I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again; righties have the reading comprehension skills of a turnip. Today’s example:
There’s a profile of Jim Webb in today’s Washington Post that plays up Webb’s southwest Virginia roots. It begins this way:
About a year ago, before he was running for the Senate, James Webb took a colleague to the mountains of southwest Virginia to do some research for a movie they were working on.
Rob Reiner , meet my cousin Jewel and her husband, Buck. Jewel made a home-cooked meal for Webb and his producer-director friend. She pointed across the way to a nearby hollow and said:
“Ah wuz bawn rat ovah theyah.” That’s Reiner on the phone from Los Angeles, doing a mountain accent.
At night, Webb took Reiner to a rustic auditorium. There was bluegrass and flatfoot dancing.
“Incredible experience,” Reiner says.
Nostalgia kicked in as soon as I read this. I had a Great-Aunt Jewel who lived with Great-Uncle Carl on a little farm in the mountains, and I recall a dance — I’m not sure of the venue, but it might have been a church basement — where there was old-time fiddlin’ and clog dancing. It was explained to me once that the “clog” style common to the Ozarks is more Celtic — think Irish dancing — and the “flatfoot” style of the eastern mountains comes from English country dancing. I’m not going to swear that’s the truth, but it could be.
There may be few places in the country more foreign to Hollywood than Gate City, Va., and much of Webb’s livelihood has been to translate one culture for another. His dad’s family came out of these hollows, though Webb grew up on military bases all over the country. Over the course of his career, in books and more recently in screenplays, Webb, 60, has been writing about the dignity of his people — the gun-loving, country-music-singing, working-class whites of Scotch-Irish descent who fight in wars, staff the nation’s factories and shop its Wal-Marts.
“This people gave our country great things, including its most definitive culture,” Webb writes in his most recent book.
He knows that some folks might call his people rednecks. We pity those folks if Jim Webb is around when they say that.
The profile, by Libby Copeland, continues to describe Webb’s career in the Marines and in the Reagan Administration, where he was Secretary of the Navy. He is also a prolific writer; among other works he has published six novels and a book of nonfiction about Scotch-Irish culture. He has done some screenwriting as well, which the Allen campaign has tried to exploit by tying Webb to the “culture of Hollywood.” (And Ronald Reagan wasn’t tied to the “culture of Hollywood”?)
The funny thing is, Webb — a Democrat who became a Republican in the ’70s and a Democrat again in recent years — has been a largely conservative force both in movies and on the printed page. At various times he has eviscerated liberals, feminists, elites, academics and those who protested the Vietnam War. He has criticized Hollywood for its treatment of his people.
“His people” being the small-town and rural folk of southwest Virginia, note.
The project that took Webb and Reiner to the hills of southwestern Virginia is a script they’d been working on for a movie about this very subject. “Whiskey River” centers on an Iraq war soldier who hails from a world much like Gate City, Va., and what Reiner calls the “culture of service” this soldier comes from. It is also, Reiner says, about the fundamental unfairness of a war in which “only certain people have to sacrifice.”
The notion of his people’s sacrifice in wartime is a theme Webb has returned to again and again in his writing. In his 2004 book, “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,” Webb writes that the Scotch-Irish “have fed dedicated soldiers to this nation far beyond their numbers in every war.” In interviews, he recalls starting law school in 1972 and discovering that others were in “ethnocentric retreat.” Everyone else knew who they were and where they came from, everyone else had ethnic pride, but the identity of Webb’s own culture had been lost. He says his peers labeled him a white man of privilege, a WASP.
This is something I relate to, big-time. First, hillbilly culture — I should say “cultures,” because as the dancing styles illustrate there are distinctions — has never been properly recognized as a culture. And now the distinctions are mostly gone, and mountain cultures have dissipated to become nearly indistinguishable from small-town and rural cultures throughout most of America. That didn’t used to be so.
And I hate being mistaken for a WASP, even though I pass for one most of the time. I function in WASP culture (I think) because over the years, by trial and error, I learned to do so. (I had the advantage of being able to speak standard English. Nothing more clearly separates hard-core hillbillies from middle-class white folks than noun-verb agreement.)
In the decades since, Webb has studied the migrations of his people, exulting in their fighting history and puzzling over their entrenched poverty.
Entrenched white poverty is mostly rural and hidden away where most folks don’t see it. There are parts of the Ozarks in which families have been on welfare since they invented welfare, and whose residents can no more function in standard middle-class white culture than they can fly.
Then the profile describes Webb’s novels. I haven’t read his work, but I take it from the description that Webb uses fiction to explore the moral ambiguities and brutality of war. Naturally the Allen campaign is combing through his work, looking for anything he’s written they can twist around to use against him.
We’re getting to the punch line.
In a recent interview in the back of his campaign RV, Webb talks about how Hollywood has lampooned the Scotch-Irish. He says he is sick of this story line. For too long, he says, poor Southern whites have been one of the few groups it’s still safe to make fun of.
We are now more than 30 paragraphs into a story whose theme, restated over and over, is Jim Webb’s quest to bring respect to the lives and culture of “his people,” a group often disparaged as “rednecks.”
“Towel-heads and rednecks — of which I am one. If you write that word, please say that. I mean, I don’t use that pejoratively, I use it defensively. Towel-heads and rednecks became the easy villains in so many movies out there.“
Obviously — obvious if you have standard reading comprehension skills and take in the context of the entire profile — he’s saying that he hates the way filmmakers sterotype Middle Easterners and the subset of white Americans identified as “rednecks,” whatever that is these days. And naturally some rightie bloggers twisted this quote into meaning something else. Here we have Idiot #1:
“Towel-heads?” It’s on Page 3 of this Post story. I think that’s what they call a buried lede. I’m eagerly waiting the 188 Post stories on this slur. You know, the one that doesn’t require knowing a foreign language or finding three anonymous witnesses from 1972 to corroborate it. Yeah, I won’t hold my breath, either. Yeesh, if you’re gonna get your ire up about these things, I demand even-handed ire.
In August, Democrats and even some Republicans called upon Senator Allen to apologize for using the term “macaca”, a word with no meaning to the majority of Virginians but one that some took offense to. Senator Allen personally took it upon himself to quickly publicly apologize for the comment and even call the gentleman he directed it towards.
James Webb has now used a well known term that derides an entire ethnic group not just in Virginia or America but the world. I am willing to grant that he mis-spoke. That deserves not excuses but an apology.
I’m the last person who wants to be the PC language police around here, but can anyone imagine the media’s reaction if George Allen said something like this? As Tim Graham points out, the number of Post articles, news stories and editorial features with the word “Macaca” in them is up to 92!
Can we take up a collection and send these people somewhere for remedial reading classes?