Righties Can’t Read

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American History, conservatism, entertainment and popular culture

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.

Idiot #2:

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.

Idiot #3:

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?

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12 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Comment  •  Oct 19, 2006 @10:28 am

    ” I’m the last person who wants to be the PC language police around here …..”

    This is what the Greeks called apophasis – No doubt, the venerable conservatives at NR know all about that since the study the classics all the time. Right?

    Anyway – this is one of those passive aggressive styles that the right has adopted – fearful to be direct because it’s harder to mislead. Cheney speaks this way all the time –

    The NR person obviously knows the disctinction – but hopes to echo chamber the meme to create some dumb media controversy – But if you read the comments from that woman, Mary Katherine Ham, you get the impression that she is honestly confused why Webb’s use is legit and different than Allen’s crack.

  2. Mikey  •  Oct 19, 2006 @11:42 am

    it is the ease with which he simply tosses out the term “towel-head” which should be concerning. why would he say such a thing? no one thinks “redneck” is offensive.

  3. maha  •  Oct 19, 2006 @1:58 pm

    it is the ease with which he simply tosses out the term “towel-head” which should be concerning. why would he say such a thing?

    (stiffling urge to bang my head on the wall) Mikey, dear, you just used the term “towel-head.” Why did you use it?

  4. Donna  •  Oct 19, 2006 @2:02 pm

    Some rural Missouri statistics I remember from the late 1960′s, when I was working community development out of that state’s governor’s office: Two thirds of the state’s elderly had only space heating, one third had no indoor plumbing, and there were still people living in caves in Missouri. This was a time when the state director of welfare kept his political cronies happy by giving back some amount of his agency’s appropriations each year! This was the same fellow, legislatively charged with helping Missouri’s poor, who I heard testify against buying into Medicaid until the last possible moment so as to save the state from several years of having to pony up the required matching funds.
    [BTW, using my position and office resources, I did some under-the-radar actions that initiated a grassroots swell of letters which helped 'persuade' the legislature to buy into Medicaid the following year instead of at the end of the four year deadline.]

    I did a lot of traveling/consultant work in rural Missouri for a couple of years. What can I say about the culture? I would trust those rural folks with my life—they’ve never been separated from the genuine human caring that trumps the sophistication of urban areas. [The word 'sophisticated' actually means 'taken from the natural'.] That said, I would also not count on those rural folks to be able to discern when the sophisticated political operatives like Rove are gaming them with smoke and mirrors.

  5. Ann  •  Oct 19, 2006 @2:37 pm

    I’ll pitch in for some of those classes. Could they be held at Gitmo and include some waterboarding? I bet those guys would learn to read real fast!

  6. Comment  •  Oct 19, 2006 @10:36 pm

    Maha your point about Mikey using the same term is noted – Of course, Webb was not using the term , but was talking about how that term is and has been used , with ease – by others. With Mikey’s comment you can see how the the other side plays games with this – knowing full well , for the most part, that they are debating a point in bad faith and taking advantage of others confusion. Also – the other term is used as an insult by some people, if not others – That’s the whole point Webb is making. There’s prejudice against rural whites by people on the right and the left. The right games it though – Bush and his pals are not country folk behind closed doors. What is funny and sad is how many Dems actually conceded some edge to Bush and Co. when it comes to affinity with rural America – only to let them blow the mountains to get some coal.

  7. Sceptic  •  Oct 20, 2006 @8:12 am

    Righties cannot read — and some lefties cannot tolerate dissent.

    Maha doesn’t seem really interested in learning or dissent. Having admitted on the Hopkins-Lancet thread to being ignorant of stat, Maha showed no interest and simply rejected my contentions without thought or curiosity. I’ll bet Maha hasn’t the honesty to post this comment.

    I note for the record that:
    1. I’m a leftie.
    2. I oppose the Iraqi intervention.
    3. My field and degrees are technical with some concentration in statistics.
    4. Yes, the Hopkins-Lancet study has significant technical flaws.
    5. Other surveys (UN/ILCS, for example) apply the cluster sample technique without most of those flaws.
    6. Posting those flaws on other “left” sites resulted in interesting technical discussion on both sides of the debate — but on Maha’s blog it resulted in Maha calling names (“troll”) and closing the thread. That doesn’t show Maha in a good light.

  8. Swami  •  Oct 20, 2006 @9:01 am

    What is the Iraqi intervention?

  9. maha  •  Oct 20, 2006 @9:22 am

    Re Sceptic — for the record, Sceptic was posting long comments critical of the Lancet study on an old post that had scrolled off the blog front page. I allowed his comments to remain but cut off further comments on that post because no one else but me was reading his comments, and (as I told him) I lack the expertise in statistics to know if his criticisms are legitimate or not. I don’t like to allow misinformation to remain on the blog, even if it’s hidden in the archives. Had he been commenting on an active post so that others could critique what he was writing, the outcome might have been different.

    However, now that he’s pissed me off, he’s banned.

  10. Gentlewoman  •  Oct 20, 2006 @6:27 pm

    I’ve been phone banking here in SW MO, the Ozarks for Claire McCaskill. A lot of the rural voters here have been traditionally Republicans, but this election may surprise a lot of people. The people I talk to (especially the elderly) are very angry with both the state GOP-dominated government AND the national GOP. Since the Foley scandal broke, they are even more outraged by their government.

    They like Claire a lot, she’s one of them (her folks had a feed and grain business, I think), and they know she’s a straight shooter, so I think Jim Talent may be toast, despite his cash advantage. Dunno how other races will go, but if Roy Blunt gets sucked into the Foley thing, he may not get so many votes as usual. I don’t think he’ll lose, but he may get sent a message.

    I always forget that you are from Missouri, maha. I’m originally from Connecticut, I live in Springfield now. Where are your people from? It’s such beautiful country out here, lovely farms that remind me of what my rural part of CT used to look like, before the developers moved in. The open friendliness of the people here was a little hard for a reserved New Englander like me to get used to, but I’m getting there. ;)

    And yes, it is my impression that the mountain people here are of different descent than the Appalachian people Webb represents. For example, there are a lot of old Catholic families who’ve been here forever, much more so than where Webb is from, I think.

  11. maha  •  Oct 20, 2006 @8:43 pm

    Gentlewoman — I grew up in the town formerly known as Flat River, renamed Park Hills, in St. Francois County. I have had family south of there in the Taum Sauk-Fredericktown area since before the Civil War. I haven’t spent much time in Springfield and haven’t been there since I was, um, young. My counsin James Thomas & family live thereabouts, though.

    I’m glad you’re working for McCaskill. I sent some money and am pulling for her.

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