Hating the American Heartland
Yet another less than generous comment on rural America. Mr. Jackson Kernion, a philosophy instructor at Berkeley University, recently tweeted: “I unironically embrace the bashing of rural Americans. They, as a group, are bad people who have made bad life decisions. Some, I assume are good people. But this nostalgia for some imagined pastoral way of life is stupid and we should shame people who aren’t pro-city.” Mr. Kernion subsequently apologised for the tone of the comments, describing them as “crass” and “mean”. Such remarks are, however, no rarity and you could easily be forgiven for thinking that elements of the US elite hold rural and small-town Americans in contempt, considering them mired in ignorance, bigotry and backwardness. Speaking before an LGBT fundraising audience in New York during the 2016 presidential campaign Hillary Clinton notoriously commented “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic – Islamophobic – you name it… Now, some of those folks – they are irredeemable, but thankfully, they are not America”. In 2008 presidential hopeful Barack Obama argued along similar lines concerning small-town voters in the Midwest: “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”. The recent furore over the (unreleased) movie called “The Hunt” in which rich liberals hunt down blue-collar Americans for sport until eventually the hunted turn on the hunters is indicative of the tense atmosphere.
Disparaging “Hickville” did not start with Barack Obama in 2008. In 1920 Sinclair Lewis published “Main Street”, a yarn satirising a fictionalised version of the author’s home town in Minnesota that helped him win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930. It is sometimes said that God made the village and the devil created the city but Lewis effectively flipped the adage, portraying small-town life as provincial, self-satisfied and dreary. The book struck a chord and was a pivotal moment in American cultural history.
In part, these attitudes are just plain old fashioned snobbery but in part, they also reflect liberal contempt for perceived backwardness that goes back to the very origins of the ideology. Liberal hatred and fear of backward reactionary Czarist Russia was a key factor in the Crimean War of 1853-56. In the 1870s the Kulturkampf in Germany saw Protestant liberals backing Bismarck in his struggle against the Catholic Church and its medievalism. In Britain, the Welsh who clung to their language rather than adopt English, the language of progress, were according to an infamous educational report of 1847 “ignorant, lazy and immoral”.
The coastal-interior divide
But hating the hicks also forms part of a very contemporary trend. Commentators have noted an increasing divide between well-educated urban elites who favour globalism, globalisation and the international lifestyle. As the American historian Christopher Lasch pointed out in “The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy”, they feel more in common with their counterparts in foreign countries than their fellow countrymen out in the sticks who value patriotism and conservative social values. The division has arguably intensified since the election of Trump in 2016 as the east and west coast urban areas tended to vote for Hillary Clinton and the interior, the small town and the rural areas tended to back the real estate magnate and reality show star. Having to live with a President elected by people they consider rednecks and hillbillies has been no easy task for America’s liberal establishment.
Rednecks and hillbillies
There is debate about the exact origins of these terms. According to one theory Redneck has its origins in the Scottish Bishops Wars of 1639-40 when the Scottish Presbyterian Covenanters signed in their blood and wore red pieces of cloth around their necks as distinctive insignia. Indeed, Redneck seems to have first appeared in print in a travel book about the South published in the 1830s to denote Scottish Presbyterians in Georgia. According to another theory it simply derives from white agricultural labourers in the antebellum South getting their necks sunburned while working in the fields. The website of the US Congress library states the term gained currency in the early twentieth century on account of the red bandana worn by striking miners in West Virginia in 1921 who called themselves the Redneck Army. In any case, as William Safire points out in his “Political Dictionary” the term is used by urban progressives to disparage southern whites whom they deem insufficiently liberal. Yet at the same time, the victims of this abuse have often reclaimed the term for themselves, wearing it as a badge of honour to indicate authenticity, rootedness and steadfast adherence to American values.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a hillbilly is an “awkward or simple person especially from a small town or the country”. Antonyms are “cosmopolite” and “sophisticate”. More specifically, the term refers to people from Ulster, the lowlands of Scotland and the north of England who clustered in the Appalachians in the 1600s and 1700s. They must be distinguished from the WASPs who settled in the North-East. Again the precise etymology of the term is not clear. It may have originated with those Ulstermen who supported the Protestant King William “Billy” III of Orange who defeated the Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Alternatively, the word may be a blend of “hill-folk” and “billy”, the latter being a Scottish word meaning fellow or companion.
Rebelling against the establishment
J.D. Vance, author of the 2016 bestseller “Hillbilly Elegy: Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” and a proud son of the Appalachians himself, has highlighted the issues facing his community: unemployment, welfare dependency, family breakdown, heroin and falling life expectancy. Feeling overlooked and ignored by the coastal elites, rural and small-town Americans tended to support Donald Trump in 2016. That decision was not born out of ignorance, bigotry or nostalgia for the Confederate States of America; it was a perfectly reasonable and rational choice. It has been cogently argued that the areas most exposed to globalisation, and free trade with China in particular, are precisely the areas that suffer from the type of problems described by Vance. But a vote for Trump in 2016 was not just a vote against Hillary Clinton; it was also a vote against the globalist and chamber of commerce brands of conservatism that has been espoused for decades by Republican Presidents and candidates. Indeed, whether and to what extent to which Trump can respond to the economic and political concerns aspirations of rural and small-town American and maintain their support will be a key factor in the outcome of the 2020 election. It is no surprise that “Hickville” has been drawing so much fire from the establishment in recent years. The targets of these insults and slights should wear them as a badge of honour.