I’m not a regular television viewer. (This isn’t one of those highbrow I’m-too-good-for-teevee things. It has more to do with the fact that, when we watch prime time, the kids tend ask to uncomfortable questions, such as “what is a sexually-intense thriller?” It’s easier to stick with Disney or Nick where the characters are fictitious, fashionable, perfectly safe, and seemingly sexless.) However, after I read local inkslinger Joel Spears’ missive about the 20/20 special “Children of the Mountains,” which aired last week, I knew I’d have to track it down and watch.
I did – thanks to Cajun Boy in the City, who rounded up the links here.
Fortunately, Joel’s take had prepared me for the worst. I wasn’t expecting to see your typical mountain folks. I knew it would be people handpicked for their depravity, their desperation and their ability to stir the emotions of viewers. (Oh, Sawyer can blather on about her noble intent until she’s blue in the face, but we all know these folks were plucked from the trailer park for ratings.)
I do not deny these people exist in our communities. Even Mr. Smartypants, who watched the special with me, announced one of the children featured in the series was “sorta like this girl he knows at school.” However, these families do not represent the majority – and I agree with Joel. Poverty, broken families, irresponsible behavior, filth and hunger are not regional oddities. You can find these things most anywhere in America. So, why focus on us?
Hazard Mayor Bill Gorman, who appeared briefly in Sawyer’s report, summed it up nicely for the Lexington Herald-Leader when he said the report was “the same load of crap they’ve been doing for 40 years.”
From Deliverance and Nell to the Beverly Hillbillies, SNL and Jon Stewart, the media has always turned people of Southern Appalachia into caricatures without consequence – often portraying us as rednecked, cross-eyed, racist, cow-licked, tattooed, ignorant, small-minded, uneducated, impoverished, sloven, slothful, self-loathing, kinfolk-feuding, snake-handling, tongue-speaking, Bible-thumping, cousin-humping manglers of the English language who are confounded by fancy city-thangs like escalators, syllables, cement ponds, toothbrushes and books without pictures.
We saw a reemergence of these stereotypes during the last presidential campaign. (In case you missed the national media’s in-depth analysis of Appalachian voters, let me fill you in: we didn’t vote for Obama because we’re a bunch of backwoods, gun-totin’ racists who wouldn’t know a good candidate if he crawled up an bit us on the dirt-smudged spots beneath our Daisy Dukes or Pointer Brands… you know, on one of those private places only our cousins have seen. And the few of us, who did like dem purty words we heardt the colored-man say on the talking picture box prolly couldn’t get down the mountain to a votin’ place seeing as how we’re all barefoot and illiterate.)
Perhaps we should be accustomed to this image. Our ability to be offended should be worn out and our sense of outrage simply used up by now, but it’s not. When I read this was the top-rated prime-time program Friday, attracting 10.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. It was the biggest 20/20 audience since 2004, I actually cringed.
By the way, Sawyer will be back on 20/20 at 10 pm tonight for an update on all the children featured in the series and how her big city spotlight has helped them – so we should all be grateful that Sawyer – God love her heart – was willing to walk the creepy hollers and get our poor folks noticed. We should also be thankful that the “better” parts of America were willing to offer assistance and that corporations decided to seize an opportunity to improve their image.
Uh – no. In fact, Sawyer’s brand of help is the last thing we need.
I admit we have socioeconomic problems which are unique to the area. Those of us, who live in rural parts of Southern Appalachia, have watched the gradual decline of agriculture as a profitable industry. We’ve watched as factories moved production overseas or smaller operations shut-down because they could not compete in the global marketplace. We’ve watched as changes in the coal industry set about destroying our land after it was nearly finished destroying our people. We’ve seen shops board-up or move-on as incomes decreased. Around here, a closure or cutback of any kind can cripple a community. And the increase in crime, alcoholism, and drug addiction: well, it’s all correlated.
I also believe there is a cultural cycle of poverty, which draws children in by stifling their expectations – or by eliminating the middle-ground of dreams. You know, when you’re five-years-old, it doesn’t matter where you live, you intend to grow up and be a fairy princess, a pop star, an astronaut, or a major league baseball player. Unfortunately, by the time these kids hit their teens, their dreams have become limited to marrying a good ol’ boy and gettin’ by or joining their Daddy in his steel-toed boot business. It is a challenge getting these kids to realize there are opportunities available between celebrity and poverty. These things are all true.
However, contrary to popular belief, Appalachia has never feared progress or modernism. Hell, we declared our independence and organized our own government long before the Yanks attended the tea party in Boston. Our coal miners were among the first US workers to unionize. And the civil rights movement, baby – we birthed it and sent it on down to Georgia and Alabama fully formed and set to music.
We’re not as isolated as Diane would have you believe – and we’ve always had more than our fair share of intelligent, determined, dedicated, skilled, educated, progressive, talented and outspoken people – many which have initiated great change or created movements. This is why we’ve survived despite having our our resources – our people and our land – constantly exploited by companies, corporations, the media, the government and the politicians and the rest of America.
So, while some of you may feel great gushes of love and appreciation for Diane Sawyer – I think if Kentucky were so near and dear to her heart, she should have made some effort to ensure the whole eastern portion of the damn state didn’t come off looking like a lot of toothless, unskilled degenerates, who probably wouldn’t take a Wed. evening shift anywhere lest they miss their churchin’… because as long as she’s painting this picture for the world: no amount of Hannah Montana boots or cash for a kid, who dropped out of college due to lack of spending money is going to help.
Or as Smartypants said:
“No wonder no one want to come here and build stuff. That lady made all of us look like a bunch of idiots with outhouses and cavities, and most of the people I know have teeth, except for Roy but he’s from Nebraska… so, they can’t hold him against us… right?”