Monday, January 29, 2007

Responding to Ms. Smiley

This morning we here at HS received an e-mail from a friend of ours, Mr. Rodger Cunningham. The byline was, “I swear this woman is serious. . . .” I clicked on the link and found this article on the site of The Huffington Post, and I have rarely been more insulted than when I read this article, and not just for Appalachians.

Smiley’s article reviewed a work entitled Albion’s Seed which attempted to elucidate the contributions, good and bad, of four of the original immigrant movements to the future United States political culture. The book explained, according to Ms. Smiley, that the primogenitors of our nation had for distinct perspectives on the nature of freedom. The “New England” perspective conceived of liberty as couched in communal interests, defined and limited by said community’s evolving mores. The “Cavalier” perspective (present, apparently, only in Virginia) conceived of liberty as a right exclusive only to a particular social class and gender. The “Pennsylvanian Quaker” perspective conceived of liberty as social and political tolerance. Interesting, if not entirely correct to anyone who understands the complexity of these cultures, even in their first two centuries and even if one forgets that numerous other cultural experiences are being completely excluded (for instance the influence of Iroquois constitutionalism, early Marylander and Carolina Jewish and French Huguenot contributions to religious tolerance and early Virginian conceptions of secularism that led it to be the first secular government ever – oh, and New York, New Jersey, Georgia, and the Carolinas apparently contributed, well, nothing) . What makes me grit my teeth, however, is the portrayal of the “Appalachian/Borderlands” perspective. Apparently, Appalachia, Scotland, North England, and Northern Ireland gave nothing to modern culture beyond violence and superstition.

Actually, let me quote Ms. Smiley. Because I can’t insult my own people well enough to get across her point. Ahem.

. . . the Borders/Appalachian culture of hot-blooded and violent populism that is xenophobic, religiously aggressive, fundamentalist, and sectarian, that is supicious (sic) of learning, antagonistic towards "elites", and antipathetic to women's autonomy. It defines itself by masculinity and arms-bearing, is belligerent by nature and quick to take offense. Its natural (and historic) enemy is the outgrowth of Quaker culture, liberalism.

You see, Appalachians (and apparently Scots and Irish, check that, Protestant Irish) and their cultural descendants (genetic or otherwise) hate people who are different from themselves, desire to assimilate all other religions, are fundamentalist (whatever that means), and sexist. Uniformly. We tote guns and think of ourselves as (I’m guessing this is the phrase Ms. Smiley really wanted to use) “bad @$$”. We like to fight and are easily insulted and are “natural enemies” of “liberalism,” which I can only take to be a veiled allusion to the democratic party.

I want to pause here and reiterate - I haven't read Albion's Seed yet, and from what I've read online by other writers, Fischer's work does not paint as generalized or insulting a picture as does Ms. Smiley - indeed, one of my earliest searches turned up this site on the University of Virginia's website (minor point - UVA's two campuses, Mr. Jefferson's in Charlottesville and its younger sibling in Wise, are both Appalachian, the former in the Blue Ridge and the latter in the highlands of the Appalachians main strand, near the Cumberland Gap).

The one part she did get right is that we, famously, are antagonistic towards elites – we are obsessed with, and this is insane, “individual freedom!” (please, insert scary ghost noise here)

Ms. Smiley goes on to point out how Appalachians were natural allies of the “Cavaliers” and that Appalachian culture is one far more obsessed with avenging affronts to culture, rather than dealing with issues according to conscience through rational action or conversation. She also points out that Gore was saved from his Appalachian-ness by being Washington bred, while Bush is a great example of Appalachia-via-Texas. Smiley even dismisses any influence Bush’s education at Yale might have had, while Gore’s Harvard education was apparently was a defining moment. EVERYTHING bad in America, from racism to the contemporary war in Iraq is the fault of Appalachian culture, and ultimately, Scottish culture.

Let me read you Ms. Smiley’s next to last paragraph before I conclude:

I do think that the rise of culture #4 puts our democracy in danger, simply because it is an uncompromising culture that has been reluctant to assimilate itself into the larger society for a thousand years, both in Britain and in America. It is a culture that is passionately intense about weapons, social hierarchy, and religion, three things that are in and of themselves threatening to the broader social compact. Perhaps culture #4 cannot be, or won't be assimilated, but can only be reduced, subdued, or dominated.

I can barely respond. Apparently the Cavalier culture has, by this point in the article, become completely immersed in the Appalachian culture (specifically, I refer here to the “social hierarchy” element), and the fact that Appalachians are (apparently) all fundamentalist Christians and violent monstrosities necessitates an internal crusade, the kind of wonderful social engineering that upperclass English (of centuries ago, not today - I'll not make the mistake of confusing the 17th and 18th centuries with the 21st) practiced against the Scots – you know, when they drove my ancestors off their farms and tried to destroy their traditions by suppressing their religion, their right to bear arms (oh, crazy me – I’m living up to Ms. Smiley’s stereotypes – I guess the Scots were horrible folk), and, heck, even they way they dressed. Gee – sounds great.

I want to respond to the historical inaccuracies of Ms. Smiley. I beg your indulgence.

First, Appalachia has never been a cultural ally of “Cavaliers” – the English aristocracy (and some members of the co-opted Scottish aristocracy) that planted itself throughout the Eastern Seaboard was universally antithetical towards socially and economically inferior groups. Does this still exist in the states it is most commonly identified with (specifically, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina)? Surely it does. Do those persons who constitute this class, and it is a class, constitute more than five percent of any of these states? By no means – they are merely handy caricatures, you know like those constantly bandied about by, well, everyone, caricatures like – dramatic pause – like those levied against hillbillies. Oh, and before we assert that American aristocracy is a unique product of Virginia, one must ask, are wealth and entitlement that area’s exclusive progeny? From my reading of history, it seems clear that entitled merchant and banking classes had evolved in every single colony well before the American Revolution – New Englander “Mayflower” elites, for instance, are no more or less significant than Virginia’s “First Families” in the modern world.

Second, Appalachia, like the other frontier regions of the United States, was marked by higher levels of sexual egalitarianism than the Eastern Seaboard in the pre-modern era, not less. There is a reason that frontier states were sexually progressive well before the Twentieth Century – there, 19th Century liberal ideals blended with the pragmatic truths of frontier life – women had to share the frontier’s difficulties, and so knew they were men’s equals. English and Eastern Seaboard Victorianism was probably the largest deterrent to sexual egalitarianism coming earlier, rather than later Appalachian (or any other regions’) gender-bias.

By the way, I use feminist theory constantly in my research, and am married to a woman who kept her maiden name – a woman who was raised in the hills of western South Carolina. Golly garsh.

Third, Ms. Smiley asserts that Appalachians, not to mention their Scottish cultural kin, are culturally biased towards resolving their problems with violence. Thus we not only tend to be liberal (ahem) with our interpretation of the second amendment, but furthermore we have high levels of violence and support war in every instance. Wow. Painting with a wide brush, eh? How to begin. Let’s talk about some basic truths. Appalachia, and by that I mean the Appalachian Mountains, is marked by higher than average levels of economic underdevelopment (relative to the rest of our nation). I’m sure Ms. Smiley has heard of structural violence, but I want to bring it up for other folks. Structural violence is when a political-economic system preys on certain groups of people or confines them to limited political-economic opportunities. Structural violence, assert most social and political scientists, breeds structural violence – desperation results in desperation. The ghettos of cities like New York, Richmond, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, and dare I say it, Ms. Smiley’s beloved Philadelphia, exhibit this, for instance, but I daresay that Ms. Smiley would, wisely, be unlikely to assert that the impoverished of those areas (a veritable rainbow of ethnicities) are somehow culturally inferior to the rest of America in general, or her romantic image of Pennsylvania in particular. Similarly, Appalachia, bankrupted not by our own doing as much as by the machinations of coal companies from outside the region (particularly Virginia and the various and several Northern states), exhibits these traits. Perhaps the reason Ms. Smiley does not fear the violence of other types of ghettos is that they are, what were her words again? Oh yes, “reduced, subdued, or dominated.” Sounds like a cycle of violence perpetuated by a variant of colonialism, to me. It also sounds like puritanical pseudo-Calvinism, disgusting and arrogant, the kind of talk that justified Manifest Destiny and slavery. But that was a long time ago, wasn’t it? But then again, maybe this is just a case of blaming the victims, employed against the only group of Americans it remains politically acceptable to do so against. Who can say.

And do Appalachians “support” wars? Well, if by that you mean they volunteer for positions national defense at an incredibly high rate, despite living in what is one of the most secure regions of the nation, than yes. If by that you mean that, in the post-9/11 world they originally made the mistake of believing false or incorrect intelligent reports at a lower level than, I don’t know, CONGRESS (where virtually no members voted against the invasion of Iraq, including a great many folks who you’d be hard-pressed to argue are Appalachian or even “Appalachian-esque”) well, yeah. There is that.

Oh, and by the way, any amateur historian can tell you that Appalachia was not a Southern ally in the American civil war. Mentioning West Virginia in the Deep South once should eliminate any illusions to the contrary. Kentucky (birthplace of the good Mr. Lincoln), for instance, declared itself neutral, West Virginia experienced a sort of unique internal coup by which a huge chunk of the Commonwealth found itself torn asunder. East Tennessee had to be occupied by Confederate troops to prevent its rebellion. Appalachia, with its minimal dependence on the institution of slavery, can best be described as a region which described as a deeply split region – many folks supported the North and its ideals, many supported the South and its ideals of localism and regionalism, and many, probably most, were entirely ambivalent, more concerned with avoiding involvement in a war they had no strong feelings about either way.

Fifth, it should be said that Puritanical, fundamentalist religion is not a creation of Appalachia, especially as defined by Ms. Smiley, in the first order. Rather, it arrived in the future United States in 1620, with the Pilgrims, a people who came to American to establish, that’s right, theocracy. Appalachia and the South didn’t experience a rise in religiosity until New England-style revivals began penetrating the region en masse in the early 19th Century when the Second Great Awaking, coming to completion with the Third Great Awakening after the American civil war, a movement which also yielded the rise of high religiosity in large chunks of the American west. And, even now, religiosity is a mixed bag in Appalachia - the diversity of denominations is tremendous, particularly across the region as a whole. Trying to pigeonhole our religious identity is sort of like trying to pigeonhole the religious identity of any region or, their equivalent, major city in our United States - unwise.

As to why the cultural descendants of Appalachia fled the territory of Ms. Smiley’s idealized Quakers, well, let’s consider the foundation of Liberia. Liberia was, of course, founded in on the coast of west Africa, the settled by freed American slaves. The state was founded by two key groups – American slaveholders and Quakers. There were, of course, some idealistic motivations for this foundation – many white Americans, be they slaveholders or otherwise, felt that enslavement was horrible and immoral (which it was) and sought a viable solution. Other reasons were more pragmatic – fear among slaveholders, for instance, of violent slave uprisings. Or, in the case of many Quakers, a desire that everyone be free – as long as it wasn’t in their neighborhood. Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean to stereotype and argue that this was the perspective of all Quakers, nor that it is an ideal present in contemporary Quakers of all genre – I respect a great many Quakers and their religion myself (theologically I'm what may be called a rationalist Methodist). But the Quakers were people who had founded a place and wanted it to remain the way they founded it, without freed slaves or Scots-Irish, for instance. I guess it comes down to my reminiscence of how Scots-Irish, like many of my ancestors, often recount their story of coming to America. They lived in Scotland till they fled seeking individual freedom, economic improvement, and religious freedom. They settled in Ireland, not out of any particular antipathy to the Irish (a culture very similar to their own), but because it was offered to them by the Crown. Ultimately, as English and Scottish aristocrats once again clenched down on the Scots-Irish, many of them fled to other corners of the world, seeking still freedom and economic independence. Some of these fled to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, while others fled to the Pennsylvania colony, where they were originally welcomed with open arms. Once there, however, the, ahem, aristocrats who made executive decisions in the Pennsylvania colony soon found that with numbers came power, and began "encouraging" the Scots-Irish to settle other territories - too many refugees, essentially, for comfort (we might call them illegal immigrants today). They soon found themselves in moving up and down the Appalachian Mountains, filling valleys and setting up on mountaintops from Newfoundland to Alabama. There they hid, because their history, from the beginning of their cultural memory, was one of exploitation. And it worked – they became yeomen farmers, by and large, save those who stayed in the mountains and found themselves coerced or tricked out of their lands by coal companies, who doubled the sin by trapping them in a cycle of debt.

Earlier I referred to Ms. Smiley’s romanticism. This is the pervading theme of her diatribe. Appalachia, and Appalachia’s culture, is her real-life Heart of Darkness or Dracula’s Transylvania, while wealthy, Democratic-party dominated America is her Victorian London – proper and modern and forward-thinking. Appalachia is to be feared as a virus – we are an internal “Yellow Peril,” defined primarily not by race, though genetic heritage is obviously part her construct, but by her own stereotypes. Appalachians are universally white, fundamentalist (read as politically active social conservative), violent, undereducated, racist, sexist, and uncultured, according to Ms. Smiley. This is a grotesque caricature, as grotesque as those which portray us as barefoot, stupid, cousin-marrying, slackjawed, fools. The argument carries no more water than those who argue that secularism is a Northern/West Coast conspiracy, or those who argue that crime is essentially nothing more than a product of some inherent element of African American culture. It is disgusting, it is prejudiced, and it is offensive.

I could go on, bring up points like our role in the American Civil Rights Movement, the role of the Scotsmen in the Enlightenment, or even the simple truth of the fact that Appalachians are a minority in every state we’re found in, except West Virginia. Not to dismiss Ms. Smiley’s fears – I too detest unnecessary violence and efforts to restrict religious freedom/undermine secularity, and I know Appalachia is a place with tremendous room for political and economic improvement. But I suggest that the situation is far more complex than she thinks. I’d recommend, in particular, that she reads Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy or Daniel Boorstin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Americans trilogy. . . . perhaps then she'll learn that elegant explanations of the world's problems are usually based as much in fantasy as in fact.

Apologies for the rant.


April said...

Eric, I do hope you copied Ms. Smiley on your response. I too was offended, I presume I was taken aback because I must be "antagonistic towards 'elites'" as I don't think I'm "antipathetic to women's autonomy", nor do I define myself "by masculinity and arms bearing". Then on the other had,maybe I'm just too "quick to take offense."

Jane said...


I just love that it is okay, particularly among these folks — what are they? liberal elite? — to continue to stereotype and denigrate southern highlanders when they are appalled if that sort of attitude/behavior is directed toward any other group of people.

Mike Mason said...

Skippy, I hope more offensive articles find the HS inbox and inspire responses from you. That was a monologue deserving of "Post of the Year" nomination.

Our Goblin Market said...

Eric, Do not apologize for this. Ms. Smiley shows her own (dare I say) racist stupidity and disgusting ideals toward the very same people she belittles. She, in fact, does exactly what she is arguing against. By overtly characterizing this culture in such a way she only adds to the idealized and poorly romantic generalization so many of us have had to fight against, the false identity that looms over the mountains. Inside the historical rhymes and rhythms of her article Ms. Smiley swiftly joined in on the media driven pity machine with a condescending elitist set of values that reflect how poverty, guns, and radicalism makes for a good story, the idea that we need to be saved or to be shown the “good” road. Brought on by many movements like the news driven Walter Cronkite’s dramatic answer to Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” this notion that we are a lost people that needs the hard pressed social reigns around our necks in order that we act, think, and progress like the rest of the chosen people is ludicrous. The point remains that we as Appalachians are no different than any other culture, any other time, or in fact anything in opposition to the ideals described by our national forefathers.

John L. Kerns said...

No apologies necessary, Mr. Smith.

I once read a piece in a book on Appalachia (I wish I could remember where) on how the people that settled these mountains deliberately shunned formal education. Was it to our benefit in the end, considering the way the world progressed? Who knows, but it's what our forebears did, so it's part of who we are. It's has caused some problems, but in a way, it is its own unique form of progressiveness. They made a conscience decision that was based upon what they calculated was in the best interest of their communities.

Responses like Ms. Smiley's to this fact are indeed ignorant, and deserve whatever outcry comes as a response to it.

Eric Drummond Smith said...

You know John, I've read that as well, but I have difficultly taking it at face-value. Consider the sheer number of institutions of higher learning the mountains per capita, for instance, and their frequency relative to the region's population. I don't know . . . it does get me thinking, though.

the Contrary Goddess said...

funny, I wasn't so insulted because, hey, I enjoy being characterized like that in that I do see the truth in it. There is a wonderful tension in the mountain culture between suspiciousness and hospitality. I've had the pleasure of running a number of people off my land, once when I was pulling the feathers off a chicken.

Ah, but I enjoyed your response more.

Except that bit about us not supporting the South in the war of Northern aggression. I've known any number of people, myself included, from here for the generations whose ancestors fought honorably for the South, and nary a one with ancestors who fought honorably or not for the aggressors.

Michael Tod Ralstin said...

She is a bigot. She misread Fischer because she was a bigot before she picked up the book and read into it what she wanted it to say. Sadly this is what most of the Liberal Elite think of us but are too timid to express. This does not mean I have any love for the Right who are just as bad in a different way.

As usual Eric perfectly expresses my views and my feelings regarding this article. I would add that as far as I know, the counties of Appalachia have the lowest crime rates in the nation. This is made all the more remarkable considering many are among the poorest. As the Liberal Elite will tell you, if you are violent but grew-up in poverty it isn't your fault- unless of course you are a hillbilly.

Anonymous said...

>>I've known any number of people, myself included, from here for the generations whose ancestors fought honorably for the South, and nary a one with ancestors who fought honorably or not for the aggressors.<<

Well, I don't think the fact that much of this area was a hotbed for Union sympathy is up for much contention. For instance, my great-grandfather (originally from western North Carolina, later moved to eastern Tennessee) fought for the Union army and was by no means ostracized from the community. In fact, the Greene County (TN) courthouse has in its front lawn one statue dedicated to the soliders in the Confederate army and another statue dedicated to the soliders in the Union army. I've heard of other such displays in the area, so it really wasn't some sort of anomaly in the Appalachian region.


Anonymous said...

(At the risk of being neurotic, I must direct everyone to read 'soliders' as 'soldiers'. Heh.)


the Contrary Goddess said...

hmmm, one statue to the soldiers of the Union army and one to the soldiers of the Confederate army is not evidence of "hotbed of Union sympathy" but evidence of division, and likely along the same sorts of lines as the causes of the war (industrialism vs. agrarianism mostly).

It was my grandmother's grandfather who fought, out of Dickenson County Virginia for the Confederacy (although I'm not sure that wasn't technically Dickenson County back then). Smith Ridge.

Anonymous said...

Well, my argument really wasn't "there's a statue in this county, so I believe X to be true" as much as it was "I believe X to be true," and I simply provided two simple examples to back up that statement. I don't expect those examples to prove anything except the existence of something worth researching. I could throw in more examples (e.g., an historical signpost in the mountains near Asheville marking the spot where Union sympathizers were executed; at least one dissertation that I'm aware of covering the topic; etc), but I think we both agree that there was indeed division. A division, hotbed--that's an argument of semantics for me.

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April said...

Re: Appalachia not being a hotbed of Union Sympathy

Here's what Wikipedia says about it:

It is believed that the term "hillbilly" in the United States was conferred during the early 18th Century by the occupying British soldiers as a carry over from the Irish term, in referring to Scotch-Irish immigrants of mainly Presbyterian origin, dwelling in the frontier areas of the Appalachian Mountains[citation needed]. These Protestant Irish colonists brought their cultural traditions with them when they immigrated. Many of their stories, songs and ballads dealt with the history of their Ulster and Lowland Scot homelands, especially relating the tale of the Protestant King William III, Prince of Orange.

Alternatively, it is also speculated that the term emerged as a derogatory nickname given by the coastal plain dwelling Anglo-Saxon Southerners for the hill-dwelling settlers of Eastern Tennessee, Western Virginia, northern Arkansas and Eastern Kentucky, many of whom were ambivalent to the Confederacy during the American Civil War[citation needed]. Billy Yank was the common term for Union soldiers, the nemesis of the Confederate Johnny Reb.

mom2zmg said...


I am a history major at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and just finished reading Albion's Seeds in order to complete a paper for a class on early Colonial America. I found this blog quite by accident. I'm not certain where Ms. Smiley learns her history, but you on the other hand have a firm grasp on the reality of Appalachia and its people. I found your provoking response quite necessary in order to put the record straight. As a student of history, it boggles my mind when one chooses to embrace their own opinion when facts to the contrary exist. Ms. Smiley has forsaken any authority by which she might be considered by dispelling the truth and subjecting it to her own convoluted ideas. As a prospective historian, ever allowing myself to espouse Ms. Smiley's attitude is what I fear. Fischer's book was not without its problems, but as a whole was well researched history...and certainly not incorrect in place of the "facts" she claimed should be in its place. However, there is an aspect of good that comes from Ms. Smiley's does provoke us to think and respond...research and debate. There is a silver lining.

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