27 August, 2006

Hill-Billies and Intelligence

The film (= movie) "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" is listed among my favorites. It was one that probably outraged some people but seemed to be a rare sympathetic portrayal of a section of American society usually held up to ridicule. The hero was shown to be clever, resourceful, dynamic, honourable, honest (well, almost), well-groomed .... and very lucky!

Many of us, outside the United States, grew up with the old Hollywood stereotype of Hill-Billies: lazy, deliberately ignorant, singing loudly but not particularly well, illiterate, racist, always drunk on illegal spirits (= moonshine), incestuous, dishonest, following all manner of weird fundamentalist cults and all-in-all rather stupid ....... not a very nice picture at all.

During my service with the Australian Regular Army in the Viet-Nam War, I had to spend several weeks in a U.S. Army camp, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of Yanks, among whom were quite a few Hill-Billies. There were indeed a few Hill-Billy soldiers whose interests did not go much beyond booze, fast cars, slow women and not much else above the belt but these were very much in the minority. The rest of the Hill-Billies seemed quite intelligent, perceptive, full of curiosity, brave, hard working, neat and tidy, open-minded, progressive, utterly reliable, interested in classical music and in serious literature, keen to use their GI Bill Of Rights to go to College, friendly to all regardless of race, with a good sense of duty and and a good sense of humour.

Years later, passing through a few "Hill-Billy" states in the United States, the rural poverty in some parts was obvious but I just didn't see anyone with two heads, unshoed, swigging whiskey out of rough jars; nor did I notice any child-brides with a herd of kids, dilapidated houses, rusty rifles or any signs of laziness and stupidity. There were houses kept in good repair with hard work and no money; there were vehicles still running well but years and years past their trade-in date. But not a stereotypical Hill-Billy in sight, not even one.

So ..... just what is the origin of this very unfair and nasty stereotype of Hill-Billies? What is its purpose? Why does it persist? Why aren't, say, Cajuns or residents of Brooklyn or members of specific Native American first-nations subjected to similar negative stereotyping? Is it anything to do with the Civil War of 140 years ago? Is there something shameful way back in history about which everybody knows but nobody speaks?

Just wondering, that's all.

8 comments:

Jc said...

"Why aren't, say, Cajuns or residents of Brooklyn or members of specific Native American first-nations subjected to similar negative stereotyping?"


But they are Graham. Brooklynites are always there to cop a pasting by New Yorkers ec. Deservedly so i may add, seeing that say some of these Brooklynites are 3rd generation italian and still behave as though they're straight off the boat guineas.

Nearly everyone cops their fair of pastings in the US, or at least those outside of the 4 to 5 big cities.

Red necks deserve the pasting they get becasue of the way some of them speak. They have a horrendous accent and most lose it when or if they go to college.



Red necks are about the only legit group who can cop a pasting in the US without fear of being called a racist. The rest are pasted quietly.
Even wasps get laughed at.

Red necks are scots Irish by the way and the best damn fighting men in the world. The US military could not even begin to be as good as they are without these dudes. But boy they sure sound dumb.

Good movie post by the way. keep it up.

professor rat said...

The worst offenders here are obviously Marxists. In just three countries, Russia, China and Cambodia mad Marxists out Holomodored the actual Holocaust. They killed millions more ' hillbillies' or poor peasants, than even the famous Shoah - and they did it in even worse ways!
I think it's a large part of the Marxist psychology to look down on the peasant and even see them as less than human.
This is the wickedest and most dangerously malignant political philosophy on earth. Just look at the giant Gulag that is the DPRK.
I mean I was agin the Vietnam war but I never was any Leninist UT.
You gotta believe me!

skepticlawyer said...

I think you'll find something similar happens in Australia, too. The targets are called 'bogans' or 'rednecks', and the stereotypes - allowing for differences across nationality - are often the same. The whole Hanson blow-up is a classic example of the genre.

naomi said...

Ooh, interesting post Graham. I have done lots of reading about the creation of the notion of white trash in the U.S., which comes out of the eugenic family studies that were done in the late 1880s and the period before World War II. The classic examples are the Jukes and the Kallikaks, but there were other family studies, mostly concentrated on the Appalachian towns.

It's a bit of a chicken and egg situation in the sense that it's impossible to unpack the family studies from the stereotypes of the day. The studies arose from fears of the effects of mass migration. The sense was the the vigour of the new world and its manifest destiny would be destroyed by the influx of old world migrants, who brought their crime and problems. The economic and social reality was that many of those migrants went out to work in hammer and pick mining towns, but got stuck when the mines became unviable after technological development and capitalist investment took off. They then became a charge on nascent systems of poor relief or ended up in prisons or other institutions. Of course the blame for that process was laid at the feet of the migrants themselves, and working class ideas of marriage and partnership were depicted as illegitimacy and casual parenthood.

I disagree with you about race issues though. In nearly every narrative of white trash you've got miscegenation, described as 'colour' from Indian or Negro families. The earliest study, Dugdale's 'The Jukes', pointed out that one family of Swiss migrants had, through the supposedly wanton ways of its women, who got off with folks of various degrees of colour, left several hundred dependents in jails and institutions. When these studies were mixed with Galton's English theories of eugenics and the development of concepts of mental deficiency and feeble-mindedness you got a powerful combination that in the US was used to justify sterilisation of those deemed defective, including Native Americans and those judged to be of mixed race.

A woman I met in the U.S. a few years ago had done a study of how the white trash stories were tied in with the development of the Appalachian Trail as a tourist trail. Basically, the family studies were a means of controlling populations of poor people who were seen as obstructing the realisation of a myth of America's founding fathers. That stereotype was powerful and has stuck - look at Deliverance. Look also at the Deerhunter, which is a counter-narrative of a vigorous immigrant mining community, tied in with the sad lot of Vietnam veterans.

It's also interesting what you say about Cajuns. I think the difference is that they are an older group and had a key role in the founding myth of the US, having been taken to Louisiana to defend it against the English in the War of Independence. Later migrants - Poles, Swedes, the Swiss, Germans - were not viewed in the same light. It's also interesting when you consider the opportunity provided by the military. A Cajun bloke I met in the same trip to the US said the military was the only way young men could get ahead and get out of Louisiana, and it was great. He said because they spent all that time with African-Americans and other disadvantaged groups they were much more tolerant than their neighbours, and had a much wider perspective on life and history, much as he celebrated his Cajun identity.

Andrew Elder said...

You would enjoy this, well worth reading. Its author is running for the US Senate.

Ungrateful Troublemaker said...

Andrew Elder:
Thanks for the link. Webb sounds like the fellows I met - give them an opportunity to improve themselves and they'll take it - just the opposite to the Hollywood stereotype

Ungrateful Troublemaker said...

ScepticLawyer:
Some of the Aussie-bashing committed by the new media duing the time Pauline Hanson was politically active was lifted straight from the Hollywood stereotype of Hill-Billies. Lurid stuff but untrue. Hate to spoil a good story but .... We sit on out verandahs, not porches; we might argue and abuse someone rather than hit them with "our"(??) baseball bats; nobody here chews tobacco, dipping is unknown .... and so on, ad nauseum.

JC:
It's interesting that the Australian news media lit onto the term "Red Neck" to call Australian nationalists and anyone they didn't like living in rural Australia.

Ungrateful Troublemaker said...

Naomi:
Negative stereotyping of poor whites definitely predates the opening of the Appalachian Trail to tourism; you are probably right in taking it back to the 19th century and the rise of eugenics.

The usual reason given for the differentiation of Hill-Billies - that they were non-slave-owners who sided with the Union side in the Civil War - just doesn't hold water.

What that Cajun fellow said to you about military service in the U.S. being a path out of povery is correct; this was a consistent story I heard from Chicanos, urban Black former gang members and similarly disadvantaged blokes [in Australia military service became a path for social mobility too - downwards - but that's another story].

I had noticed myself the natural ease with which Cajun and Hill-Billy soldiers ["southerners"] mixed with Black soldiers. Race and civil rights issues did come up in conversation but with an amazing lack of any rancour and absolutely no subservience or arrogance whatsoever. So much for the "racist" stereotype.

Sometimes the origin of white trash stories is obvious - the "stupid Pole" stories are almost certainly direct translations of what was said among another immigrant group which did not enjoy being in too close a contact with vigorously nationalistic and Catholic Poles back in the old homeland [the "Stupid Pole" stories don't work in Australia because of our very different migration history].

Sometimes such stories make no sense whatsoever to me. Anti-Irish sentiment inside the former British Empire was ugly but understandable, given the fear of Fenians, Irish terrorists and assassins and given too the fear of the Empire being taken over by Irish Catholics and run by the Pope. Similar attitudes to the Irish in the United States are inexplicable, given that the U.S. has always been a haven for Irish nationalists and given the tremendous work the Irish inmmigrants did in building the United States into a world power.