The time has come upon us again when reporters for national publications descend upon the poorest parts of Appalachia like locusts to write stories about What is Wrong With the Poor Despairing Rural Hillbilly.
This year it is couched as an election story, an explainer of why people would vote for a lout like Trump. There must be something wrong with them, the unsaid implication is, if they would choose this candidate.
What is wrong? Why, they’re poor! Their jobs are gone and they’re on drugs and living in derelict houses. They are despairing.
I have seen a number of stories like this in the past few months. The Guardian, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the Charlotte Observer, just to name a few.
It is an unusual amount of attention paid to one geographic part of the electorate. I have not read J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” on the grounds that the reviews of it make me mad so the book is likely to make me mad too. But I blame it anyway, because it has gotten a lot of attention and Vance has made the rounds to tell national media outlets about the economic and cultural poverties of the hillbilly and it seems to me that editors of numerous publications have taken it as an invitation.
I admit that I notice stories about Appalachia more than I do stories about, say, rural Oregon, so perhaps I have missed the plethora of national news stories about why other regions of the United States may be voting the way they are.
But I don’t think so. We talk sometimes of an elitism from the urban and suburban ruling classes toward the more rural parts of America, and I think that’s part of what’s driving this latest outbreak of stories. I know the definition of news is often what is out of the ordinary, and I think to national journalists Appalachia and its people are as different as they can get from their own selves and their readers. They want pieces on what The Other thinks and Appalachia is as Other as they can think of
The reporting reflects that. It is mostly — not entirely, but mostly — shallow and derivative. They are all writing the same story. Point out the decline in coal, the rise in drug addiction, mention the Walmart and the church, sweepingly declare the landscape to be one of blight and dereliction and use the word despair – a lot.
Some have been better than others — one I even mostly liked, until I read its photo captions — but overall I expect better from big publications.
If you start a story with your thesis already set, you can usually find evidence to back you up. It is not hard to figure out the Appalachian localities with the highest poverty rates and the highest unemployment, and they extrapolate and generalize from there. They come looking for despair, and they find it. Because of course, it exists. The economy of central Appalachia has been dominated by the coal industry and it is sinking and many people are out of work. This trickles down to all the businesses and jobs that exist in coal areas, it trickles down to the dwindling tax base, to cuts to education budgets.
No one is making this up. No one is pretending that the economy is doing well, that jobs are plentiful, that drug use isn’t a very serious problem. Many people in central/southern Appalachia, coalfields Appalachia, are in deep trouble, and they’re clinging to anything that offers a hope of change from the present and a return to the normalcy of the recent past.
I have no issue with pointing out the very real problems facing parts of Appalachia, but to do so without context or a marginal reference to conditions that help create those things is shoddy work. To not look deeper than the surface is lazy. You cannot understand the conditions of modern Appalachia without having some working knowledge of the history and legacy of coal mining and the industry’s poor treatment of its workers – not just back when they were paying miners in scrip instead of cash, but now, when they hire lawyers to rebuff black lung claims and retired miners don’t know what’s going to happen to their pensions and health insurance. You cannot understand the conditions of modern Appalachia without knowing that big Pharma pumped pills into the region. You cannot understand the promises politicians are making, nor the limitations of those promises, without deeper context.
Much of the writing done about Appalachia and Trump has been boring. It has said nothing new.
But more than the lack of depth of the stories, I take issue with the tone. It’s a “y’all come look at this” tone. Come marvel at the despairing, unemployed, addicted hillbilly. How he’s so angry and despairing that he would grasp even for Trump. I don’t think this tone is even something intentional, usually. It’s a deep-seated, unconscious lack of understanding of a different place. But in practice it makes Appalachians into the Other. It sets us apart as something strange, something exotic, different.
Appalachians aren’t exotic creatures. Appalachians are Americans too. Appalachians dug the coal that powered your homes and forged the steel to build your buildings. You, America, have taken the timber and the coal and the young people and even the very tops of our mountains. You tell us you “discovered” our old fiddlers. You have given us Oxycontin and charity and pity and the War on Poverty and you try to tell us how to fix our problems. Thanks. I believe we might have preferred it if you gave us broadband.
These stories have been written before. Come look at the bearded lady. Let me tell you about these people.
Well, let ME tell you about “these people.”
If you want to write about Appalachia, know these things.
Not everyone in Appalachia is poor.
Not every house in Appalachia is falling down.
Not every place in Appalachia is covered in trash.
Not everyone in Appalachia is “despairing.”
Not everyone in Appalachia is on drugs.
Not everyone in Appalachia is white.
Not everyone in Appalachia is rural.
Not everyone in Appalachia is politically conservative.
The coal companies have blasted away literal mountains.
The coal companies have worked to deny black lung benefits to dying miners.
Coal miners, employed or not, just want to work and come home to their families just like everyone else.
There are young people who want to stay.
There are not-so-young people who want to come back.
There are people looking for ways to build an economy without coal.
There is a resurgence of interest in the unique Appalachian foodways and music and dance and other traditions.
Appalachia is a vast place and no one story covers it. No one experience represents it.
Appalachia isn’t a zoo, to come marvel at the despairing hillbilly and tell your readers about his unusual habits. It isn’t a freak show. It’s fine to write about the negatives but you can go deeper. Try not reporting on us like an exotic tribe. Try not making us the Other.