In 1997, Ann and I moved to the hills of Northwest Arkansas from Arizona. We were somewhat familiar with the area. I had Arkansas family on my mother’s side and we’d even spent our honeymoon on an Ozark camping trip. But what we weren’t prepared for was the fact that Arkansas was changing, and that mainstream American culture was invading this isolated backwoods.
Not long after we moved here, we drove to Eureka Springs, a little mountain town and one of the biggest tourist destinations in the state. We were driving up and down its picturesque streets when Ann suddenly exclaimed with shock, “There’s a man in overalls and he has a camcorder.”
Her surprise made perfect sense to me. Hillbillies were supposed to be sitting out on the porch in a rocker smoking a corn cob pipe, not on vacation shooting video. Hillbillies, it seemed, were joining the modern world.
It took another fifteen years or so for hillbilly culture to make its way into the mass media, but once the cork was out of the bottle, it was probably inevitable that everyone in America would be invited to gawk at hillbillies the same way we’d been amazed by the one with the camcorder.
Now, it’s gotten pretty much out of hand, with so many redneck television shows, you could spend a good portion of every day watching the antics of hill people.
You’ve got your moonshiners, your swampers, your bigfoot hunters. The Duggar family, who live just down the road from me, got a show for having nineteen children. I wonder if they know what’s causing that. Honey Boo Boo and her family seem like typical haystraws. Just a couple of decades ago, I don’t think they’d have had a chance at becoming TV stars. But with the explosion of hillbilly chic, ignorant and backward is in.
Who could have predicted the wild popularity of Duck Dynasty? When I moved here 16 years ago, one thing I noticed was that some men wore bushy beards, unlike other parts of the country, where if a man had facial hair, and wasn’t in a biker gang, he kept it trimmed and neat. Now, the Robertson clan has become role models and bushy beards are everywhere. In a way, for those of us out here in the boonies, it’s an interesting reversal. Instead of New York or California setting trends, hick culture has spread across the country like an out of control kudzu vine.
But sooner or later, as hillbilly values rubbed up against mainstream culture, there was bound to be trouble and now it’s happened. The scion of the Robertson family of Duck Dynasty has been suspended by the A&E network over alleged homophobic remarks he make in a magazine interview, comparing homosexuality to bestiality and promiscuity. Thousands have rallied behind him, signing a petition for him to be reinstated. His supporters say he was just exercising his freedom of speech. His detractors label him a homophobe.
Should anyone be surprised by all this? Nah. When you put country bumpkins up on the national stage and give them a mediated soapbox, their quaint and backward way of looking at things are going to get aired big time. If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it’s going to talk like a duck too.
Let’s be honest for a minute, if that’s possible. The reason hillbilly shows have become so prevalent isn’t because America admires hillbilly values. It isn’t because their primitive lifestyle is something they want to emulate in New York City. It’s because it’s so much fun to look down on rednecks and make fun of the ignorant things they say and do. It’s about feeling superior to a bunch of unprogressive hicks who are stuck a few decades behind the rest of the country.
Remember when Obama said rural people love their guns and religion? Well, the gun part doesn’t come into play here, but the religion part does. The Duck Dynasty bunch are religious fundamentalists. They read in their Bibles that a man shouldn’t lay with another man, that it’s a sin. Personally, I couldn’t disagree more with what old man Robertson said, but on the other hand, I totally support his right to say it. His statements on gays come straight out of his religious beliefs, and the last time I checked there was supposed to be religious freedom in this country.
Who’s to blame for this little tempest? I think it’s the TV producers who thought it would be cute to give rednecks a podium and let them make fools of themselves. I guess they misunderestimated. They forgot that though hillbillies are uninformed anachronisms, they still have strong beliefs and fierce loyalty to their centuries-old culture. And while they were put up before the TV audience to be laughingstocks, the truth is that hillbillies think they have it right, and mainstream America has it wrong. Go ahead and laugh at that.
Here’s what you don’t see, will never see, on television. Hillbillies are a proud people, resourceful, tough, resilient, and energetic. They’ve survived and eked out an existence for hundred of years in places that are hostile to human habitation. They’ve maintained their own unique and colorful lifestyle despite being inundated with the homogenizing assault of popular American culture. They’ve been put down, knocked around, beaten in war, and generally treated like America’s stepchildren. But they’re still living out in the sticks, drinking their moonshine, oiling up their guns and pounding their Bibles.
Now they could have gone off to the city and prospered and moved into the middle class, and some of them did. But most of them hung back, chose to live in poverty, out on some wooded hillside somewhere, driving an old pick-up and supporting about nine dogs and maybe a goat or two. They’re the reason potted meat, Spam and vienna sausages are still on the shelf at Wal-Mart. They smoke cigarettes, dip snuff, chew tobacco, and a gourmet meal for them comes from KFC.
They endure. In the face of progress, as it’s called, they just keep going on. These little pockets of individuality in our country are getting harder to find. And while you may not agree with their pronouncements any more than you’d agree with evangelical snake handlers, or Scientologists, or doomsday preppers, in a country that is supposed to stand for freedom, they have every right to their crackpot credo.