Posted on | January 10, 2014 | 29 Comments
Kevin D. Williamson of National Review traveled to Appalachia — his dateline is Owsley County, Ky. — to write about the kind of poverty no liberal ever describes as “social injustice”:
If the people here weren’t 98.5 percent white, we’d call it a reservation.
Williamson’s article is not merely good reporting, but it is also mighty fine writing. There is too little of this kind of work by conservative journalists. The quick stuff that gets Drudge hits and “moves the needle” politics-wise is the commodity most in demand, along with ponderous punditry and nerdy policy-wonk stuff. We get much less really high-quality writing on the Right because, when you get down to it, there simply is no incentive for it. The Koch brothers aren’t making grants for this kind of stuff:
Like its black urban counterparts, the Big White Ghetto suffers from a whole trainload of social problems, but the most significant among them may be adverse selection: Those who have the required work skills, the academic ability, or the simple desperate native enterprising grit to do so get the hell out as fast as they can, and they have been doing that for decades. As they go, businesses disappear, institutions fall into decline, social networks erode, and there is little or nothing left over for those who remain. It’s a classic economic death spiral: The quality of the available jobs is not enough to keep good workers, and the quality of the available workers is not enough to attract good jobs. These little towns located at remote wide spots in helical mountain roads are hard enough to get to if you have a good reason to be here. If you don’t have a good reason, you aren’t going to think of one.
This is a highly readable way of explaining a highly relevant point that occurs to any intelligent observer who has visited the forlorn and forgotten towns of the American heartland. Entire regions of this country have been undergoing a quiet demographic decline for five decades. Part of the problem — although no one ever dares mention it — is that the advent of the Pill, and with it the onset of the Contraceptive Culture, has deprived small towns and rural farms of their traditional source of vitality. It was always true that the ambitious and aspiring offspring of the heartland were attracted to the big cities. Prior to the 1960s, however, the folks left behind continued to breed large families and thus replenish the basic stock of human resources. And before the arrival of television, the people of the heartland also preserved their own distinct culture, the loss of which Williamson obliquely observes:
Appalachian places have evocative and unsentimental names denoting deep roots: Little Barren River, Coal Pit Road. The name “Cumberland” blankets Appalachian geography — the Cumberland Mountains, the Cumberland River, several Cumberland counties — in tribute to the Duke of Cumberland, who along with the Ulster Scots ancestors of the Appalachian settlers crushed the Young Pretender at the Battle of Culloden.
Culloden! Damn, how many school children in Appalachia know anything at all about Culloden, or even realize that their ancestors were those stout-hearted people, the Scots-Irish?
Politically correct noise about “multiculturalism” has been nothing but an excuse for pandering to politically preferred minorities. Descendants of the Ulster Scots — and for that matter, the descendants of German immigrants — are never given the kind of ethnic cheerleading that our allegedly “diverse” curricula reserve exclusively for non-whites. This was something I noticed nearly 20 years ago when, after researching the National Standards for U.S. History, I remarked that academics proposed to teach Georgia’s children everything about the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire and nothing about the Battle of Chickamauga.
Stripped of any understanding of their own cultural heritage, poor whites are doubly impoverished, and a sort of decadent shame takes hold of them, the moral analogue of the “economic death spiral” Williamson observes in Appalachia. What too often emerges to take the place of an intelligent and decent pride is an ignorant and utterly indecent hate.
This is something I also noticed 20 years ago as a newspaper reporter in north Georgia. If our academic superiors think they will eradicate racism through “enlightened” education, they haven’t paid much attention to the attitudes of young people, many of whom harbor an intensity of racial resentment that would astonish their departed forebears.
What is being lost, really, is the sensibility of bourgeois virtue, and Kevin Williamson captures that decline with lively eloquence:
“Well, you try paying that much for a case of pop,” says the irritated proprietor of a nearby café, who is curt with whoever is on the other end of the telephone but greets customers with the perfect manners that small-town restaurateurs reliably develop. I don’t think much of that overheard remark at the time, but it turns out that the local economy runs on black-market soda the way Baghdad ran on contraband crude during the days of sanctions.
It works like this: Once a month, the debit-card accounts of those receiving what we still call food stamps are credited with a few hundred dollars — about $500 for a family of four, on average — which are immediately converted into a unit of exchange, in this case cases of soda. On the day when accounts are credited, local establishments accepting EBT cards — and all across the Big White Ghetto, “We Accept Food Stamps” is the new E pluribus unum — are swamped with locals using their public benefits to buy cases and cases– reports put the number at 30 to 40 cases for some buyers — of soda. Those cases of soda then either go on to another retailer, who buys them at 50 cents on the dollar, in effect laundering those $500 in monthly benefits into $250 in cash — a considerably worse rate than your typical organized-crime money launderer offers — or else they go into the local black-market economy, where they can be used as currency in such ventures as the dealing of unauthorized prescription painkillers — by “pillbillies,” as they are known at the sympathetic establishments in Florida that do so much business with Kentucky and West Virginia that the relevant interstate bus service is nicknamed the “OxyContin Express.” A woman who is intimately familiar with the local drug economy suggests that the exchange rate between sexual favors and cases of pop — some dealers will accept either — is about 1:1, meaning that the value of a woman in the local prescription-drug economy is about $12.99 at Walmart prices. . . .
Fascinating stuff, brilliantly written — read the whole thing.