Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Redneck Mystique, #1

A few years ago, I was struck by this uneasy realization: the movie Easy Rider has a happy ending. It was not positioned as such by the makers of the movie. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, the drug-smuggling hippies roaming the countryside on their hogs, are mercilessly gunned down on a rural road down South by a redneck hanging a shotgun out of the passenger-side window of a pick-up truck.

For some reason, I felt like standing up and cheering as the last sweeping camera shot caught both bikes burning in a field, the riders presumably dead. At that time, I think it was because I understood that the film makers were wrong. Throughout the movie, they had the Fonda character putting forth that the reason all these rednecks and regular folk hated them so much was because they were afraid of what he and Hopper represented: freedom. But riding around the country on bikes, and financing it by selling drugs, is not freedom – it’s basically a pair of traveling salesmen, selling a product that often enslaves people.

The truth is, Fonda and Hopper were more afraid of the regular folk and what they represented: normality. Some semblance of security and stability. This theme was touched on in the scene where they come upon the old white farmer with a Mexican wife and family, simply living off the land. Fonda thought he was cool – I can’t recall the trippy phrasing he used to note this. Doesn’t it stand to reason that the gap-toothed redneck who shot him in the end might have been a farmer, too, living the exact same life, save he didn’t like hippies, and I mean really didn't like them. The real outlaw in that movie is that gap-toothed redneck – he killed two innocent people for fun. Like the guy in Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” who shot a man just to watch him die. Scared dogs might be that aggressive, but it’s been my experience that scared people run away. That redneck was a psychopath … which I found far more “outlaw” than a pair of hippies on Harleys.

From that point forward, I noticed this feeling every time I saw these strange “up with hippies” type movies from the 60s and 70s, mostly biker movies, but Billy Jack was another perfect example. While I dug Billy – how can you not dig a morally ambiguous Vietnam Vet into American Indian mysticism, who takes his shoes off to kicks ass – “Jean and the kids,” i.e., a bunch of hippies operating a “progressive” school on the edge of town, made me want to vomit with their teenage arrogance and sanctimony. I agreed with the townfolk who wanted them gone. This happens every time I see a movie like this now -- I root with those who once carried pitchforks and torches in the old country.

By the same token, I am not a redneck. Coming from a small-town, or even living in one, does not make one a redneck. I think to be a redneck, you have to make a conscious choice early on in life to be that way. Reject higher education. Accept a harder way-of-life that focuses on manual labor. It’s basically an act of closing ranks in a rural area, and a stubborn refusal to ever change. It’s also romanticizing American ideals and attaching them to physical things in your life: motorcycles, guns, cigarettes, alcohol, etc. You can easily have a conversation with a redneck where he’ll talk your ear off over “anti-smoking Nazis” enforcing public-smoking bans, yet he’ll have no problem with the Patriot Act. Pennsylvania now has a law allowing motorcyclists to ride without helmets. A strike for personal freedom, or just another sleazy special-interest group manipulating corrupt politicians?

Most rednecks will tell you it’s all about the same thing Fonda and Hopper wanted: freedom. In this case, simply freedom to be what they are, not freedom to roam. (These days, you’re more than likely to find rednecks who look much more like Fonda and Hopper in Easy Rider than the town-folk who wanted those two dead.)

I’m getting into all this because of the ongoing red state/blue state nonsense that’s been consuming our society, in which the red states (the rednecks) basically won the last election, an unforgivable act which has blue-state people not just peeved, but carrying on like mental patients. (Hint: any time you see someone unironically carrying on about red states/blue states, or not attempting to analyze the phenomenon, you know you’re dealing with an asshole, and in this case a left-leaning one. Without fail, what’s really being said is “I hate working-class white people.” And that’s fine, but just fucking say it instead of dancing around the issue. When’s the last time you read a thinly-veiled insult against “blue states”?)

This stuff makes no sense. Pennsylvania is a blue state? Buddy, you get yourself away from Pittsburgh or Philly, and I beg to differ. And once you find yourself in all those red-state counties, guess what, there are “blue state” people living there, too – most likely in a county that broke 60-40 for Bush. There are plenty of “red state” people in New York, not just upstate, but even in the city – talk to police or firemen sometime for a different take on things. My point being that some total idiot came up with this red state/blue state nonsense – then again I take that back. Someone very wealthy and intelligent came up with the idea, and he’s simply doing what the wealthy have always done: pitting relatively powerless people against each other so that neither side notices the real divide will always be a few people who have a lot of money and a vast majority of those who don’t. And we’ll all spend the rest of our days in this psychotic, meaningless push-pull of false power that serves no purpose other than to keep things the way they are.

Getting back to rednecks, it’s also occurred to me recently that “blue state people” don’t really understand them – which is probably why this country is going to skew Republican for a few more major elections, at a minimum. In all honesty, a lot of times I don’t understand rednecks. But I’d like to think I’m close enough to try. Or, a strange phenomenon, once I moved away from small-town life to a major city, I somehow found myself seeing small-town life more clearly, certainly in ways I didn’t while I was there. I never rejected small-town life in any way – to this day, I have no problem with it, see its many benefits and could easily see myself going back to it. The age-old issue of finding good employment is a hard nut to crack for me in favor of small-town life, but I think we all hit a certain point in our lives when nightlife loses its luster, and we’re just as satisfied coming home from work and taking it easy in a clean, quiet place – I’m clearly there now. I love/hate the city the same way I loved/hated living in a small-town. I think about the only place I would be desperately unhappy would be a suburb, because I don’t understand those people no-how!

Every now and then, I'm going to put out a numbered Redneck Mystique post (this is #1) to get into these issues. For all those blue-state people who get it wrong, or need another perspective they’re not hearing on Air America, or from friends who agree with them on everything, which is nature's way of telling you it's time for an oil change. Sometimes I’ll be asking about the redneck mystique, because there are plenty of times where I’ll shake my head and wonder, too. (Like the time one of my brother’s coworkers was so tired of a toothache he stuck a cordless power drill in his mouth to get at it.) Bottom line, I think these folks are getting a raw deal P.R. wise in our society, and in my own little way, I’d like to offer a dissenting point of view when I can. So, I'll be sitting here in my sleeveless "Live Free or Die" t-shirt -- the one with the screaming eagle on it -- sipping from a can of Old Milwaukee, in my orange acid-wash bermuda shorts, watching Ultimate Fighting on Spike TV ... who the hell am I kidding, that's not me. Just pretend I know what I'm talking about, and I'll go along with it.


muckster said...

Sorry, Bill, but you're heaping generalizations on top of stereotypes. You're saying anybody who goes on about "red" and "blue" states is an "asshole," and then you have some summary judgments about suburbanites, rednecks, rich people, educated people, and so on. Obviously, breaking down a country by coloring entire states is extremely reductive, but "red state" was never meant to signify "redneck"; it used to mean "state that went to GWB in the election." If you increase the resolution, you can see that it's urban areas where Bush lost and rural ones where he won the majority of votes. That still doesn't say anything about *everybody* who lives there.

You make an interesting point about Easy Rider, but it's a stretch to call that a happy ending. No matter how you feel about the working class and stinkin' hippies, I don't think it's a good idea to align yourself with murderers and psychopaths.

William S. Repsher said...

muckster, we're rarely going to agree regarding anything political -- which is fine! While "red states" was never meant to signify "rednecks," you'd be hardpressed to find anyone in the world who doesn't at least partially make that assumption (I'd argue much more than "partially") -- it's the elephant in the room. I'll bet you will find "red state" being used to define a conservative rural vote in presidential elections long after GWB is a distant memory. It's too easy a hookline not to use, and journalists will get the proper pavolvian response from their intended audience by using it. I'm afraid I don't have any "summary judgments" -- just observations you're free to agree or disagree with. I could say you're making a wrong summary judgment on where Bush lost (rural areas) and won (urban areas) -- there are plenty of urban areas in the midwest and south where he won. And plenty of rural areas in the northeast and coast lines where he lost. And as I noted, if you broke down county-by-county votes, things aren't so clear.

And if you can find one reference anywhere in the media where "red state" is used as a compliment, I'll buy you a round at The Irish Rover.

Obviously, I'm stirring the pot with Easy Rider. And I don't think it's such a bad idea to relate to FICTIONAL murderers and psychopaths -- we do it all the time with art. In the case of Easy Rider, you're asked to relate to a pair of aimless, drug-dealing hippies (who were supposed to represent the true spirit of America?) or a bunch of rednecks who'd prefer them out of town or dead -- that's some choice!

Thanks for checking in -- you know I always get a tremendous kick out of annoying you. Which isn't hard to do!

William S. Repsher said...

Sheesh, make that "where Bush won (rural areas) and lost (urban areas)" -- I was too busy watching American Gladiators while posting and made that error. Sorry.