The redneck awakening

My hero and favorite author, Edward Abbey, sometimes referred to himself as a redneck philosopher. Abbey was born and raised in Appalachia, but lived most of his life in the Southwest. He was a Fulbright Scholar and attained a Master’s in Philosophy, examining the relationship between anarchy and morality. He did a post-graduate writing fellowship at Stanford and published over 30 books in his lifetime. Not bad for a hillbilly kid from rural Pennsyltucky.

Rednecks have a poor reputation in modern American society, and deservedly so. Stereotypically, rednecks are under-educated, insular, bigoted, xenophobic and narrow-minded. But that’s just the stereotype. Of course there are exceptions to every stereotype. It’s interesting to see what happens when the redneck rises above the stereotype. 

What happens when a redneck becomes “woke?” (to borrow from the parlance of the day) There’s a lot of good in rural America that goes unrecognized. American TV caricatures rednecks as moonshine-making, duck-killing , gold-mining, tree-felling, ice-road driving deadliest catching illiterates. Pretty much the entire prime time Discovery Channel lineup.

But what doesn’t get much attention are the values that are instilled in rural households all across America. The value of hard work. Respect for one’s elders. The respect for integrity. The belief that a man’s word is his bond. The innate feminism that comes from honoring and respecting one’s mother. The belief that, as my hero Abbey said it, “No man is wise enough to be another man’s master. Each man’s as good as the next-if not a damn sight better.” The appreciation of freedom and the will to protect it. The knowledge and instinct for survival under harsh conditions. Hank Williams Jr.’s anthem to all things redneckdom, “A Country Boy Can Survive,” is a caricature, but it’s not far from the truth. A country boy learns self reliance. He certainly can skin a buck and run a trot line. He can grow good ole tomatoes and make homemade wine. When the zombie apocalypse comes, put your bets on the country boy, because for sure he knows a thing or two about survival.

Sadly, many of our finest folks fall into the poverty trap that keeps America’s rednecks from rising above their status. They fall prey to the stereotype. They let themselves become exactly what America expects them to be, and nothing more. Who does the downtrodden man blame for his lot in life? His fellow downtrodden man. He doesn’t reach up and try to knock off the man at the top of the totem pole, he reaches below and kicks the next person down.

The poor white man blames women, Native Americans, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims or any other convenient target for his plight rather than the one most deserving of his ire, the wealthy and powerful white man. Because every poor white man believes that someday, given the right set of circumstances, he will lift himself out of the muck and become one of the privileged elites. From the coal mine to Wall Street in one fell swoop. Just one more scratch-off Lotto ticket and I’m there, baby! In the meanwhile let’s buy another sixer of Miller Lite and cook up a batch of meth in the trailer park. 

But there is hope. A few of us (for I count myself among them) escape this trap and rise above it. Whether it comes from education, from travel and expanding one’s mind to new horizons, or from some other epiphany, a few of us rednecks from Podunkistan learn that the world is bigger than our own backyards. We make friends who don’t look like us. We fall in love with people who don’t look like us. (It always amuses me to see wedding photos of people who could be brother and sister. As a biologist, the theory of optimal outbreeding comes to mind). We learn to speak other languages. We learn to enjoy other cuisines. We see the value in cultures other than our own. We see the humanity that unites all of us as one human race, and we learn that our common struggle isn’t one of gender, color, sexual orientation or religion, but one of class. This is a world of haves versus have nots, and we must all unite to take back the power from the haves.

A few of these enlightened rednecks retain those honest values they learned at home, and merge them with progressive values of tolerance, inclusion and equity (this article provides an interesting discussion of the critical difference between equity and equality). In doing so, they (we) emerge with a blend of homespun values and a love of our fellow human–a very goddamn powerful blend of what makes America a great place.

In this I have hope for the future of America. I remain an eternal optimist, despite the gloom on the horizon. For I have undergone a transformation that I know others can also experience. I have grown from an overalls-wearing hillbilly hunting raccoons in the backwoods swamps of Missouri to what I am today. A woke bloke.

I recently posted a selfie and asked the question “hipster or hillbilly?” At the time I was sitting in my backyard next to a hobo campfire (small fire in a coffee can) with two weeks’ stubble, wearing a wool stocking cap and playing my banjo while sipping a glass of merlot. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know where I come from, and my hillbilly roots run very deep in American soil. The reason I am optimistic for America’s future is that I can see that the gulf between hipster and hillbilly is much narrower than you might think.

One day America’s rednecks will become “woke” and when they do, watch out, world.

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