Of Bankers, Pundits, and Hillbillies

Up on Banker’s Hill the party’s going strong

Down here below we’re shackled and drawn.

                     —Bruce Springsteen

What does Rolling Stone’s bad-boy investigative reporter Matt Taibbi have in common with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly?

That might sound like the lead-in to an off-color joke, but I’m serious. Despite their different forums and ostensibly different political orientations, both men reflexively invoke images of poor people—desperately poor people from Appalachia in particular—as cautionary tales, supposedly vivid representatives of what is wrong with our country. For good measure, both toss in “war on drugs” rhetoric to seal the scary deal that “hillbillies”—Taibbi’s word, not mine—are not only economically bankrupt but morally bankrupt as well.

Poverty in Appalachia has been harrowing for well over a century. Moreover, that poverty was planned. At the end of the Civil War, both black and white Appalachians were trapped in the subsistence practice of sharecropping, a struggle to wrest the barest of livings from someone else’s land that shared much with the economic system of slavery. The speedy industrialization and subsequent regional over-production that followed—most famously coal mining, but also timber, textiles, and chemical production—not only bequeathed the exploitation and unsafe working conditions depicted in John Sayles’s movie Matewan, but also had a lasting and deeply detrimental effect on the region’s economic health. The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Appalachia hard by the 1920s, when Southern politicians managed to prevent domestic and agricultural workers from qualifying for Social Security benefits so as to keep them from moving even incrementally closer to economic independence. In the 1960s, when the Johnson administration pushed Appalachian poverty into the national line of vision, one in three Appalachians lived in poverty. More recently, mountaintop removal mining has had a devastating effect on the region. 2008 census figures showed that Appalachia was home to 13.3 million people living in poverty. In some areas, as many as 16.8% of homes are classified as substandard, which means that the house has more people than it has rooms and lacks indoor plumbing. Rates of poverty among children in Appalachia range from 17% in some counties to 56.4% in others. 13.6 million Appalachians have no health insurance (which renders the “hillbilly teeth” sold on Halloween considerably less funny). Last month hundreds of miners gathered in St. Louis to protest both the economic and mining practices that contribute to poverty in Appalachia (stealing retirees’ pensions and stripmining) on the part of Arch Coal, the second largest coal company in the U.S.

When O’Reilly, in a 2009 interview with Diane Sawyer, discussed these economic realities, he disparaged Appalachians as ignorant drunks willfully keeping themselves stuck in a “culture of poverty,” calling the region’s children “hopeless” because of their parents’ innate lack of ambition. As might be expected, the interview generated a great deal of furious response, both from people within the region personally hurt by this application of stereotype and from others outside who were repulsed by this latest articulation of Fox News’s contempt for the poor. With all this in mind, it’s both galling and bewildering that Matt Taibbi, groping in an otherwise instructive piece about the chicanery involved in the bailout of Wall Streets moneyed interests for an analogy to communicate how seemingly ad hoc crisis measures have been institutionalized, writes, “We thought we were just letting a friend crash at the house for a few days; we ended up with a family of hillbillies who moved in forever, sleeping nine to a bed and building a meth lab on the front lawn.”

At best, Taibbi is being lazy here, reaching for a slur that is near to hand to squeeze shock value out of a hateful stereotype: Appalachians are poor because they deserve to be. At worst, he is rearticulating the Reagan’s disgusting image of the “welfare queen” who takes and takes but is unwilling to contribute to society. In doing so, Taibbi knocks at the door of a ringing defense of 21st century capitalism, wherein the poorest people endanger a healthy economy, and the better-off are at risk of contagion from them. It’s particularly frightening in the context of American history to put forth, as Taibbi does, an image hinging on how dangerous it is when the wrong people get into your neighborhood.

Taibbi’s starkly punishing “war on drugs” language deploys this vocabulary of invasion to identify a group of people who supposedly cook meth because they’re rotten at their core (and sleep nine to a bed because they’re tacky). This demonization of addicts is all too familiar to me. Having watched heroin ravage the neighborhood I grew up in—at least four dead, including my brother, on my old block alone—I am accustomed to encountering language that blames people who just don’t want to better themselves and get off drugs, darn it. Sometimes the language is coded, but sometimes it’s not: the meth Taibbi invokes is frequently referred to as “hillbilly crack.”

The concrete relationship between meth and the rural economic wastelands of the United States is depicted in a moving way in the 2010 movie Winter’s Bone, in which even the landscape is empty and bleak. There’s no work to be had, so people cook meth. They are resigned to the fact that sometimes they will die doing it. “When it’s either the mine or the Kentucky National Guard,” sing Old Crow Medicine Show in their 2008 song “Methamphetamine,” “I’d rather sell him a line than be dying in the coal yard.”

But the most important word in Taibbi’s cruel put-down might be one of the shortest and most common: “we.” In my teaching life, I often wish for a rubber stamp to print certain comments I find myself writing over and over. “Who is this ‘we’ you’re writing about?” is one stamp I’d order up to simplify my job. Obviously, Taibbi’s “we” is not simply “Americans,” because some people are being pointedly excluded. “Decent” Americans? Suburban Americans? Educated Americans? The mental exercise of filling in that blank—who is “we” to Taibbi and O’Reilly, and who are the outside invaders trashing up their well-manicured front yards—is painful.

It’s a shame, really, because Taibbi has shown the potential to make Rolling Stone halfway relevant again. If he could learn to set aside his class bias, a lot of what he writes is insightful and deep. “Taibbi’s too smart and wickedly funny to opt for the hillbilly default button,” historian Jeff Biggers, author of The United States of Appalachia, among other books, told me. “When it comes to banking machinations, he should turn off ‘Buckwild’ and take a cue from Anne Royall, the hillbilly muckraker–the original American muckraker that carved out Taibbi’s literary niche nearly two centuries ago–who single-handedly took on the corruption of the Bank of the United States.”

Ultimately, I mourn the way Taibbi has surrendered the rhetorical battle. The wonderful radical Appalachian poet Don West pointed out more than half a century ago the great American sleight-of-hand to which Taibbi contributes: somehow convincing a broad swath of Americans that it is the poor who are to blame, not those who have made millions after bloody millions from institutionalized racism, from environmentally reckless industrial policies, from mass incarceration and the drug laws that facilitate it. Taibbi owes Appalachians an apology, to be sure. And his readers need to refuse to be part of Taibbi’s “we,” and instead join the community on the lawn—they’re not cooking meth, they’re Occupying.

Rachel Rubin

Rachel Rubin is a professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the author of Immigration and American Popular Culture (with Jeffrey Melnick).

This entry was posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Understanding Class, Working-Class Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Of Bankers, Pundits, and Hillbillies

  1. C. Burkey says:

    I think you are over-thinking an offhand comment by Taibbi.

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    • Lou Martin says:

      For what it’s worth, it is the casual nature of these comments that speaks to their pervasiveness. While each individual comment, joke, cartoon, or stereotypical represetation is harmless, their cumulative impact is enormous. They help to marginalize people who are currently fighting battles against powerful forces.

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  2. judith smith says:

    Stunning analysis, Rachel Rubin.

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  3. Kitty says:

    It has been a while since I have thought about all of this. It has been more than two decades since I studied Appalachian Studies and moved away from West Virginia. I think those of us from the region were aware when living there of the problem of poverty and we helped in whatever way we could, but many of us did not think of ourselves as “poor” or at least not as poor or as bad off as someone else who was in more need. I have always loathed the negative stereotypes. Not everyone in Appalachia lives in substandard housing or is poor or uneducated and I think that hurts to be lumped into the whole bunch when the media wants to show the worst conditions. The problem does need to be addressed and not forgotten, but I wish an outsider would learn the art of being a folklorist before starting all of this up again. As I said, I have not thought a lot about this topic in a while and since I do not watch Fox news, I was not even aware of their perpetrating of the same old stereotypes, so I feel a little rusty in expressing my thoughts. Thanks for the information. I will look into some of the books and other sources mentioned to refresh my memory along with my personal library.

    Thanks for mentioning Don West, who settled in my community in West Virginia in his later years. He was also an activist for unions and civil rights.

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    • Lou Martin says:

      I wanted to underscore an important point that you make, Kitty. There is a tendency to assume that poverty in Appalachia is or has always been worse than other regions. In fact, when Appalachia made national news at various times in the 20th century, it was often been because of its levels of poverty.

      Yet, one analysis of the 1990 census that was published in the Journal of Appalachian Studies–which I can’t locate at the moment–found that when you looked only at poverty rates of rural areas, the Southeast and Southwest had, if I’m remembering correctly, higher rates of rural poverty than Appalachia.

      I agree with you, Kitty, that we should address this problem but try not to repeat the mistakes of the past. I think the mistakes scholars have often made are to automatically associate the region with poverty and to assume that the causes of Appalachian poverty are different than those for the rest of the country.

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      • Kitty says:

        Very good points, Lou. Yes, I believe you are correct about the poverty in the South. Many people equate the Southeast and Appalachia to be one in the same and they really are not. There is some overlap, but especially when talking about Central Appalachia where I am from, it is a distinct region. As I reread what I wrote below, I see that I have written quite a bit. Sorry if I got long winded, but it really is not much compared to the complexity of the topic. I also realize there are problems in the region that I was not as aware of when living there though I have heard about from family and friends “back home” which are growing today but did not even try to highlight in my reply.

        I grew up in a more subsistence farming area only a county away from the coal fields. Most people had gardens and livestock and then supplemented that with hunting. We went to town once a week. My parents even remembered when the grist mills were still a part of everyday life. We were very clean people and most women I remember prided themselves on a clean home, their sewing abilities, keeping a garden, being able to can and preserve food, and good cooking. The lawns, outbuildings, and fields were kept nice as well. I can remember washing down the walls, the curtains, and all the whatnots every spring because the black dust of burning coal to heat the house and cook left black soot on everything. We did have electricity with modern appliances, indoor plumbing, and eventually a phone. I did know those without plumbing, but they were no less clean as they had carried in water and caught rainwater their whole lives so they did not think anything about it. People were more frugal and not wasteful as nothing was considered disposable. We practiced reusing and recycling before they were popular as well as organic farming which included caring about as well as caring for our livestock.

        My parents were born a few years before the Great Depression, so they remembered the hardships this time and the rationing of World War II. Though my mother would say “it was not shameful to be poor just inconvenient,” I never thought of us as poor. Really we were not as we had land to farm and timber which makes a big difference in taking care of yourself. We had what we needed. It really does depend on ones definition of poverty, success, and priorities. My parents would give away vegetables from the garden and meat from the freezer to anyone who came to visit. My dad would bring back a load of coal for the widows as well as supply them with wood for their stoves for the winter. Most paid him, but he never wanted to make a profit for this service. There are too many stories of how neighbors helped each other to include here, but we helped take care of each other as neighbors anywhere should.

        We had good teachers in our schools who were respected. Many of us were inspired to go to college or had vocational training. We understood the importance of an education. I think Homer Hickman makes this point very well in his books about the region. I have a cousin who went to MIT, a couple who went to Johns Hopkins even back in the 1940’s, I know a Rhodes Scholar and I went to a well known university which is in the Appalachian region. There are plenty of others and then there are those who went to a local college and either secured employment in the region or started their own business or even moved away. Just like people in other regions of the country, not everyone is going to be a Rhodes Scholar from Harvard or go to MIT. But the problem with these stereotypes of total poverty in Appalachia is not mentioning the people who have succeeded whether they are still living in the region or have left the region. It can give an impression to outsiders that it is hopeless.

        I know not everyone was like this or as those I stated above and I do not want to go to the other extreme and say we were the robust, romantic mountaineers, yet I deplore the image of everyone in Appalachia as being so poor, uneducated, lazy, and dirty. We have poverty just as any part of our nation does and as you said the reasons are not necessarily any different. The loss of jobs or loss of independence to be self sustaining from changing lifestyles is one of the greatest contributing factors. It is also very difficult to pull oneself up from true poverty. For everyone who somehow has a break and does so, there are still more left unable to make it out. As all over the country, mental illness and health issues still remains the elephant in the room which strikes those of all economic backgrounds, but is especially troublesome for the poor who are just trying to survive to begin with and have very little means of help.

        Thanks helping to get the gears greased and running again…

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      • Kitty says:

        Oops. I meant Homer Hickam, not Hickman. Sorry about that.

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      • Rachel Rubin says:

        Lou, you’re right that it is very important to look at how discussions/portraits of poverty are being *used,* and by whom. Sometimes rural poverty is played against urban poverty, too, with arguments that one group or another is more or less deserving of help. Most often these rhetorical gambits obscure the real lives (for better and for worse) of real people, which is likely the most dehumanizing aspect of the whole thing.

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      • Kitty says:

        I think ‘dehumanizing” is one of the best words to use for this topic and one I have used a bit recently in relating to how many who are unemployed or on assistance in some form or another all over the country and not just in Appalachia are being targeted by certain groups with similar stereotypes. These groups do dehumanize the unemployed and others so they can sway public opinion to blame the person rather than the circumstances for what has happened. It is truly unkind even cruel. Once again it is “lumping everyone in” with the bad apples so that no one deserves or should be helped. I also agree there is a pitting of urban and rural against one another. Another divide and conquer maneuver.

        I appreciated your reference to the Halloween teeth. What a powerful way to highlight how unempathetic some in our society can be towards those without health care when they think that having horrible teeth is funny. My mother and one of her first cousins were very ashamed of their teeth. My mother had her teeth pulled when I was 5 – she was 50 – for a full set of dentures. I was there when she was getting them pulled by the way. I have helped a friend “back home” to receive dental work so she could save her teeth as Medicaid there only pays for adult teeth to be pulled even if it is a simple cavity that with a filling could save the tooth for decades. I worked as a Medical Policy Specialist on the Medicaid account in the state I now live in, which does include some of Appalachia and before the cuts that have been occurring in the past two years or so, adults had extensive dental coverage under Medicaid. I am fed up with the negative talk about Medicaid recipients which in reality is against children, the disabled, the elderly, and a small number of poor working people. Many people do not understand who is on Medicaid but will jump on the bandwagon that these people are lazy and do not deserve help. (The myth of the illegal immigrant being on Medicaid is another one that I cannot stand as I can attest to the fact I have denied claims for services not deemed related to a life threatening emergency. As someone who has treated patients for emergencies, I care not who they are or from where they come. They are human beings and deserve no less than the best care we can provide and would want for ourselves or our loved ones. It is a human rights issue.)

        I was very disgusted at a representative in this state who said these people should just get a job. I asked her how can a child, a severely disabled person or an elderly person in a nursing home get a job much less one that has the benefits that would cover some of the illnesses and nursing care these people need. She is a nurse and knows better. I had talked to one of her staff members some time before she made this statement. His mother needed to go on Medicaid and the representative told him what he needed to do. So her talk seems very political and very divisive on purpose.

        Thanks again for the forum.

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    • Rachel Rubin says:

      Kitty, what you’ve written is so right on, and not “rusty” in any way!! My mother’s family has the same Appalachian successes you invoke–and failures, too. (Like every family everywhere, basically, right?) And Biggers mentions only a couple of the wonderful Appalachian historical antecedents to whom we are indebted. Stereotypes are as loathsome for the “lumping everyone together” as for the particular ways they may be wrong about the people they describe. Though blaming poor people (especially if you are a prep school boy like Taibbi) seems especially unkind to me. Anyway, thanks for your eloquence.

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  4. There likely is some sort of problem in the article where you say, “The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Appalachia hard by the 1920s, when Southern politicians managed to prevent domestic and agricultural workers from qualifying for Social Security benefits . . . .”
    Did you mean the 1940’s (rather than the 1920’s)? The Social Security Act wasn’t passed until 1935.

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    • Rachel Rubin says:

      It’s the sequencing that is unclear. The Depression hit in Appalachia in the 1920s, and then when we passed the Social Security Act, agricultural workers and domestic workers were excluded.

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  5. Lou Martin says:

    Great job, Rachel, for a very insightful article.

    As for “planned,” I definitely think that it’s something to consider. Darlene Wilson has written a wonderful article titled “The Felicitous Convergence of Mythmaking and Capital Accumulation: John Fox Jr. and the Formation of An (Other) Almost-White American Underclass” that appeared in the Journal of Appalachian Studies. She points out that the leading novelist–John Fox–who helped initially construct many of the stereotypes we associate with “Appalachia” (a concept Fox also helped create) had invested in land and mineral rights and profited from the exploitation of the region. So in that instance, his marginalization of these people through stereotypes certainly seems like either a plan or a wonderful coincidence for him.

    As for the War on Poverty programs of the 1960s, there has been some great work recently that demonstrates that Appalachian stereotypes partly confirmed academics’ belief that it was deficient subcultures that created poverty, not capitalism or power relations. Furthermore, their fundamental misunderstanding of the roots of Appalachian poverty partly resulted in ineffective programs, some of which sought to “correct” cultural deficiencies. So while this might not fall under the heading of “planning” to create or perpuate poverty, I certainly think that some of the failures of the War on Poverty in Appalachia were part of the same set of beliefs that led to the marginalization and exploitation of people in the region.

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    • Roy Wilson says:

      Lou,

      Thanks for the references.

      Maybe it is the nature of planning that is at issue.

      Suppose I am writing a book that portrays a certain category of persons in a derogatory way.

      Of course, I’d like my book to be a best-seller.

      If it is, my derogatory portrayal will go viral, possibly worsening how my subjects are treated in general and by specific institutions.

      Does this mean that I specifically intended these subjects to suffer more than they already do? Maybe yes, maybe no. I don’t think the intention of an act can be reliably deduced from the consequences of that act in the absence of very specific evidence which (as far as I can tell from Rachel’s piece or your comment) has not been provided.
      .

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      • Rachel Rubin says:

        Cynthia Duncan’s book _Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America_ is great on this. You should check it out, and also Billings and Blee, _The Road to Poverty: The Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia._ There’s a great deal of concrete evidence and historical context there (more than would fit in a blog entry!).

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      • Roy Wilson says:

        Thanks. I will.

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  6. Roy Wilson says:

    Rachel,

    Although I generally accept your analysis, I have trouble with your use of the italicized word ‘planned’. If you mean that actions were planned without regard to the negative consequences to poor Blacks and Whites, I have no doubt you are correct. To say that these consequences were themselves planned needs some support since it implies an intention to bring about the negative consequences you describe and rightfully deplore. What say you?🙂

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  7. Wow. Thank you, Rachel, for raising my consciousness.

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