By Donald Lee Pardue (Flickr: Still Waving) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
What follows was adapted from my book The Cult of Individualism.
Though governmental display of the Confederate battle flag may be coming to an end—and rightly so—the cultural divide (like the racism) that it represents stays. Symbols are important, but they do not control underlying attitudes. For more than fifty years, the battle flag has represented the resentments of a large group of Americans—referred to by David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America as the “Borderers,” descendants, spiritually and often in fact (as I am), of people from the Scottish lowlands who came to the American colonies in the eighteenth century, often after a generation or two in Ulster Plantation in Ireland.
The Borderers were not received well by the “older” colonists, Fischer’s Quakers, Cavaliers and Puritans. They pushed west as soon as they were able, settling first in the Appalachian foothills where their resentments toward the wealthier, coastal colonists festered, exploding occasionally into violence, as it did during the War of the Regulation in the Carolina piedmont during the 1760s and, after the Revolution, during the Whiskey Rebellion. Contemporary attitudes toward the Borderers still reflects those inherited from colonial days, terms like “hillbilly” and “red neck” encompassing stereotypes now centuries old.
The attitudes of those who saw the Borderer culture as backward, instead of demolishing Borderer attitudes, contributed to the culture’s revival in the late twentieth century and, eventually, to its political resurgence. Starting with the Reagan era, this revival has shifted the entire American political debate far to the right. Referring to people as “hillbillies” and “rednecks” because their beliefs do not conform to the dominant media pattern has now proven insufficient for dismissing the Borderers from the political realm. Instead, it turned them into an opposition to the social changes and the governmental policies that began under the New Deal and continued into the Civil Rights era. They were powerful, even in their days in the “wilderness” after the Barry Goldwater disaster.
In its rise from its own ashes, the American conservative movement has made effective use of the Borderer vision of American individualism as well as of the resentment of the defeated, much as Democratic politicians in the South had done almost a century earlier. Unfortunately, from that low point after Goldwater’s 1964 defeat, the movement’s successes have also exacerbated American divides (red state/blue state, conservative/liberal, rural/urban) even as they have renewed the strength of an older but battered vision of America.
Not even Hollywood could completely destroy the older vision of the individual as independent entity so long imbedded in the “hayseed” population. Its reality was too strong a presence, even when it was converted into parody, in too much of America. The media have been complicit, even helping enhance the resentments that the conservative movement was harnessing so effectively through its depictions of Borderer America culminating, of course, in John Boorman’s 1972 film Deliverance.
The “hillbilly” is the repository for all the negative attitudes in sophisticated quarters for that other, that Borderer America—and, at the same time, he has become the Borderer thumb in the eye to the coastal elites. He is the image of the defeated “worst” of America (the stereotypical Borderer) as well as the symbol of their rise from the ashes. The Confederate soldier in a soiled and torn uniform on license plates in the 1960s south over the words “Fergit, Hell” was more than just a statement on a century-old war. It was a challenge, one that seemed forlorn at the time, to the secular-liberal culture that seemed on the verge of dominating every aspect of American life.
Yet the “hillbilly” is an element of all American lives, whether they love to hate it, hate to love it, or just plain love it. As Appalachian studies scholar J. W. Williamson writes in Hillbillyland,
The hillbilly lives not only in hills but on the rough edge of the economy, wherever that happens to land him. Meanwhile, in the normative heart of the economy, where the middle class strives and where cartoon hillbillies and other comic rural characters have entertained us on a regular basis since at least the mid-1800s, we take secret pleasure in the trashing of hallowed beliefs and sacred virtues—not to mention hygiene. …
As rural memory, the hillbilly is not so easily dismissed. Hillbillyland is coated in barnyard, and the residue sticks like mud. Its denizens perversely refuse to modernize, obliviously miss the need to be in squalor. Free of our squeamishness, the hillbilly thrives in squalor. He’s the shadow of our doubt.
Williamson’s point, that the hillbilly may be easy to dismiss but always remains with us, on the edges of our consciousness and our politics, is well taken, but I do not think he goes quite far enough. As politics of the Bush and Obama eras have shown us, it is dangerous to dismiss the Borderer as hillbilly, and not simply because he hangs around the edges. The hillbilly is no simpleton, no bumpkin, though often is dismissed as such in popular culture. Instead, he is a vital force in America, an image even donned by David “Mudcat” Saunders, a liberal political activist from Virginia who long slept under a Confederate battle flag. Saunders is proud of his heritage and culture yet is neither beholden to it nor a part of what has often been presented as its decaying and racist monolith. Today, the hillbilly image is worn, by Saunders and many others, as much as a rebuke to the East Coast elites as that Rebel license plate of 50 years ago. They wear the image with pride and as a much more sophisticated statement than those it is aimed at often realize—which is part of the point. Though it has become a symbol of white supremacy, the flag has been used otherwise—which is part of the problem, today.
Country musician Brad Paisley’s 2013 song “Accidental Racist” (recorded with rapper LL Cool J) shows the confusion that the battle flag can also engender, especially among Southerners and Borderers. The song is a genuine attempt to come to terms both with racism and with Southern (and often Borderer) pride. The white character apologizes for a tee shirt with the battle flag upon it, saying he didn’t mean to offend, only to say that he is a fan of the 70s rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. Then, oddly, the black character addresses him as “Mr. White Man,” rapping in completely stereotypical terms about whites while wanting to be treated as an individual himself. Both characters want to be treated as individual human beings, but both complain in stereotypes about the other and presenting themselves as stereotypes:
I’m just a white man
(If you don’t judge my do-rag)
Coming to you from the southland
(I won’t judge your red flag)
The racial attitudes presented in the song aren’t mean-spirited but are simply ignorant of the “other”—on both sides, the hillbilly and the gangsta.
The hillbilly is the other side of the American coin, the tail to the head that is shown in contemporary media. Instead of the person who rises above the crowd, the hillbilly deliberately falls below it.
As Rodger Cunningham writes in Apples on the Flood:
Mountaineers have been categorized by the dominant culture as “contemporary ancestors,” as noble or ignoble savages. … In this disconfirmation, the dominator implicitly denies the dominated an inner self and an ability to think and act on one’s own behalf. Such disconfirmation can take “benevolent,” patronizing forms, which are perhaps most damaging.
In part, today’s hillbilly is a rebuke to these attitudes, taking on the negative as badges of pride. Though the ‘east coast elite’ have long claimed to want to “help” the poor of the Borderers, the words they use make one suspicious of their motives and make Borderers want to lash back at them. Is it any wonder? Just think of the words today’s liberals use to disparage their conservative, small-town opponents: knuckledraggers, rednecks, know-nothings (harkening back to an older time), and, of course, hillbillies.
Even back in the 1930s, the view of many secular-liberal Americans toward Appalachia and Scots-Irish-based Borderer cultures of America’s interior certainly was patronizing. But these Borderers, though relatively poor, were also a source of income for many, not least for those in the growing media empires like the ones of Hollywood.
Because they are necessarily urban based, what the media present of rural and small-town life is rarely close to actual Borderer life. When it comes to the Borderers, the media just do not know what they are seeing. Even when media figures themselves have Borderer backgrounds, they have had to become immersed within a milieu dominated by secular-liberal sensibilities and preconceptions—allowing for the continued popularity of someone seen in the media as almost a self-parody, Sarah Palin. Having shed much of the culture of their youth, a necessary trade-off for success in the new environment, not even media stars of Borderer descent can go back home and report on it with any real understanding. They fall back to presenting stereotypical images, as we have seen recently relating to the battle-flag debate, ones generally created by others within the secular-liberal tradition, by people with no direct experience of the culture so often unintentionally parodied.
The battle flag will disappear from governmental space. But the attitudes behind it will continue to fester and to affect American politics until other Americans stop their own stereotyping of this large swathe of the American public.