that the moral health of the united states is “better” than other nations (i.e. that the economic system in the u.s. takes care of its poor to a greater extent), we have to consider the relationship between the united states and other nations. With that relationship in view, it is more difficult to say that the moral health of the united states is “quite good.”

    Jack – Thank you for your comments!

    Thank you also, digby. I think you’re right about “Christian liberals” in america, and I also think you’re right on here:

    I myself think that Obama, despite his silly gaffe about “guns and God,” actually DOES like them, because he remembers that his immediate family members and those of his wife were members of that group all during their lives. McCain and his second wife were princes of the plutocracy who lack the “common touch.” Only Palin has that, and, unfortunately, she’s NOT the pillar of integrity that McCain first took her for.

  • Please offer some solutions to the problems. How do we ( the U.S.) demonstrate a preference for the poor? Through education? Through welfare?

    What do you think?

  • digbydolben

    I think that even the densest of “poor, rural Americans” can appreciate the enormous social and economic injustice of THIS:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/18/opinion/18kristof.html?hp

    …and I think that the “solution” is much stricter regulation of business practices in the public interest. For the disparity in salaries between workers and their employees to go from 30 to 40 times to 344 times in such a short time signifies these corporations’ predatory relationships with the public.

  • joseph

    I’m willing to entertain substantive comments and questions in this thread and not the usual garbage and sarcasm we’ve had here lately. Comments that fit the latter description will be deleted.

    Re: Jack L Says

    Apparently, Michael will tolerate garbage and sarcasm if the person who delivers it agrees with him. Nice.

  • joseph – Feel free to succinctly register your opinion about why Jack L’s comment amounts to “garbage” and/or “sarcasm.” I mean it, though, keep it brief.

  • JohnH

    “John H” is absolutely right in reminding us that too many “liberals” are actually elitists who refuse to take the “poor” like they actually are, in their true needs,

    One of the biggest problems, in poor areas whether rural or urban, is the tendency among newcomers (usually affluent, politically liberal) to dig in and then embark on NIMBYism. It happens here in San Francisco a lot, and it happened a lot in Vermont. People move in, then start shouting “Not in my back yard!” when it comes to the local noisy manufacturing plant that employs their neighbors, or start lobbying against building new affordable housing, or try to shut down the local food kitchen because of undesirables.

    And hooray election season! Because of that, the local politicians here have again rousted the homeless out of the park to score temporary points for cleaning up the city. Since I don’t live in a tourist destination of a neighborhood we now have twice the population of homeless we used to have, mostly the mentally ill people who should be in housing, but thanks to a politically active homeless lobbying group that insists that putting people into housing violates their rights, and the other political groups who want to keep the downtown free of homeless faces, these folks are now wandering from door to door. We have one very mentally ill woman who spends her nights on our doorstep.

  • Michael,

    Almost finished with the book. Lots to say about it – I’ve started some commentary on the blog, here. I’m gearing up for a few more posts as soon as I have the time – I’m in the middle of a job hunt, but still trying to produce something interesting.

    I agree with you and Gutierrez that we ought not “separate” the material and the spiritual dimensions of the human person. However, I do think that we can distinguish between the two, and it is healthy to do so in order to understand both the individual person and the community.

    Why should we distinguish (not separate) man’s spiritual and material dimensions? Well, in the first place, because Jesus did. Jesus teaches that man’s spiritual nature is more important than his material one. (see Mt. 16:26, among other places in Scripture)

    Also because a society can be materially prosperous and spiritually dead (America), or materially impoverished and spiritually alive and fruitful (many other places). There is a relationship between our material well being and our spiritual well being worth exploring.

    I don’t think this is dualism – I think the distinction exists to help us understand the hierarchy of priorities the human person ought to have.

    Thoughts?