The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Elegant Reporting in Appalachia

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.



29 Responses to “Elegant Reporting in Appalachia”

  1. Dianna Deeley
    January 10th, 2014 @ 9:55 am

    Truly excellent, Stacy. Thank you for the recommendation.

  2. Milo Galt
    January 10th, 2014 @ 10:06 am

    The Owsley name has a long, distinguished heritage, even unto modern times.

    “Owsley Stanley (born Augustus Owsley Stanley III, January 19, 1935 – March 12, 2011) also known as Bear, was a key figure in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1960s, and played a pivotal role in the counterculture of the 1960s. As a crafts-person, he became best known simply as ‘Owsley’ – the LSD “cook” (underground chemist). Under the professional name of “Bear”, he worked with the psychedelic rock band the Grateful Dead’s international fan “family”.
    Stanley was the scion of a political family from Kentucky. His father was a government attorney. His grandfather, A. Owsley Stanley, a member of the United States Senate after serving as Governor of Kentucky and in the U.S. House of Representatives, campaigned against alcohol Prohibition in the 1920s.”

  3. RS
    January 10th, 2014 @ 10:13 am

    The linked essay and your commentary are both quite meaty. I note only that the Progressives have succeeded in creating the problem they perceived to exist in the ’50s and ’60s. Specifically, they saw “poor” people and believed that economic distress was caused by some sort of spiritual deficit. Of course, that was untrue. As my father, a descendant of Alsatian Hugeunots who migrated to a cabin deep in the Ozarks once said, “being poor is no excuse for dirty clothes and incorrect English.” Yet what the War on Poverty did, was eliminate pride and self-worth from the psyches of those it intended to benefit, turning them into shiftless, dispirited wards of the state. Toss in an educational system which deliberately hides and/or disparages history and a sense of place as being “parochial” or “jingoistic” and you arrive where we are today.

    Aside: As for us Alsatian Hugeunots, our rules is never accept dinner invitations on St. Bartholomew’s Day and spit if Catherine de’ Medici and Kansas Jayhawks are mentioned in conversation.

  4. RS
    January 10th, 2014 @ 10:15 am

    Buns. “[O]ur rules are . . .”

  5. Checkers
    January 10th, 2014 @ 10:23 am

    Yes, a serious article that one should think deeply about. I used to be a Family Practice doc in Athens Ohio. (That part of Ohio that should really be deeded over to West Virginia). I recognize many of the problems outlined even in the more enlightened Ohio section of “Appalachia”. I used to have to argue almost daily about why I was not giving this or that patient Oxycontin for their “bad back”. Over half my business was medicaid. Under employer on my intake forms they would routinely write “medicaid”, thus showing me what they thought of the program ! Sadly,, I can think of no answer to the problems outlined.. I think we are too far down the path to turn back. I do view those forgotten towns and hills as prime cheap land to put a small cabin on though..

  6. texlovera
    January 10th, 2014 @ 10:42 am

    Dammit, I remember reading a novel long ago, wherein an older character speaks to a younger one, “I’ll tell ye of Culloden”., then goes on to document how badly the battle went for those on the losing side. Wish I could remember the book, but I’ll always remember that passage…

  7. ErikEssig
    January 10th, 2014 @ 10:50 am

    Williamson is my second favorite writer at NR. And Stacy is right to note that the man can write well. Read him there while you can.

  8. texlovera
    January 10th, 2014 @ 11:06 am

    That article was a pretty good read, Stacy. Thanks.

  9. ThePaganTemple
    January 10th, 2014 @ 11:13 am

    It was Robert Kennedy who first tried to ingratiate himself with the inhabitants of eastern and southeastern Kentucky, home reservation of that vanishing breed known as the conservative democrat. His main influence here was a leftist writer who penned a volume of half-truths and lies known as “Night Falls On The Cumberlands”.

    The truth of the matter is that the plight of Appalachia is the fault mainly of single party domination, that party being of course the Democratic Party, which also bears the burden of blame for the fact that Kentucky in general is such a poor state, traditionally lagging in the bottom ten of all the states in way too many areas.

    Things have gotten better since the GOP has become more competitive over the last couple of decades, but it’s going to take longer than that to undo all the damage…

  10. Art Deco
    January 10th, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

    Sorry. Narrative reporting can only illuminate aspects of a social situation. They cannot truly delineate its contours in a reliable way.

    Appalachia is less affluent than the rest of the country and one portion of it (eastern Kentucky) is currently experiencing elevated unemployment rates. The thing is, some place in the country is going to be less affluent than someplace else and regional variations in incomes are a great deal less intense than was the case in 1929. You look at other statistics (e.g. on homicide rates, bastardy, and labor force participation) and you do not see a consistent pattern of pathology more intense than in a generic locale in this country.

    Owsley County, Ky. has a population of 4,700. In Upstate New York, a couple of rural townships side by side might have a population that summed to that. If you draw perimeters around demographic sets that small, you are bound to find a few in a peculiarly parlous state.

  11. Alan Markus
    January 10th, 2014 @ 12:46 pm

    Yesterday I read the article via Drudge, but thanks for linking it today – appreciate the “back up” as this is one I would not have wanted to miss. I got on Google Maps and did Street View on some of the locations.

  12. Quartermaster
    January 10th, 2014 @ 1:05 pm

    Athens County has some of the highest property taxes in the state because of the presence of Ohio University. It’s student body is allowed to vote in local issues. When I went to Engineering School, the student body could vote by absentee, but were not allowed to vote on local issues. Liberalism run riot.
    Athens County is better off than Morgan, and Vinton Counties. I liked Washington and Hocking Counties, however.

  13. Quartermaster
    January 10th, 2014 @ 1:06 pm

    All too true. Same applies to West Virginia.

  14. andycanuck
    January 10th, 2014 @ 1:50 pm

    R.L. Stevenson’s Kidnapped?

  15. Alan Markus
    January 10th, 2014 @ 2:39 pm

    Going back, I was in middle school about the time of Johnson’s “Great Society”, also known as “The War on Poverty”. Besides the Viet Nam War affecting domestic issues, other topics were race relations & poverty. In school and church, civil rights & poverty were the social topics to discuss, and do papers and speeches on. I remember lots of pictures and TV coverage of Appalachia. Now, in my older and more cynical age, I have to wonder if the Democrats used race relations (Civil Rights legislation, quotas, etc.) to “improve” their standing with blacks. When it came to poverty as an issue, I have to wonder if part of the pitch for the Great Society was making it an issue affecting whites – almost as if the programs would not have flown if it wasn’t perceived as such. Very similar to the way Obamacare has been handled – the “visual” was the uninsured, the actual outcome negatively impacts so many other people and 45 years from now there will still be a population somewhere that will be worse off than they are now.

    I think the people in Appalachia served their purpose as props 45+ years ago. It was never actually about improving their condition.

  16. K-Bob
    January 10th, 2014 @ 5:05 pm

    I haven’t read it yet, but I will . Williamson is a good writer.

    One thing I can add here though has to do with the fact that I currently live in “Appalachia.”

    (Although once one gets beyond a hunnert mile or so of the Appalachian Mountains, calling it “Appalachia” is stretching it a bit. Once you’ve crossed the Ohio, you are in Caintuck, which is its own sort of place.)

    The thing is, after starting a career in my youth in Michigan, I continued to travel back and forth between Michigan and the Appalachian region to keep up with family. Over the Reagan years, especially in the outlying years as it crossed into Clinton’s first term, I saw a huge amount of economic growth along those winding roadways.

    This was before the EPA would shut you down for not having full hazmat gear on site and all the other big, corporate “safety” stuff, just for operating your own “fleet” of trucks (i.e., “two”). You could open an electronics repair shop in your house without having to comply with three-thousand pages of paperwork concerned with proper handling of old circuit boards. And you could add five more head of cattle without worrying about “cease and desist” over the presumed (AKA, “unproven”) impact of drainage into waterways.

    In those days, you’d see an amazing array of businesses crop up right along the roadways. In houses, barns, old storage buildings, and abandoned restaurants, you’d see women turning “cottage industry” goods into “antique” stores or “country comfort” shops. You’d see folks set up greenhouses to sell plants and flowers, right from their backyards and nearby fields. And lots of men made simple furniture for sale by the roadside, right next to the fresh corn and beans their friend was selling from his truck.

    It wasn’t great news for small towns, though. This was also the age of the rise of Wal-Mart. Small towns still struggle to come back from that. (The places where Wal-Marts were built—like right off interstate exits—are still doing fairly well.) But the overall economy was good, so people were buying things they wanted for low prices.

    This adventure began in the Carter years, when travel along those highways was depressing as hell, since the steel companies had failed and the auto companies were already in decline. Family farms were also disappearing, so open country was, too. (Which accounts for the incredible rise in the deer population.) Much of that seven-hour drive was through places where farm buildings were in disrepair, and livestock counts were quite low.

    But as Reagan’s reforms took hold, paying dividends for the following sixteen years, the great bloom happened. People were optimistic. Business was good, and getting better, and you could own a business and work at a local job, too.

    That’s mostly gone now.

    Clinton started reversing the trend, but hysteresis means you can step on the brake and never feel the slowdown until it’s too late to adjust. Then along came Bush, who did absolutely nothing to restore any of it (other than one short-lived whack at reducing taxes).

    Before barack took office, you could see businesses shutting down. Now a lot of those repair places and shops are abandoned, and you can’t even tell where the enterprising men who started small trucking firms used to park their trucks.

    The glimmer of hope is from energy. But predictions of a “boom” there simply do not factor in the depression that hangs over a population when they cannot do the things that enable them to take advantage of such an economic stimulus. So what if fracking comes to your town? A few mineral rights owners will make some money. Gas prices won’t go up. Yay. But you won’t start a small business to take advantage of it.

    The workers coming to your town will be happy to eat and shop and fornicate, but in six months to three years, they’ll be gone, and no new money will be made from turnover in businesses or land. This is because no one knows anymore if they are in compliance with the law.

    No one can possibly know that. Not even if you work for the EPA.

    Until we fix that, entrepreneurial depression will stick around like a suspicious cough.

  17. K-Bob
    January 10th, 2014 @ 6:11 pm

    I just finished a reading of the Williamson article. A couple of quick things occur to me:

    1) KW reports that coal mining is still going on. But the fact is coal mines are shutting down, fast, now that barack’s stupid EPA rules (based on crap “science”) have been making coal-fired electricity generation illegal.

    The media ignores the job losses and the mine closings. Your electric bill is indeed, “skyrocketing” because of this fact, more than all the others.

    2) A lot of folks in the meth world are immigrants to rural areas. This is because they hear that welfare benefits a) are easier to get, b) last longer, because you don’t have to buy everything at “party stores” like you do in an inner city, and c) are being pushed like crack cocaine by the federal and state governments.

    (The state pushes them in order to comply with money coming in from the feds. Also, to buy votes, but mostly to keep the federal gravy train happening.)

    3) Camo stuff is often much cheaper than the non-camo stuff. Although Redneck Chic also applies.

    That, and when you wear camo, nobody can see you.

    4) Marriage is still valued, despite all the ongoing problems KW describes. That’s because most young men still have fathers. And most men who become fathers in this region want to claim that fatherhood, and maintain it. It’s one reason why getting the government off our backs did (per my other comment), and still would, have huge impact in our lives and communities.

  18. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    January 10th, 2014 @ 7:05 pm

    I read it yesterday. I had no idea of how widespread cashing in food stamp credits was (but it immediately makes sense).

  19. Bob Belvedere
    January 10th, 2014 @ 7:29 pm

    It happens all across the country.

  20. ChandlersGhost
    January 10th, 2014 @ 8:08 pm

    Steve H Graham posted something back in 2008 that complements the Williamson article.

    “Here’s a handout horror story. My aunt was a school principal up there. She said people in her town instructed their kids to fail ADD tests so they would get stuff from the government. Imagine that. “Honey, be sure you don’t bust 600 on the SAT, so mamaw can get free Ding Dongs.”

  21. Adjoran
    January 11th, 2014 @ 12:35 am

    They advertise on Craigslist now. Of course, Obama cannot track them down.

  22. texlovera
    January 11th, 2014 @ 8:15 am

    BINGO!!! I was lucky enough to be exposed to a healthy dose of Stevenson back in my little Catholic grade school. Another little gem of his I remember is a poem called “Block City”.

    I need to say a prayer to my parents and thank them for that.

    Thanks Andy!!

  23. K-Bob
    January 11th, 2014 @ 12:52 pm

    That would require computers or something.

  24. Art Deco
    January 11th, 2014 @ 12:58 pm

    Kentucky is not all that invested in extractive industries. About 1.4% of personal income in Kentucky is derived from mine earnings. The national mean is 1.2%. West Virginia is much more invested in mining, with 6% of personal income derived from mine earnings.

  25. Quartermaster
    January 11th, 2014 @ 3:41 pm

    I think that at first some of the Dims did want to improve things. They,as usual, went about it in the wrong way, however. Handouts never really help unless it’s used as a hand up. Instead, however, it simply created dependency as welfare did everywhere else it was dispensed.

    One Black Pastor in LA, tells his parishioners to get off welfare as it was designed to destroy the Black family. While I think that stretches things a bit, no one can argue that’s the effect it has had, designed or not.

    Appalachia now supposed stretches almost all the way to Cincinnati in Ohio. I used to live in SE Ohio around Marietta, also known as the foothills of the Alleghenies. I was shocked to learn that Appalachia extends from New York to Mississippi these days. I guess that was done by political pressure from Congresscritters to see that their region got their “fair share” of FedGov’s thievery.

  26. K-Bob
    January 11th, 2014 @ 5:08 pm

    I think the personal income diff could be related to the fact that, for a good while, KY had one of the biggest surface removal (AKA “strip”) mining operations, which doesn’t need as many men to operate.

    Maybe not.

    WV had a lot of surface at one time, but that’s not happening as much anymore. The big coal seams in WV are deep enough to merit going down after them. I don’t know where they rest, depth-wise, in KY.

    I do know that WV and KY were both hit pretty hard by mine closures, though. Several mines were sold as well, probably at greatly reduced prices.

    (Of course, WV has little else going for it, industry wise, so that could account for the percentage diff, as well.)

  27. Art Deco
    January 11th, 2014 @ 5:18 pm

    The ratio of working adults to the whole population in W. Va. is near the national mean. I suspect it deviates a bit because the working-aged population is mildly biased toward the older age cohorts. The state’s unemployment rate is below the national mean and weekly working hours are at the national mean. This is quite a contrast with the situation ca. 1985, when unemployment rates were nearly double the national average. West Virginia was experiencing considerable outmigration in the 1980s, whereas its population has been stable for the last 20 years.

    Eastern Kentucky is suffering elevated unemployment rates at this time and some demographic leakage (presumably as an adjustment). (Kentucky in general is more affluent than West Virginia, but Eastern Kentucky is not).

  28. K-Bob
    January 11th, 2014 @ 10:15 pm

    Interesting stuff. I have to believe those unemployment figures are pre-mine closure. You can’t wipe out so many jobs in a poor state over a few short months and have unemployment stay below the mean. (The closures have been pretty recent.)

    Either way, it’s a lot of po’ folks.

    Much of this area Williamson calls Appalachia (a much bigger area than I ever recall being part of that demographic) also suffers from the fact that a significant percent of the mineral rights and industry are owned or controlled by outside interests.

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