Monday, September 08, 2008

"The Republic of Redneckia"

Why secession isn't an option. Joe Bageant explains it all for you...

As the McCain/Palin ticket supposedly surges in the polls despite the state of the economy today, symbolized starkly by the Fannie Mae/Freddy Mac Bailout, which was characterized and admitted as "Socialism for the Rich" by at least one CEO, it leaves a lot of left-wing pundits mystified as to how this could possibly be so.

Thomas Frank tried to explain why so many people in blue-collar America work against their own economic self-interest by voting for people who continually tuck it to them year after year in his book What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, but he really didn't know and couldn't get to the heart of the matter.

Joe Bageant did a much better job in his book Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War. For historical perspective, Bageant relied somewhat on Virginia Senator Jim Webb's Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America.

On his blog, Bageant explains the matter with an essay called Why Rednecks May Rule the World.

It's OK for Bageant to say "redneck" because he's... a proud progressive redneck.

Extended excerpts... I left very little out.
During this US election cycle we are hearing a lot from the pundits and candidates about "heartland voters," and "white working class voters."

What they are talking about are rednecks. But in their political correctness, media types cannot bring themselves to utter the word "redneck." So I'll say it for them: redneck-redneck-redneck-redneck.

The fact is that we American rednecks embrace the term in a sort of proud defiance. To us, the term redneck indicates a culture we were born in and enjoy. So I find it very interesting that politically correct people have taken it upon themselves to protect us from what has come to be one of our own warm and light hearted terms for one another...

Contrary to the stereotype, we are not all tobacco chawing, guffawing Southerners, but are scattered from coast to coast. Over 50% of us live in the "cultural south", which is to say places with white Southern Scots-Irish values -- redneck values.

They include western Pennsylvania, central Missouri and southern Illinois, upstate Michigan and Minnesota, eastern Connecticut, northern New Hampshire ...

So when you look at what pundits call the red state heartland, you are looking at the Republic of Redneckia.

As to having our delicate beer-sodden feelings protected from the term redneck; well, I appreciate the effort, though I highly suspect that the best way to hide snobbishness is to pose as protector of any class of folks you cannot bear. Thus we are being protected by the very people who look down on us -- educated urban progressives...

We come in one size: extra large. We are sometimes insolent and often quick to fight. We love competitive spectacle such as NASCAR and paintball, and believe gun ownership is the eleventh commandment.

We fry things nobody ever considered friable -- things like cupcakes, banana sandwiches and batter dipped artificial cheese ... even pickles.

And most of all we are defiant and suspicious of authority, and people who are "uppity" (sophisticated) and "slick" (people who use words with more than three syllables). Two should be enough for anybody.

And that is one of the reasons that, mystifying as it is to the outside world, John McCain's choice of the moose-shooting Alaskan woman with the pregnant unmarried teen daughter appeals to many redneck and working class Americans.

We all understand that there is a political class which dominates in America, and that Sarah Palin for damned sure is not one of them. And the more she is attacked by liberal Democratic elements (translation: elite highly-educated big city people) the more America's working mooks will come to her defence. Her daughter had a baby out of wedlock? Big deal. What family has not? She is a Christian fundamentalist who believes God spat on his beefy paws and made the world in seven days? So do at least 150 million other Americans. She snowmobiles and fishes and she is a looker to boot. She's a redneck...

The term redneck indicates a lifestyle and culture that can be found in every state in our union. The essentials of redneck culture were brought to America by what we call the Scots Irish, after first being shipped to the Ulster Plantation, where our, uh, remarkable cultural legacy can still be seen every 12 July in Ireland.

Ultimately, the Scots Irish have had more of an effect on the American ethos than any other immigrant group. Here are a few you will recognize:

Belief that no law is above God's law, not even the US Constitution.

Hyper patriotism. A fighting defence of native land, home and heart, even when it is not actually threatened: ie, Iraq, Panama, Grenada, Somalia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Haiti and dozens more with righteous operations titles such as Enduring Freedom, Restore Hope, and Just Cause.

A love of guns and tremendous respect for the warrior ideal. Along with this comes a strong sense of fealty and loyalty. Fealty to wartime leaders, whether it be FDR or George Bush.

Self effacement, humility. We are usually the butt of our own jokes, in an effort not to appear aloof among one another.

Belief that most things outside our own community and nation are inferior and threatening, that the world is jealous of the American lifestyle.

Personal pride in equality. No man, however rich or powerful, is better than me.

Perseverance and belief in hard work. If a man or a family is poor, it is because they did not work hard enough. God rewards those who work hard enough. So does the American system.

The only free country in the world is the United States, and the only reason we ever go to war is to protect that freedom.

All this has become so deeply instilled as to now be reflexive. It represents many of the worst traits in American culture and a few of the best. And that has every thinking person here in the US, except perhaps John McCain and Sarah Palin, worried.

Very worried.
Are the folks at Politico correct? Did Obama make what will turn out to be the biggest gaffe of the 2008 campaign with his offhand "bitter" voter remarks?
"You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them…And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."


cowboyangel said...

Good article - Thanks, Jeff.

And, yes, I agree with you on Frank's book. That was disappointing - a pretty shallow analysis in the end of why the Democrats have lost working-class voters. For some reason, Democrats are really, really bad at analyzing themselves as a party. Self-righteousness is partly to blame.

Sigh... Yeah, as a Texan who lived in the West many years and who loves, among many other things, football, barbecue, drinking beer and listening to country music (and no, not JUST Johnny Cash), who has hunted, who has ridden snowmobiles, whose father worked as a young man in the oil fields, I've been pretty disappointed by a lot of the Liberal response to Palin. There's been a lot of snide bigotry that's not going to do Obama and the Democrats one damn bit of good.

I got into an argument at work last week when a colleague sent around a condescending email about how horrible "red necks" are. First of all, I don't trust anyone who spells "redneck" as two words. Especially a Bryn Mawr girl who's now at Columbia who happened to live in Alaska briefly (the person in the email making observations about Palin and the horrid town she comes from.) It was like a caricature of all the things conservatives accuse liberals of - elitism, snobbery, arrogance, ignorance of the American west, intolerance of other cultures, etc. One colleague, unable to comprehend how I could possibly criticize a liberal for being a bigot and a snob, even asked why I liked Palin.

There are an infinite number of reasons to be against Sarah Palin and John McCain, but making arguments in a condescending, urban, educated liberal tone, poking fun at the "rednecks" and small-town life, or people who like to hunt, etc. will only work against the Dems. Obama doesn't exactly have the "common touch" to begin with. It won't help any for his supporters to behave like the arrogant elitists they're accused of being. That's one argument the Republicans make that has enough truth in it to be really effective. And, yes, Obama's remark, no matter how he meant it, will be used effectively against him.

Hopefully, those 80% of the people in the U.S. who think the country's on the wrong track may decide they want a change more than they care if they can have a beer with Barack Obama.

cowboyangel said...

Saw this just after posting: Palin Reminds Pennsylvania Voters of Obama’s “Bitter” Remark

crystal said...

Yes, I think Obama's bitter comment will haunt him. I think I posted about it when it happened.

Having said that, being of a Scots-Irish descent myself, I think linking Jesus and guns is just insane.

Liam said...

William and I have talked about this a lot. We're both from the West, but I reject my origins a lot more than he does. It is true that 1) not all rednecks are from the South, 2) not all of them are right-wing, 3) urban types can be prejudiced towards non-urban types, and 4) the democrats really need to figure out out to appeal to rednecks better. That said, this massive nonurban working-class white (redneck) voting block that has consistently voted GOP in the last few elections and threatens to do so again seem to be working hard for at least my personal derision, because they seemed to be the most easily-manipulated group of people in the universe. That's where, I guess, anti-intellectualism gets you. Think of it -- they LOVED Bush because they thought he was one of them. A New England frat boy who went to Yale and Harvard (from privilege, not from ability) and then proceeded to fail at everything he did until he was elected president, who never knew a day's work -- they voted for him because they think he's one of them because he knows how to act folksy.

And now, that the GOP has destroyed the middle class, widened the gap between rich and poor, and ruined the economy; now that they've lost their jobs, they have no health care, they've lost their pensions, their house is being foreclosed on, their sons are off on their fourteenth tour in Iraq, now they're going to vote for McCain because his vp candidate knows how to dress a damn moose?

Jeff said...


Good comments.

Was that real hunting, or "varmint" hunting, a la Mitt Romney? Is that where you picked up your taste for Squirrel Fricassé?

And that should "snowmachine", not "snowmobile". C'mon.. Do they have any real snow in Texas, or was that from your Colorado stint.

See, there I go... typical liberal Masshole as they would say in northern New Hampshire.

Go easy on the Bryn Mawr girls.

Crystal, you redneck, you. ;D I don't get gun culture at all. I'd never be interested in owning a firearm, but it's out there in this culture to the nth degree.

Jeff said...


No doubt about it, and I think it frustrates even Bageant to no end, that they are not smartening up.

Liam said...

I should say that I wrote my comment in a fit of rage. Let me make it clear -- it's not a question of geography or of lifestyle (I personally like beer, barbecue, and football) -- it's a question of people letting themselves be duped.

There were a couple of things in the Bageant post that set me off. For example:

"And most of all we are defiant and suspicious of authority, and people who are "uppity" (sophisticated) and "slick" (people who use words with more than three syllables). Two should be enough for anybody."

Hmmm... Recently a Georgia GOP congressman called Obama "uppity," and I don't think he meant just "sophisticated." Bageant leaves out the whole question of race here.

Apart from that, it brings me back to the whole idea of anti-intellectualism and willful ignorance. I grew up in Utah, with one of the most embarrassing state legislatures in the country. I have little patience for this crap.

"We all understand that there is a political class which dominates in America, and that Sarah Palin for damned sure is not one of them."

That's bs. The class which dominates this country is found in both parties and it's the money class. The GOP is even more dedicated to plutocracy than the Democratic party and its policies enrich the rich and impoverish the poor. Palin is much less a poseur than Bush, but she is not the friend of working- or middle-class people.

Of course it is a strategic blunder to act superior, although for some reason the GOP gets away with it all the time (McCain's main economic adviser Phil Gramm has a long history of saying horrible things about anyone who isn't filthy rich, for example).

Sorry -- very grumpy about politics lately.

Jeff said...


Oh, I certainly don't blame you for being grumpy about politics lately. It's pretty depressing.

You know, I saw that post over at Sandalstrap's last night, about the code-language implied in the term "uppity". It started me wondering about what Bageant might have meant by it. When he used it, I didn't see any racial overtones in it, but when I saw what Chris wrote, I started to wonder.

All I can say from reading his book is that I got the distinct and clear impression that Bageant doesn't hold to racist views himself at all, and is disturbed when he sees it among this group he's speaking about.

I think it's important to recognize that Bageant's list isn't meant to be an unqualified encomium. He states:

It represents many of the worst traits in American culture and a few of the best.

As for Palin quote, though, I'm inclined to agree with you, especially as more facts start to come out. She may very well be a member of that political class.

crystal said...

I remember reading ince about the Scots-Irish. My grandmother and the dreaded Auntie Bert and their brothers were Scot-Irish and came over around the time of the revolutionary war. A lot of those people were Presbyterian, they were poor mostly so settled in the outskirts in the US like the west and Appalachia, and they were politically conservative and anti-Catholic .... that's my grandmother's family, but nobody was a gun-toter. It was my grandfather, the Frenchie, who had a gun in his sock drawer.

Jeff said...


Since you have that certain "je ne sais quoi", we'll prefer to consider you French instead of Scot-Irish.

Frenchie had a gun in the sock drawer, eh? Well, we'll leave that one alone, alone...

cowboyangel said...

Rabbit hunting. I guess that's a varmint. At least according to Elmer Fudd.

I'm not a hunter - I hunted when I was a kid. Fishing I don't mind, but I wouldn't hunt anything now.

Well, maybe pheasant. I do love eating pheasant.

Go easy on the Bryn Mawr girls.

I was just repeating what was said. "This is an email I received from a good friend in New York City. She is a Bryn Mawr graduate, and [now] at Columbia University. This is an email she received from a Bryn Mawr classmate of hers who lives in Alaska."

Come on, Jeff, she mentions Bryn Mawr twice in 3 sentences! :-) Just in case we missed it the first time, I guess.

She says Palin's husband is a "red neck" because he works in the oil field and likes snow mobiles. He might be a redneck, but I didn't take too kindly to the implication that everyone who works in oil fields (my father, for example) or likes snow mobiles is an evil redneck. As it turns out, he's a union member working at BP, a whole other problematic issue.) She goes on to say, "[Palin] was mayor of Wasilla, a small red neck town outside Anchorage. The average maximum education level of parents of junior high school kids in Wasilla is 10th grade. Unfortunately, I have to go to Wasilla every week to get groceries and other supplies, so I have continual contact with the people who put Palin in office in the first place. I know what I'm talking about. These people don't have a concept of the world around them or of the serious issues facing the US."

Compare her tone with that of Anne Kilkenny, the Wasilla native who's email has gotten so much attention.

Ultimately, what difference does it make where Palin's from? I personally don't care if she hunts moose or likes snowmobiles. What concerns me is her political ideology, and I would bet money that I could find people with the exact same ideology living in Manhattan, and certainly in Staten Island, which voted for Bush in 2004.

You know, I always disliked it when people used to say that all Russians were evil communists. Or when I was in Spain and people would say all Americans were fat and stupid and loved guns. It's just easy, unintelligent generalizing about people from a certain region or cultural background. Bigotry. It's immoral, really. It makes no difference if it's rednecks in rural Texas saying stupid things about people in New York or vice versa. But I find it particularly appalling when it comes from supposedly educated "Liberals," because they should know better.

Liam and I had different experiences with our "origins." He grew up a Catholic minority in an oppressive Mormon environment. I grew up in an easy-going city (it used to be in the 1970s) where "live and let live" was the reigning motto, and hippies and rednecks began to blur more and more. (Willie Nelson, for goodness sakes.) And I lived for many years in the mountains and became deeply attached to the nature of the American west. So, I think that accounts for our slightly different perspectives, ultimately, though I'm not sure they're that different.

He's certainly right about the anti-intellectualism. One of my grandfathers was a farmer and hunter who raised hound dogs in rural Texas. But his wife had a master's degree in History. My other grandfather was an actual cowboy living out in the middle of nowhere in west Texas, but his mother graduated from a woman's college at the turn of the century. Americans used to honor education - it was such a big deal for many of our parents or grandparents to be the first one to go to college. I'm not sure what happened. I suspect the resentment started in the 1960s, with so much of the radical politics and anti-war movement emanating from college campuses - the right decided that education was a bad thing. I don't know. They want to keep us dumb so we don't think about what BS they're trying to sell us. And it does seem to be working in many ways. In part because the media doesn't try to elucidate the BS.