The return to the soil, to nature, is a recurring preoccupation of the civilized. Whenever a society reaches a state of high development it seems a repeating pattern that a segment of the population begins to yearn for the good ol’ days of yore. Ironically, even the ancients knew this temptation. Recall Cicero’s lament: “O the times! O the morals!” But even the Greeks reached a point when they began to dream wistfully for a golden age that never was.
This dream is perhaps most beautifully realized by the reinvention of pastoral poetry in the third century CE. The product of the fertile mind of Theocritus, it was devised as an entertainment for the court of the Ptolemies of Egypt, arguably the most sophisticated society in the western world for its time, and home to its greatest library, that of Alexandria. Theocritus wrote of his native Sicily, of singing shepherds and the love stories of goatherds, of silver streams and green pastures that give us the images we associate with the word “idyllic,” a word derived from the name of this new form of literature: the idyll.
By the start of the French Revolution, this form of aristocratic playacting had reached strange absurdities. At Versailles, Marie Antoinette and her lady friends dressed in peasant clothes and pretended to be milkmaids in a miniature reproduction of a peasant village, beating Walt Disney by about two centuries in turning the troubles of the poor into theme-park entertainment for the idle few.
Around the same time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had begun to put pen to paper. Rousseau, born to the liberty of the Swiss, made talk of liberty and the brotherhood of man popular among the aristocratic class who, in practice, believed it not at all. An accomplished amateur botanist in addition to being a philosopher, Rousseau taught that man in his primitive state was pure but, after the rise of civilization, like Adam and Eve and their loss of innocence, there had been a fall from grace. An idea that we shouldn’t be surprised took root in a mind that had sprung from Calvinist Geneva. In consequence, we must “get back to nature” if salvation was to be had. This was at least the reductionist take-away from a deceivingly simple thinker.
Such revolutionary ideas were enthusiastically adopted by a bored aristocracy happy to entertain any new novelty that could distract them from the tedium of existence, and give a new rationale to their seemingly childish preoccupations. Despite this popularity with literate society, however, the state sensed the obvious danger in his ideas for traditional authority, and Rousseau fled France as an exile like Cain with his mark. Yet his influence remained, and after the revolution, this desire to return to the perceived authenticity of the natural world carried over into the next century as the driving force of the romantic movement in art and literature.
And it has been with us ever since. Bound by a growing nationalism, first in France, then through the rest of Europe in the wake of Napoleon’s armies, the life of the humble peasant became the source of every nation’s purity and pride. Peasant songs were collected, studied, and emulated, and the Brothers Grimm began the serious study of the common folktale for the first time. Thus, contrary to American myths of exceptionalism, the United States was not the first people to admire the rugged individuality of the lonely woodsman and the solid humility of the lowly farmer.
What is exceptional in America’s case is the persistence of this view and its unsevered link to authenticity and individuality in the American mind made toxic by partisan politics. For in addition to the myth of exceptionalism, Americans also suffer from the illusion of a classless society. Class indicates a state of affairs in which one’s success or failure in life is not entirely within one’s power to change, a thought that must be banished in a society that views all outcomes as the result of the individual’s will and hard work. This self-image plays well with the tropes of the cowboy, the mountain man, and the gunslinger, which, for our purposes here, can all be conveniently set beneath the catchall term “redneck.”
At this moment in US politics, it is perhaps more important than ever to revisit and seek to better understand the deep ironies and contradictions involved in this phenomenon. For instance, how is it that an identity so tied to the poor and rural life is just as often found among the middle class, and in well developed middle-class neighborhoods at that? Because the term redneck is less about the ideal of country life than a projection of a perceived lost age of white dominance. An ideal the wealthy are happy to sell. An excellent example of what I mean can be found in the very popular Duck Dynasty franchise. Although the patriarch may be true to his roots, it is well known by now that the rest of the clan is, as one clever critic dubbed them, “hillbillies in drag.” Rather than sons of the soil, these rednecks need never labor again, have in fact done little by the typical definition of labor all their lives.
But this matters little, the bourgeoisie has always taken its cues from the upper class they so hunger to join. Just witness the contradiction in their relationship to higher education. Redneck culture is at its heart deeply anti-intellectual and suspicious of all perceived academic authority. Yet, few redneck parents, above all those from a middle-class background, would be ashamed if their child acquired an ivy league diploma, a college credential being an important outward sign of economic status. The real redneck is self-sufficient and needs no fancy book learnin’.
Of course, this is not to say that background and social context has nothing to do with taking up the redneck mantle as a title of pride, that it is not something genuine to the individual’s experience. We are highly susceptible to the influences of childhood. It is only natural that one would come to associate grandma’s apple pie and fishing trips with daddy with the feelings of warmth and security we might equate with a particular worldview and lifestyle in later life. It is just that, sometimes, we are thirsty but drink from a well that is unknowingly poisoned. Many excellent people are attracted to the shadow of the idea without a knowledge of its origins, of seeing the thing itself in the light of day.
We see now that the obsession with the pastoral ideal was and is almost exclusively but the distraction of the wealthy and those who would be wealthy. The distinction then is one between need and want. The true redneck, the redneck of history and historic myth, was forced out of necessity to farm and hunt to live. Today most family-owned farms are being bought up by agribusiness, and most people hunt less due to fear of starvation than as a sign of one’s class, as it was for the fox-hunting aristocrats of old. After all, hunting equipment, hunting licenses, as well as the pure leisure simply to run around in the woods pretending to be Daniel Boone, are all outward signs of middle-class prosperity. If the true redneck is one who is happy without modern electronics, cares nothing for the internal combustion engine, and has no deep desire for indoor plumbing or personal hygiene, then clearly Ted Kaczynski stands crazy head and shoulders above the rest.
The redneck has little to do with the rustic. No self-described redneck would be without the pleasures of materialism and technology. They will be happy to talk at length to you about the joys of the simple life on their Chinese manufactured smartphone while driving to town in their gas-guzzling oversized pickup truck to purchase the newest state-of-the-art video game from the local Walmart. By comparison, the often-maligned “dirty hippie” who lives in a co-op and grows his own food is closer to the backwoods ideal than even the dirtiest mud-caked redneck on his all-terrain vehicle. Thus, it is not so much traditional values or independence from state control that they hold dear. Rather, they are quite content with the state so long as the state reflects their own economic interests over the interests of society as a whole. As Trump has demonstrated, they are happy to accept a brand of authoritarianism that allows for the economic prosperity of the few at the expense of the many rural poor who they, if they followed the logic of their own thinking, should idealize.
Instead, the redneck we see is just the label of yet another product for the white middle class to consume, albeit one with strong emotional resonances. And it is those emotional connections that Republicans have tapped into for decades and made disastrous use of. Through propaganda and psychological manipulation, they have created a leviathan whose force they sought to harness for their own political ends, but the beast has now appeared to be turning on its masters, and the outcome may leave us all longing for a golden age that has passed.