Election Pitfall: Hating on Hillbillies

All I want for Christmas is for our presidential candidates to be struck dumb for a week or two, maybe even through the Republican primary votes in Iowa and New Hampshire. Imagine Newt and Mitt, Ron and Michele, their mouths opening and closing like fish. Getting all red-faced and frustrated when nothing comes out. And while I’m at it, let’s silence the pundits, too. And the screeching partisans indulging in bitterness and fury, sneering and hate.

It’s not that democracies don’t need debate. We surely do. We don’t even have to be particularly civil. I mourn the loss of Christopher Hitchens, who was himself a champion sneerer. The difference was that his scorn was always just the icing on a passionately reasoned argument, footnoting observations from sources ranging from Greek historians to comic strips.

Most Americans, though, have grown to believe the sneer is the argument, and that personal insults about hairstyles and lifestyles and places of worship and of origin have the same weight as logic and reason. It dooms us when we try to solve complicated problems like the economy or foreign policy, education or healthcare, and deepens ordinary divisions like region, ethnicity, and class.

A couple weeks ago, New York’s condescending, arrogant, Muslim-baiting Republican Representative Peter King indulged in casual slurs, describing Newt Gingrich as condescending and arrogant with “a Southern, anti-union attitude that appeals to the mentality of hillbillies at revival meetings.”

A few days later, when news broke about a church in a small Kentucky town that banned an interracial couple from attending, many of the comments could be summed up as saying, “That’s terrible, but what can you expect in a barbaric place like that?” Because the American South, including Kentucky and Newt’s Georgia, of course, has a lock on bigotry.

It gave me flashbacks to Election 2000. That was the year Al Gore went around trying not to use four syllable words, while George W. Bush grinned and drawled and tipped his cowboy hat, and good old Ralph Nader talked about globalization and the working class, while Naderites sneered at comparatively unimportant issues like racism and homophobia.

When the votes were tallied (or not), all the bulletin boards, letters to the editor pages, and other platforms for rants were almost exclusively full of politically correct, blue state types ignoring how Nader split the vote and spilling out their vitriolic hate for “poor white trash” in the red states.

“How stupid could they be pulling the lever for a rich Republican sure to cut their benefits?” “How could they be such idiots?” “Those Bubbas… those hillbillies… voting against their own interests.”

Sometimes they even mentioned Kentucky by name. People that knew me. And knew where I was from. Though perhaps they thought it had worn off, me being up in New York so long. An East Village dyke.

Pundits explained it was a kind of delusion, poor Americans voting for the rich, charming, down-to-earth Bush because they wanted to believe they could one day be like him — and that pulling the Republican lever might give them a share in his good fortune. That may have been partly true. But it was strange no one said the obvious. That maybe they — we — just didn’t want to vote for stuck-up Gore or sneering Greens that talked about class and poverty but clearly despised us, knowing nothing about our lives or culture beyond the TV stereotypes that exist in shows like “The Beverly Hillbillies,” which have been reincarnated in “Hillbilly Handfishin’,” “Redneck Riviera,” and “American Hoggers.”

These shows laugh at us, not with us. Pretend places like Atlanta or Louisville don’t exist, and nobody there is struggling for progressive change. Ignore social complexities. How a man like my uncle might still use the word “colored,” but was more comfortable with his black co-workers at the factory than with his university-educated children. Maybe his black co-workers weren’t equally comfortable with him, but they weren’t at war.

In the imagination of this country, the South isn’t just more conservative and religious, it’s the sole repository of inbred idiots and genuine all-consuming bigotry, as if racism or homophobia in Cincinnati or LA doesn’t really count. As if there’s no interstate trafficking in stupidity and hate. And poor people are even more stupid and degenerate if they speak with a twang.

What is this but an attempt to feel superior, for certain regions to feel absolved of our difficult history? It doesn’t matter that for every James Byrd Jr., there’s an Abner Louima. In ’92, New York City tried to get schools to accept the Rainbow Curriculum teaching school kids that everybody in the city was worthy of respect. But whites hated it because it validated people of color. Blacks and Latinos and whites hated it because it included queers.

Ah, the United Hates of America. Can’t we put a lid on it? Just for the holidays?