Has America Become Redneck Nation?

Note: This article originally ran in late January of 2003 at Blogcritics, where I was among its earliest and most prolific contributors. I wrote numerous essays, interviews and product reviews there until about 2009 or so. At some point in late 2017, the current management at Blogcritics chose to remove all of my articles without notifying me, and have yet to respond to my email requests for an explanation, or to let me know how to restore them there. (Accidents happen on the Internet; perhaps it was just a glitch?) In the interim, I will slowly be reposting my more interesting pieces here, beginning with Michael Graham's 2002 book Redneck Nation, which caught very early on in the post-9/11 world the left's racially obsessed identity and/or grievance politics. 

I'm always a sucker for books that purport to explain how the world--or at least how America--works. Whether it's Alvin Toffler's Third Wave trilogy, Tom Wolfe's wry studies of how status rules our lives, or David Brooks' recent classic, Bobos in Paradise, I'm sure to read it.

So when National Review Online, at the height of the Trent Lott imbroglio, interviewed Michael Graham, the author of Redneck Nation, I had to read a copy. Here was a guy with a hypothesis that was at once so outrageous, and yet so...logical.

As you may have guessed by its title, in Redneck Nation, Graham essentially believes that somewhere in the past 25 years or so, the South quietly, and through no fault of its own, won the Civil War. That doesn't mean there will be a Confederate flag flying over the state capitals in Albany or Sacramento, (although Redneck Nation has a line that's a real catchphrase, " the only difference between Brooklyn, New York and Birmingham, Alabama is that you can't get a gun rack in a Trans-Am.") but it does mean that many of the ideas of the old South, though thoroughly discredited by the 1960 civil rights movement, have slowly crept into-or back into-the minds of many Americans.

How Did It Happen?

How did we become redneck nation? In an interview with Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review (for whom Graham has written for from time to time) Graham said, "when I talk about redneckery in Redneck Nation, I'm not talking about the Jeff Foxworthy stereotypes. I'm writing about the ideology: What did a typical white southern 'redneck' believe at the beginning of the civil-rights movement 50 years ago?"

  • He believed that race mattered, that race was determinant.
  • He believed that free speech was dangerous, spread by "outside agitators" who never learned the southern speech code: "If you can't say something nice...drink."
  • He believed that all women were either delicate creatures in need of special social protections, or they were roadhouse trailer trash who would spank you and call you "Daddy."
  • He believed that the more irrational and ridiculous your religion, the more fervently you believed in God.
  • He believed the most entertaining way to spend a Saturday night was to watch something get "blowed up real good."

"Having fled these attitudes among my rural southern neighbors", Graham says, "I now live in a modern, liberal America where Ivy League colleges are building segregating housing because "race matters." I actually heard one modern defender of segregated public schools (blacks-only academies) say 'black people learn differently from white people.' Gee, I haven't heard that since I was 12 - from a klan member!" Graham adds, "Thanks to the efforts of northern liberals, we now live in an America where:"

  • Conservative newspapers are regularly burned on the Berkeley campus and Harvard is developing speech codes to keep students from saying anything that might upset their neighbors.
  • Where feminist professors are having works of art like Goya's The Naked Maja removed from classrooms because they create a hostile work environment; and where the model of modern womanhood is the Sex In The City, a.k.a. "White Trash On The Hudson."
  • Where evangelical Christians are mocked by West Coast liberal elites who wear healing crystals, have conversations with trees and watch John Edwards-TV psychic.
  • And where the number one spectator sport from Maine to Malibu is --NASCAR!

Mencken Meets Foxworthy

This is also a very, very funny book. Graham has spent time as a stand-up comedian, and is an active talk show host, and the book reflects both of those skills. Imagine Dave Barry or Bill Maher (who contributed a blurb to the book's dust jacket) crossed with David Horowitz or William F. Buckley (or H.L. Mencken, whose quotes preface several chapters), and you get an idea of Graham's tone:

After a set at a hotel in Washington State, I was dragged into a long, drawn-out discussion with a graying, balding New Ager who just couldn't get over my evangelical background. "You seem so smart," he kept saying. "How could you buy into that stuff?"

Here's a guy wearing a crystal around his neck to open up his chakra, who thinks that the spirit of a warrior from the lost city of Atlantis is channeled through the body of a hairdresser from Palm Springs, and who stuffs magnets in his pants to enhance his aura, and he finds evangelicalism an insult to his intelligence. I ask you: Who's the redneck?

Come to think of it, I'm not sure if this guy-who believed in reincarnation, ghostly hauntings, and the eternal souls of animals-actually believed in God. It's not uncommon for Northerners, especially those who like to use the word "spirituality," to believe in all manner of metaphysical events, while not believing in the Big Guy. "Religious" people go to church and read the Bible, and Northerners view them as intolerant, ill-educated saps. "Spiritual" people go hiking, read Shirley MacLaine or L. Ron Hubbard, and are considered rational, intelligent beings.

About the book, Rod Dreher wrote:

Graham is particularly entertaining when he mocks American popular culture, and quite sensibly observes that many contemporary cultural icons, when they're not NASCAR drivers (stock-car racing is the fastest growing sport in the country), are rednecks manques. Woody Allen, the cerebral Ur-Yankee, used to be worth admiring, says Graham, "until he went southern and started sleeping with his children." HBO's Sex and the City may be the last word in trend-setting drama, but to Graham, Carrie Bradshaw and her horndog pals are just well-groomed sluts (not that he has a problem with that). "And it is just as clearly the case that if you took these same four women, stuck Confederate flag ball caps on their heads, and dropped them in a West Texas truck stop, they would be indistinguishable from the hardworking local gals." Yup.

Though Redneck Nation is smart-mouthed and light-hearted (you will not be surprised to learn that Graham once worked as a stand-up comic), and it doesn't pretend to be a serious political book, its author does make some sober points between the riffs and jibes. On the subject of race, he says that today's left-wing neo-segregationists are morally worse than the white Jim Crow supporters, like his grandmother. "But she didn't grow up with the memory of a martyred Martin Luther King, Jr., and she couldn't benefit from forty years of intense public struggle over the ridiculousness of racial obsession. You and I have," he writes.

For the past few years, I've been wondering why so much of American culture (and I don't mean pop culture-just people living their everyday lives) seemed to be going backwards. A culture whose wealth is unparalled, and a fair amount of which is spent on clothing, but whose men, dressed in baggy pants and backwards baseball caps often look like they've just finished working in Cooter's garage. Whose women are frequently adorned with tattoos and piercings, wearing trousers cut so low, they should be on a burly male appliance mover or grease monkey. Much more seriously, an obsession with race when previously the goal had been a colorblind society. And an increasingly universal obsession with victim-hood when America was built on a culture of rugged, "don't tread on me" individualism. According to Graham, the answer is obvious: the ideas of South, almost 140 years after the Civil War was fought, have become seemingly universal. And for better or worse (mostly the latter, unfortunately), we're living in...redneck nation.