The Poor in Rural America Are Not Laughing
By Loyal Jones
I've heard a lot of flack about the proposed reality show dreamed up by the "creative" people at CBS.
You all remember the original “Beverly Hillbillies”-- that CBS gave to the world back there in a more innocenttime. They were just out of the Ozark hills, rich in oil money and newly ensconced in a California mansion -- laconic Jed (Buddy Ebsen had played rube comedy in vaudeville), acerbic Granny, curvy Ellie May, and the hunky but unswift Jethro.
That show was based on the old comedic theme of city slickers versus the country folk. We loved the show because we understood the premise. It was topsy-turvy humor where the cunning and conniving slicker tries by hook or crook to snooker the rube, and the rube always came out on top. We loved it because it was introduced by Flatt and Scruggs, icons of us country folk back then and of aspiring pre-yuppies who wanted to hold on to some vestige of their roots. Banker Drysdale was the typical slicker, and Jed was innocent, pure of heart, and meant no harm. He even seemed oblivious of his skill at outwitting people who were supposed to be smarter than he was.
Minnie Pearl and Rod Brasield played this kind of rube comedy at the Grand Ole Opry. Old Joe Clark did it at the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. And Carl Hurley and a couple of other ex-rubes I know do it to perfection on the humor and lecture circuit. This kind of humor came down through the oral tradition, minstrel shows, vaudeville, tent repertoire theaters, and then radio. It works best when it was done by an authentic country comedian telling stories to other country people about country folks trying to deal with all those who would exploit them or make fun of them.
But whoa! What happens when this kind of humor is staged in New York City or Hollywood by slickers to sell stuff and in a new and less restrained age to present crass, tasteless, and disgusting things to keep us glued to the tube? No need to waste space here in pointing out how tasteless and shameless television executives can be. The talk shows, the reality shows we already have, and those awful situation comedies have already demonstrated that. And, of course, they are not the only ones exploiting the less fortunate and gullible. Restraint and a modicum of taste are about all we can hope for and won't get.
Poor rural people are about the only ones in the country that you can make fun of all you want to with near impunity. Political correctness fades away when the subject is a poor hillbilly. Therefore they make wonderful scapegoats. We are really haunted and troubled by the poor in this affluent land. Even we people who rise out of poverty to become the hard-working folks that the politicians claim they spend their days helping have a resentment of the poor (or is it a fear that "there but for the grace of God go I?”). We resent people who are not earning their way. This resentment is directed far less toward the rich, who may be getting far more than they actually earn, like those executives who bailed out of corporations with tens of millions of dollars in stock options, pensions, and perks, some now doing quite well, thank you, in government positions.
About the Author
Loyal Jones, retired director of the Berea College Appalachian Center, has written extensively on the roots of American country music, religious belief and practice in the Southern Appalachians, and the humor of Appalachian people.
This essay was published in the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader in 2003.
It didn't take long for stalwarts of the media to get tired of, or embarrassed by, those scoundrels at Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, etc., and go on to examine those poor folks who were scratched off welfare and have now gotten on Supplemental Security Income rolls (with the help of lawyers who get 30 percent of this booty).
We were informed that Kentucky has a disproportionate number of people on SSI (thus summoning the hillbilly stereotype?). Not surprising since we have a disproportionate number of poor people who do whatever they can to shelter, feed, and clothe the family. The implication is that some of those on SSI could jolly well be working. Maybe so, if the job required no more muscle power than that required of accountants to cook the books, executives to cash in their stock options in the nick of time, or state and federal legislators to vote themselves raises and more pension benefits in the dead of the night. The legislators' emoluments, I want you to remember, come from that same bucket that the SSI checks come from, as do those wonderful welfare checks that go to corporations to raise their bottom line and even help them move to Third World countries so they won't have to pay the wages here that might lift some of those people off of welfare.
I say shame on CBS for even thinking of exploiting poor people, but shame on the rest of us if we watch such a travesty on entertainment. And shame on us for scapegoating poor people. There are lots of other folks out there who rip off public funds through tax dodges and all sorts of subsidies that their friendly and paid-off legislators have secured for them a hundredfold more than the poor ever get. Let's keep our attention on the real evildoers.
The most profound thing I learned in college was about the bell-shaped curve. It measures all things -- shoe or head size, intelligence, and certainly income. It tells us that no matter how we prosper as a country , there will always be those on one end of the bell curve who are relatively poor. But then Jesus talked about that long ago, and he taught that we who do well ought to share with those who don't. He also warned us about a haughty spirit, avarice, and an unkind heart.