There's a theory — and if you originated it, step forward and claim the acclaim you deserve — that the appearance of hillbillies in popular culture portends attempts to write people from Appalachia off so that their natural resources can then be exploited. For instance, the Hatfield and McCoy feud filled national papers, thus fueling the idea that people from that part of the world were just violent ignoramuses who choose to live in squalor and they like it, so, you know, if coal companies want to go in and buy up all their land and turn them into indentured servants, well, at least it's enforcing some order on the chaos of the hillbilly life.
This theory, as I remember it, even showed how the arrival of "The Beverly Hillbillies" portended a rise in stories about how much Appalachia sucks and then a loosening of oversight of coal mines, and how "The Dukes of Hazzard" was right as Reagan was gutting welfare, which had devastating consequences for Appalachia.
We've been in the middle of a hillbilly revival. You can turn on your TV and watch reality shows about moonshiners from the Appalachian mountains and watch Andrew Zimmern eating in Appalachian homes on Bizarre Foods. Hell, I'd happily argue that Duck Dynasty is supposed to seem Southern and rednecky in a way that, if you read it as "hillbilly" is fine with A&E.
And now here come the stories of how the people in Appalachia, like the ones you've come to like on TV, just can't be rescued from poverty and squalor. Starting with Kevin Williamson's "The White Ghetto" in The National Review.
This story is a near-perfect example of the genre: intrepid reporter goes to a strange place, encounters strange people, and then writes about their fucked-up ways.
The first person I encounter is Jimmy — I think he’s called Jimmy; there is so much alcohol and Kentucky in his voice that I have a hard time understanding him — who is hanging out by the steps of the local municipal building waiting for something to happen, and what happens today is me. Unprompted, he breaks away from the little knot of men he is standing with and comes at me smiling hard. He appears to be one of those committed dipsomaniacs of the sort David Foster Wallace had in mind when he observed that at a certain point in a drunk’s career it does not matter all that much whether he’s actually been drinking, that’s just the way he is. Jimmy is attached to one of the clusters of unbusy men who lounge in front of the public buildings in Booneville — “old-timers with nothing to do,” one observer calls them, though some of those “old-timers” do not appear to have reached 30 yet, and their Mossy Oak camouflage outfits say “Remington” while their complexions say “Nintendo.”
This is hilarious! Can you imagine a reporter going to, say, Spain, and admitting that he can't understand what the locals are saying, but not bothering to hire a translator, and still having the audacity to report on that place, as if he's knowledgeable about it?! But it gets better and stranger:
“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.
This is wonderful in its ridiculousness. People are using their EBT cards to buy "cases and cases " of soda. Some buyers are buying "30 to 40 cases." Dude. From where? We're supposed to believe that Owsley County, Kentucky has places that have that much floor space? Stockrooms full of cases of soda? And then how the hell are people getting 30 to 40 cases home? Oh, forget getting them home. How are they getting them to their trucks or cars?! Are we supposed to believe that, in Owsley County, Kentucky, the Walmarts all come with extra large shopping cards? Speaking of "Walmart prices," since when does Walmart sell anything for $12.99? If Williamson had ever been in a Walmart, he'd know that the value of a woman in Owsley County, Kentucky is $12.98. And not to put too fine a point on it, but you know, if someone were buying $500 worth of pop with her EBT card, at the least, that shit would be on Tosh.0 and he'd be mocking it. Someone would be filming that and putting it up on YouTube.
He unquestioningly quotes Teresa Barrett, who runs the Owsley County newspaper, "You have people on the draw getting $3,000 a month, and they still can’t live. When I was at the school, we’d see kids come in from a long weekend just starved to death. But you’ll see those parents at the grocery store with their 15 cases of Pepsi, and that’s all they’ve got in the buggy — you know what they’re doing." Seriously, he doesn't bother to ask how you can be drawing $3,000 a month and he doesn't ask to see how you fit 15 cases of Pepsi in a shopping cart. He just accepts what she's saying at face value.
You can tell that there's some part of Williamson's brain that suspects this whole "pop economy" stuff has to be nonsense, because he says, "It’s possible that a great many cans of soda used as currency go a long time without ever being cracked — in a town this small, those selling soda to EBT users and those buying it back at half price are bound to be some of the same people, the soda merely changing hands ceremonially to mark the real exchange of value, pillbilly wampum." It's like some small voice is screaming "Kevin, the pop economy you've posited just isn't logistically possible!" But Williamson thunders on with his tale of depraved poor people, ignoring his own voice of reason.
And then, rather than quietly informing Williamson that he's been played, the conservatives all rush to pile on about how insightful his story is. Rod Dreher over at The American Conservative is all, "What do you do with people like that? Many of us — conservatives and liberals both — are outraged at the idea that there is nothing that can realistically be done to ease their estate, to deliver them from this kind of grinding suffering. But what if, for some people, it’s true?" and Andrew Sullivan calls the story "depressing."
Listen, if there's some county full of women swapping blow jobs for Mountain Dew, then, yes, that is depressing. But this country has a long history of believing every terrible thing it hears about Appalachia and, coupling that with people who are willing to tell outsiders whatever bizarre thing to see if they'll believe it, I think we need to be more skeptical of whether this is actually true or if Williamson got his leg pulled, hard, and didn't recognize that's what was happening. I'm putting my money — er, my 15 cases of Pepsi, in this case — on him being played.
I just hope we don't make public policy now on the idea that the people of Owsley County, Kentucky, with their pop economy, just can't be helped and we should, then, be fine with things.