On Hillbillies, Jew Jokes, and Criticism

“Did you hear about the rabbi who waled into a bar…?”

In Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, a national bestseller in the new media category of “Trump Supporter Apologies,” and one that is quite good and worth reading, the author describes a 2009 ABC news report about “Appalachian America” and its reception. The report detailed the “poverty and deprivation” of Appalachia, depicting problems such as “Mountain Dew mouth” in which children had dental problems because their parents gave them too much soda. It did not go over well among the natives. It was “met with utter scorn. The consistent reaction: This is none of your damn business.”

Possible distortions for dramatic effect aside, the report was not, however, untrue. As of 2009, 40% of retirees over 65 in West Virginia had none of their natural teeth left. Similar statistics would demonstrate abnormal rates of drug addiction, overdose, illiteracy, poverty and so forth. Vance does not sidestep these realities in his memoir. It is rife with disturbing scenes of both material and social poverty. You get the sense that few who live in Appalachia and much of middle America would deny these problems. But those same people are awfully concerned about whose “damn business” it is to fix them.

This is an overlooked social phenomenon that helps describe our current state of dysfunction when it comes to political discourse (at least). The conception that it is my job to hold my people to task is not a quirk of Scots-Irish tribalism; it is widely shared. In 2006 an Iranian newspaper sponsored a Holocaust Cartoon Competition. While this was met with the ire you might expect, it also spurred another Anti-Semitic Cartoon Competition — held by a Jewish illustrator in Tel Aviv. The competition was meant to “show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons ever published!” And that “[n]o Iranian will beat us on our home turf!” As a largely secular Jew, I often feel this way about Israel and/or far right Orthodox Jews. I find their policies and practices abhorrent at times, but my spine rises instinctively when goyim remark on the backwards ways of hassidim. Let us do the shaming. It is not a clearly ethically defensible position, nor is it one I advocate. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get it.

Self-deprecation has been a staple of Jewish humor for centuries, if not millennia, but while it may be more pronounced or well known (Jews do run the American media, after all), Jews are not alone. Watch Dave Chappelle or Richard Pryor’s stand up. Watch George Lopez (well, actually, just take my word on that one). Chappelle’s famous, “I’m rich bitch!” sketch is based on the conceit that the US government approves reparations, and black people throughout America are given large sums of money. The result: long lines at liquor stores, and the stock price of fried chicken skyrockets. One man buys a truck filled with cigarettes. No one accused Chappelle of perpetuating destructive stereotypes about “welfare queens,” nor should they have. If I made those jokes there would be a very different reception.*

This is pertinent to our current moment in several ways. Few Southerners deny that the South has its problems, and it would be very hard to do so. Of the ten poorest states, as measured in GDP per capita, five are southern. Of the ten richest, none are southern. Of the ten states with the worst rates of infant mortality, six are southern. Of the ten most obese, four are southern. Of the ten least happy states, five are southern. Of the ten states with lowest number of bachelors degrees, five are southern. This is a map of life expectancy in the United States, with whiter being lower life expectancy:

Mississippi alone has the worst infant mortality, the most obese population, the poorest people, and is second only to West Virginia in having the least residents with a bachelor’s degree. Donald Trump took 58% of the vote.

Still, it is hugely ineffective for me to raise these complaints or voice criticism. Having lived in the south now for several years I have encountered the inherent defensiveness of its peoples. It is a defensiveness that cuts across political lines. I have met Mississippi progressives who presumably oppose virtually every law in the state and still bristle with fierce Mississippi pride. Like Hillbillies, Jews, and African American comics, it is their job to shame their people.** This social phenomenon is perhaps even more pronounced in the South because of, you guessed it, the Civil War. Reconstruction was a federal policy of patronization and condescension, however well deserved, and it continues to be ill received. The term “carpetbagger” comes from the Reconstruction era, and refers to idealistic (and opportunistic) Northerners who went South after the war to make a political name for themselves, and possibly convert the natives to their brand of radical Republicanism.^ One Southerner who grew up during the civil war explained a popular view, that the South would have gotten along just fine after the war, “had it not been for the enemies of the South and the Yankee element of designing politicians who lived by the misfortunes of the South. These swooped like vultures upon the patriotic, but misguided South.”

That sentiment — that the South is fundamentally good, albeit “misguided” at times, and needs no help or guidance from Yankees — is very much alive and well. How this translates into electing a New York City billionaire who wouldn’t spend a night in Jackson, Kentucky if his private plane crashed there, is beyond me. As is any neat solution. But I would suggest some earnest self-reflection. Reflexive anger at outsiders despite whatever the merits of their arguments is not unique to regional Republicans. If you believe otherwise, talk to someone from New Jersey. Being conscious of the inevitable reactions to such rhetoric can perhaps help us have better conversations in the future.


*There are layers here. There is also the argument that the butt of the joke is stereotyping itself.

**To reiterate the above footnote, Chappelle wasn’t necessarily “shaming” African Americans.