In defense of my home

Dusk Scene, Smoky Mountains

Last week I read an editorial in the New York Times entitled Abortion and the Future of the New South. The article, written by a young woman from New York, was mainly about what she referred to as “the Brooklynization of the South.” After much outrage toward and panning of traditional southern values, she purported that her coastal pals need not fret over the south for too long. She recounted tales of her travels in southern cities like Birmingham, Nashville, and Asheville that are rapidly beginning to resemble cities in the Northeastern and Northwestern United States in terms of their value systems and cultural makeup.

She’s far from the first and certainly won’t be the last to use the south, and more specifically Appalachia, to make a political point. Elites in politics and journalism have used and abused the Appalachian people to advance agendas virtually since the beginning of the industrial revolution. While today the sensationalized story of the Hatfields and McCoys makes for delightful dinner theater in Pigeon Forge, in the early twentieth century the rest of the country laughed as the yellow journalists had their way poking fun at the inbred bumpkins of the Smoky Mountains. In the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson and the coastal media television crews descended upon Appalachia like a hoard of locusts, searching for the sorriest barefoot babies and toothless mamas they could find to sell the necessity of more government giveaway programs and Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” It resulted in little relief for Appalachia, and crystalized now widely held social stigmas against the Mountain Dew swilling Hillbillies.

They mock what they cannot understand. I am an eighth generation Appalachian. In forty minutes, I could take you from my front porch to Emert’s Cove, a sleepy settlement in the Smokies where my fifth great grandfather settled after the American Revolution. I could take you to the Campground United Methodist Church in Townsend, where his grandson moved the family after the Civil War, or even the ice cream stand in Happy Holler where my grandparents met some seventy years ago. For going on 250 years my family has lived in these hills. This is not an uncommon case for someone born in southern Appalachia. A famous historian once said you know you’re an Appalachian when you’re born knowing where you will be buried. The older I get, the more of the world I see, the more I understand how unique something like that is to this part of the world.

(Campground United Methodist Church in Townsend, Tennessee.)

The air in the Smokies is damp and old. The landscape has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. It’s almost as if the dense smoke and fog are a shield against the outside world and its passing fancies. The stubborn and honorable hillbillies here came from the hillbillies of Scotland and Ireland. These humble sharecroppers have always been fiercely independent and unfazed by the opinions and decisions of outsiders. They were subsistence farmers, living off the land and keeping to themselves and their own business. East Tennessee famously and proudly declared for the Union as the rest of the region turned Confederate during the Civil War.

Though most of us have likely never read much of Robert Frost, we would concur with his sentiment when he wrote that “Most of the change we think we see in life is due to truth falling in and out of favor.”

The elites at the New York Times and their brood may meet us with a scoff, but that’s nothing new to the Scotts-Irish people of Appalachia. Our deep roots are not just geographical or genealogical, they’re moral and ideological. We believe what was right in 1799 is still morally right in 2019. As greater America wanders through the desert of moral relativism, we stand firm on the bedrock of the bible and the Rights of Man. We are the ideological offspring of Paine, Burke and Jefferson. When the hot, passionate cultural revolutions burn out and devolve into chaos, we will remain here, living at peace with the tough but simple truths of reality, and the serene sounds of chirping crickets and mountain streams. We like who we are, and more importantly in today’s America, we know who we are.

Loretta Lynn, the Coal Miner’s Daughter, said it best. “If you forget where you came from, how will you know where you’re going?”

5 thoughts on “In defense of my home

  1. Wow! Incredibly well written. So many points I have tried to explain over the years. I too am a multigenerational Tennessean and so proud of our heritage. Excellent work. Godspeed.

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  2. I would argue that moral relativism is clearly demonstrated in the history of the South, where I also grew up (Sweetwater, TN). Many people, especially Southerners and East TNers, considered the institution of slavery (and later, racial segregation) “right” and regularly used Biblical teaching to defend its continued existence (regardless of their pro-Union stance in the overarching Civil War). Many Southerners did and continue to view “marital rape” as an acceptable and “right” circumstance where a husband takes what he is owed by his biblically-mandated, subservient wife. These are just two of many possible examples where humans (Southerners in particular) were morally wrong, but have adapted as our society’s progressed. You make an excellent point about Northern moral elitism/hypocrisy, but I also think it’s important to note that human beliefs and culture are naturally fallible, and are therefore prone to change. That’s not something to be ashamed of, because every human civilization has its own story of moral discovery and development. So, I think dismissing “cultural revolutions” as things that “devolve into chaos” ignores the measurable reality that these revolutions have often been the catalysts for positive changes, e.g. Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, labor rights- that have not fizzled out, but become “taken for granted” parts of culture today. Women can vote and own property, black people don’t have to drink from separate water fountains, children do not have to work 12 hour days in coal mines, and weekends exist (without cultural revolutions, none of these things would have come to pass.)

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  3. But I do think you are so right about Northerners in that they have this sort of “savior complex,” and think that they can just swoop in and “fix” the South. It’s wrong, it doesn’t and hasn’t worked (as you aptly pointed out), and its exhausting to feel like every conversation about the South and our culture is tinted with disdain, but played off as “compassion.”

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  4. Very well said! I am also deeply entrenched here in E TN. Many generations of my family have called the area home, some even before 1800. We are a unique people with a unique worldview. I’m quite happy with that. 🙂

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