Tuesday, March 18, 2014

No, There's No "White Trashing" of Television. Currently, Anyway

I respect the Weekly Standard's John Podhoretz and agree with him most of the time.  Not, however, on his recent critique of Hollywood's recent embrace of compelling stories set in places that seem odd to America's affluent metrodwellers.

American literary culture has a long tradition of local color writing.  Anne Royall's early 1800s writings of traveling through the Kanawha Valley of (at the time) Virginia and its surroundings reflect her vastly different background compared to the people that she meets and the scenery she encounters.  Sometimes Royall writes of the beautiful surroundings, other times she describes the impact of early salt making on the surrounding forest.

After the Civil War came a wave of local color.  In themselves, the stories and books by writers such as Mary Noailles Murfree (whose claim to knowledge was childhood vacations to Tennessee)  or John Fox Jr. did little harm.  They took stereotypes of hill people from time immemorial, dressed them up in the conflict between an idealized country and encroaching industrial civilization, then presented them as morality tales.  Sometimes the country taught the city, more often the city taught the country.  Rarely did they get it right, except for Rebecca Harding Davis (mother of famed war correspondent Richard Harding Davis) who actually lived in the valleys of Hampshire County, Virginia/West Virginia)

The harm came when people endeavored to "cure" the backcountry.  It was not so much the industrialists. They purchased the land at market value and offered cash jobs that allowed people to live better than subsistence or low level commercial farming.  There is a checkered record there, but not as bad as that of the government.

Government bureaucrats read the books and magazine stories and took them for fact.  They decided by the 1930s that farmers and mountain dwellers, for example, in Tennessee, no longer had rights to land.  To build national parks and experiment with hydroelectric social engineering, they drove men and women from land owned by their families since the 1700s. They made up a place called "Appalachia," poured hundreds of millions of dollars into it, but also applied a ruthless characterization to all who lived there.

Charles Kurault's CBS special "Christmas in Appalachia" did more damage than any work of fiction.  Using the credibility of "news," Kurault excised one hollow from one county in Kentucky and generalized the images as pervasive to thousands of square miles over several states.  Certainly those portrayed did live in poverty, but not unlike their brethren in the inner cities, the southern lowlands, the Midwest, the Rockies, or anywhere else.  Murfree, Fox, and their colleagues just wrote stories.  Kurault manufactured an image that, when wedded to the "CBS News" brand, made it a rallying cry for Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty.

Podhoretz includes the show Justified among the offenders.  The problem with Justified is that the stories of corruption, abuse of power, and crime depicted in Harlan County pale in comparison to actual events that unfolded in Mingo County, West Virginia just an hour to the northeast. The writers take great care with the mountain characters.  Many are intelligent, educated, and complex, although some, like Dewey Crowe, are dumb as a box of rocks.  The way of the world is that some people, especially criminals, are actually pretty dumb, Dewey accurately represents that.

Unlike Kurault, Justified takes pains to note that a variety of types of people of different classes with different interests live in southeastern Kentucky.  And it did accurately depict the paradox of pride and resentfulness toward coal and the coal industry that permeates some of these communities.  Justified also stars one of the most aggressively outspoken conservatives in Hollywood, Nick Searcy.

Minor quibble.  Justified is obviously filmed in California.  The Golden State looks as little like Kentucky as it looked like Georgia when Dukes of Hazzard was filmed there.

The AMC program Walking Dead features one of the best characterizations of a "redneck" ever made.  Darryl is everything that redneck characters have never been.  Again, writers took pains to give this character a multitude of dimensions rarely seen in movies or television that are not themselves written by people from the area.

Unmentioned by Podhoretz, but interesting nonetheless, is Archer's Ray Gillette. The character Gillette is a gay intelligence agent who was an Olympic gold medal winner and graduated from Marshall University.  Someone grew up in Southern West Virginia, went to Marshall, and ended up writing for that show.  Nothing else can explain the funny yet respectful portrayals, as well as some near inside jokes referring to Marshall.

To someone who grew up in West Virginia, studied Appalachian history and culture in college, and has seen a lot of crap come and go, this is actually a golden era.  At no other time in living memory has television (if not Hollywood yet) come so close to accurate, respectful, and non exploitative characterizations.  These shows explore stories and issues without ridiculing or sermonizing on the positive values of the people who live there.  That takes dexterity and care.

So long as policymakers watch these shows and remember, as we tell our children, that these are just stories, it will be fine.

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