Rednecks, White Trash, and Blue Collars, Part 3

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, I’ve tried — using a mixture of personal anecdotes, first-hand observations over a lifetime, and some semifactual analysis — to show the lesser-realized side of who some in the mainstream media classify as “rednecks.” Of course, I know these very same people not as “rednecks,” but simply as white semirural and rural working-class Americans.

Basically, my point has been to give these folks a little bit of positive coverage so lacking in many venues of the media today. As I said in Part 1 of this series, I marvel at how few sympathetic (or even accurate) portrayals of rural America there are anywhere in the mainstream these days. Think about it:

Scarce in offices or homes nowadays are Norman Rockwell’s (or even Andrew Wyeth’s) poignant portraits of country life — they’ve been replaced everywhere you look by the fashion show of chic modern art’s themeless abstraction, a lot of which we’re paying for with our tax dollars, by the way…

Gone from primetime TV are The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, and Walker, Texas Ranger — instead we’re offered such magnetic fare as Paris Hilton’s inane The Simple Life and the acidic, rural-America-bashing King of the Hill

Absent from the big screen are characters like fed-up rural everyman Buford Pusser from Walking Tall, Eastwood’s titular hero from The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Burt Reynolds’ roguish, libertine anti-hero from Smokey and the Bandit — they’ve been supplanted by the X-Men and cyber-savior Neo from The Matrix

Unheard on much of today’s airways are the likes of Bob Seger’s trucker anthem “Turn the Page” or John Denver’s nostalgic “Country Roads” and joyous “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” — they’re drowned out by the wholesome messages of gangsta rap…

Don’t get me wrong. There are still lots of hugely popular country music stars and wildly successful “redneck” comedians. It’s just that they now are considered niche entertainers where they once would’ve been the very definition of the American mainstream (like in the late ’70s and early ’80s). But I digress.

This series isn’t about the whims of the mainstream’s taste in entertainment. It’s about the mainstream media’s slow-but-determined marginalization of what’s still a vital and dynamic — no, an irreplaceable — segment of our culture. Keep reading…

Wearing Our Country’s “Red” Badges of Courage

Ironically, it was that great chronicler of Americana, Tom Wolfe (the famous author in white), who in one way inspired me to write this series. His comments on what he calls the “good ol’ boys” in his May 2006 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities alluded to two things I wanted to explore more:

First, the tone-deafness of many in both the mainstream media and in politics to the sensibilities of rural white Americans (a fact Wolfe argues cost the Democrats the presidency in 2004) — and second, the inherent fighting spirit of “rednecks,” a trait without which the U.S. would either not be at all, or be not what we are today…

Now, when many folks think of stereotypical fighting “rednecks,” they may reflexively flash to historic episodes like the Hatfield-McCoy feud — or even to the average Saturday night at the local roadhouse. But in his Jefferson Lecture, Wolfe cites the fact that these largely Scots-Irish “rednecks” (he doesn’t call them this) have formed the spine of every American combat force since the Revolution, including Civil War armies of both sides. And it’s because of this inborn martial spirit of rural Americans of Scots-Irish and similar origins that we owe the greatest debt to the “rednecks” among us.

What do I mean by “inborn”?

According to Wikipedia and other sources (like James Webb’s oft-credited book Born Fighting), there’s a credible body of thought called the “Celtic Thesis,” which suggests that millennia of the brutal, warlike, seminomadic herdsman’s lifestyle in which so many Celtic groups (this includes the Scots, Irish, Welsh, and others who emigrated to populate early America) eked out an existence actually bred these folks for fighting.

It’s not too far-fetched when you think about it from a Darwinian perspective…

The harsher the conditions, the more likely that only the strongest and hardiest would survive to breed — and perhaps better than any other word, “harsh” would no doubt describe the life of the average Celt. But since both intertribal combat and the periodic defense of lands against foreign marauders were likely a staple of nomadic Celtic life, it stands to reason that those most adept at fighting might also have had a distinct edge when it came to survival and breeding. Consider this, to If the average lifespan of a Celt herdsman were, say, 35 years, there’d be a more accelerated evolution of martial traits within this population than one in which that average life span were 70 years or more — such that a less strenuous lifestyle might yield (like in the more civilized cities).

Add it all up, and you’ve got an entire mini-race of people rapidly forged over centuries by the conditions of their own lives into a hardy, fierce, battle-ready strain of humanity — almost a subspecies of soldiers, it would seem. Then you’ve got a massive migration of them to the mountains of the Southeastern and lower Midwestern U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries…

The end result: A swift amassment of a force of fierce Americans tailor-made for the country’s harshest environments (such as the Ozarks and Appalachians were at the time, the Rockies having not yet been conquered). These folks pushed the pioneers westward and held their ground against the elements, the wilderness, and the Indians — bearing more of their hardy, fiercely independent offspring along the way to live and fight another day. They also banded together to fight off the British, the Spanish, and even their own brothers in the American Civil War.     

And indeed, descendants of these are still doing a disproportionate amount of the fighting today. Consider:

  • According to a Chicago Tribune article from April 27, 2005, 35% of U.S. casualties in the Iraq War hailed from small, rural towns — yet only 25% of the population as a whole call these places home. Of course, not ALL of these small hometowns are likely in typical “redneck” areas (the South, the lower Midwest, and the Rocky Mountains), but the bulk of them no doubt are 
  • According to public data compiled by the Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis, U.S. military recruitment occurs from rural zones at more than DOUBLE the population-adjusted enlistment rate of urban zones
  • Also according to the Heritage Foundation’s compilation of public data from 1999 and 2003, the Southern U.S. perennially leads the nation’s 9 territory zones in military recruitment as a percentage of target-aged population. Some examples: Virginia’s enlistment ratio of 1.27 more than doubles Massachusetts’ 0.59 mark. West Virginia’s 1.40 dwarfs New York’s 0.86 number. South Carolina’s 1.34 trounces California’s 0.90 percentage. (1.0 = U.S. average. The higher the number, the more enlistments per resident of prime military age.)

The crux of the matter is this: Remove the “rednecks” from the American landscape and there are precious few left to do our fighting for us — whether the wars in which we’re engaged are justified, popular, or not. We may, in fact, owe our very existence to them. That’s a blood debt the mainstream in this country isn’t repaying in respect…

Defending an American Archetype

A friend of mine who reads this column asked me why I was writing a three-part series about “rednecks” when there are so many other things going on right now that are worth writing about. It’s a worthy question. And there are many reasons why I consider the discussion of “redneck” America timely. Here are just a few:

1) The slow transition of our economy from one fundamentally based on domestic manufacturing and production to one based on technology and services — that imports its hard goods from other countries. This has implications for the future of such typical “redneck” (and largely unionized) vocations as factory work, trucking, mining, auto assembly, etc.

2) The cultural shift that’s challenging (some would say marginalizing) such historically mainstream American institutions as the practice of religion, heterosexuality, opposite-sex marriage, military service, citizenship, firearm ownership, private property rights — and scholastic, athletic, or workplace achievement through competition. Many of these things are staples of “redneck” life.

3) The fact that America is currently at war (or at least militarily engaged) on multiple foreign fronts. As you’ve just learned, this has major “redneck” ramifications…    

Basically, my overarching point in devoting so much ink to “redneck” America is to show just how integral to the American fabric (and economy) these people are — no matter how distasteful that fact may be to many who are now front and center in the mainstream media. And indeed, many Whiskey & Gunpowder readers who rendered feedback on the first two parts of this series wrote in with their own positive anecdotes and affirmations about the shunned, yet vital majority these pundits call “rednecks.” But a few criticized me for not painting the whole picture of this huge segment of Americana…

Rest assured, throughout a lifetime of interactions with these folks, I’ve known every stripe of them — from spitting images of the most caricatured negative stereotypes of white America imaginable to those who’ve proved time and again by their actions that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Nothing’s black and white, but shades of gray. But to the folks who think I’m glorifying or over-romanticizing “rednecks” with this series, I say this:

It wasn’t my goal to provide balance within my essays — this isn’t an academic exercise or an investigative report. Rather, it was my goal to provide these essays as balance to what’s already skewed horribly to one end of the scale: the mainstream media’s portrayal and perception of “rednecks.”   

Here’s the real bottom line, for me: What is today derided as “redneck” by the bicoastal hipster pundits so popular with the nouveau intelligentsia is a distinctly American archetype that I, for one, don’t want to see ignored, marginalized, or ridiculed into extinction…

Because an America without them — and without their influence resonating within the popular culture, no matter who doesn’t like it — isn’t all that it should be.

In black and white, and “red” all over,

Jim Amrhein
Contributing editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
September 27, 2006