Up on Banker’s Hill the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn.
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 is a professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the author of Immigration and American Popular Culture (with Jeffrey Melnick).