Red­neck porn

Crit­ics of the ‘de­plorables’ dis­patch di­a­tribes against the down­trod­den to as­suage their im­po­tence

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By F.H. Buck­ley F.H. Buck­ley teaches at Scalia Law School. His most re­cent book is “The Way Back: Restor­ing the Prom­ise of Amer­ica” (En­counter, 2016).

The 20th cen­tury gave us a good many new lit­er­ary gen­res. Modernism, Fu­tur­ism, Dadaism. Later on there was Post-modernism, Struc­tural­ism, De­con­struc­tion. And now there’s a new lit­er­ary genre: Red­neck Porn. That’s where news­pa­pers like The New York Times and The Wash­ing­ton Post send their re­porters to the be­nighted parts of Amer­ica where peo­ple voted for Don­ald Trump, in an ef­fort to ex­plain the great na­tional tragedy of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s de­feat. Pre­elec­tion, it was all too sim­ple. Trump sup­port­ers were all racists (ac­cord­ing to Pres­i­dent Obama) and sex­ist (ac­cord­ing to Hil­lary). When Hil­lary called them all “de­plorables,” she had sim­ply ex­pressed what every­one on her side was think­ing. And who cared, frankly, since she was go­ing to win in a land­slide?

But then it didn’t turn out that way. And the com­fort­ing ex­pla­na­tions didn’t do the trick. The charge of racism fell flat, when so many coun­ties flipped from vot­ing for Mr. Obama in 2012 to Mr. Trump in 2016. There were 22 of them (out of 72) in Wis­con­sin alone, the state that put Mr. Trump over the top. As for the gen­der gap, white women proved them­selves traitors to their sex in 2016, and while more women voted for Hil­lary than Mr. Trump over­all, Hil­lary ac­tu­ally re­ceived less of the women’s vote than Mr. Obama did.

That left us with the idea that Trump vot­ers were moral repro­bates, the Oxy-sniff­ing spawn of un­wed mothers. Na­tional Re­view’s Kevin Wil­liamson got this started by de­scrib­ing their “whelp­ing of hu­man chil­dren with all the re­spect and wis­dom of a stray dog.” They com­plained about bad trade deals, im­mi­gra­tion and crony cap­i­tal­ism, but had only them­selves to blame. “The white Amer­i­can un­der­class is in thrall to a vi­cious, self­ish cul­ture whose main prod­ucts are mis­ery and used heroin nee­dles. Don­ald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyCon­tin.”

Mr. Wil­liamson’s lit­tle es­say might have reeked with smug self-sat­is­fac­tion, but voyeuris­tic, red­neck porn lit­er­a­ture soon emerged, in books such as J.D. Vance’s “Hill­billy El­egy.” Its sub­jects weren’t the work­ing-class he­roes of Bri­tain’s An­gry Young Men in the 1950s with their gritty in­tegrity. In­stead, they were the stuff of moral de­cay, the pas­sively rot­ten masses in TV se­ries such as “Break­ing Bad” and “Jus­ti­fied” that de­served Mr. Wil­liamson’s con­tempt. Mind you, I don’t have a prob­lem with J.D. Vance. Just with peo­ple who en­joyed his book.

The main­stream me­dia soon jumped on this. In a no­table ex­am­ple, The Wash­ing­ton Post sent a Pulitzer Prize win­ner, Wes­ley Low­ery, to McDow­ell County, W.Va. The county has the low­est life ex­pectancy and the high­est rate of drug-in­duced deaths in the United States. Males live an av­er­age of 63.5 years and fe­males 71.5 years, com­pared to the na­tional av­er­age of 76.5 for males and 81.2 for fe­males. Be­tween 1985 and 2013, the na­tional life­span in­creased 5.5 years for men and 3.1 years for women, but in McDow­ell, it de­clined 3.2 years for men and 4.1 years for women.

Mr. Low­ery’s story is one long sneer at his in­fe­ri­ors. What he chose to re­port on was a fight club in which lo­cal young men try to beat each other up in re­turn for a chance at a prize. “That $1,000, that’s a whole lot of beer, man.” The fights are sched­uled just af­ter the govern­ment wel­fare checks are de­liv­ered, which en­ables the spec­ta­tors to buy their “$3 hot dogs drenched in warm chili.” Be­tween rounds, scant­ily clad ring girls dance for the crowd, with what Mr. Low­ery de­scribes as “vary­ing de­grees of rhythm,” and the reader is per­mit­ted to see their degra­da­tion through pho­to­graphs meant to make them look trashy. You get the sense that Mr. Low­ery re­ally en­joyed their dis­grace, and that the only thing that re­ally both­ered him was the poor cell­phone re­cep­tion. I bet he gets an­other Pulitzer out of the story.

How very dif­fer­ent this was from the older lit­er­a­ture of poverty in Amer­ica, James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Fa­mous Men” or Michael Har­ring­ton’s “The Other Amer­ica.” The ear­lier writ­ers de­scribed the poor with com­pas­sion, as fel­low Amer­i­cans. They were the Joads in “The Grapes of Wrath,” hon­or­able peo­ple down on their luck. There was no sense of moral su­pe­ri­or­ity in this lit­er­a­ture, even with those who might have brought their poverty on them­selves. The des­per­ately poor were bro­ken in body and spirit, and while they didn’t be­long to any­one or any­thing, they still were our broth­ers with whom we shared a com­mon hu­man­ity and cit­i­zen­ship. If they lived their lives at lev­els “be­neath those nec­es­sary for hu­man de­cency,” we were called upon to do some­thing about it. In Mr. Har­ring­ton’s case, that had meant liv­ing with them in one of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker hospices, not an ex­pe­ri­ence any of the pur­vey­ors of red­neck porn will have shared.

ILLUSTRATION BY GREG GROESCH

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