Lisa Pryor has written an article (‘Flying the flag for an upside-down kind of patriotism’, Sydney Morning Herald, January 6, 2007) decrying racism, in particular that which she assigns to ‘rednecks’: the kind of people who — in addition to despising “Lebs, wogs, chinks, do-gooders, elites and hippies” — allegedly dream that, one day, “Every child will grow tall and white on a diet of chicken nuggets, cordial and potato gems. There will be baby bonuses for all, to be spent on smokes, beer, video-shop fines, expensive surfwear and a big telly for the lebensraum [‘living room’]”.
I’m not sure if Pryor realises it, but the term ‘redneck’ is not even Australian. So, where does it come from? My dictionary says the term refers to “a working-class white person from the southern US, especially a politically conservative one”. Another source states, in what I think is a reasonable summary:
In modern usage, redneck predominantly refers to a particular stereotype of whites from the southern United States. The word can be used either as a pejorative or as a matter of pride, depending on context.
The redneck stereotype:
The term redneck is seen by some people to be both racist and classist, as it was originally used to describe a person of pale skin that has been sunburned doing outdoor work or field work, and disproportionately applies to the poor. Today, a redneck is a stereotypical southern United States socially conservative, fiscally liberal, rural, working class white person with northern [? or just plain] European ancestry.
The popular etymology says that the term derives from such individuals having a red neck caused by working outdoors in the sunlight over the course of their lifetime. The effect of decades of direct sunlight on the exposed skin of the back of the neck not only reddens fair skin, but renders it leathery and tough, and typically very wrinkled by late middle age. Another popular theory stems from the use of red bandanas tied around the neck to signify union affiliation during the violent clashes between United Mine Workers and owners between [sic] 1910 and 1920.
Some historians claim that the term redneck originated in 17th century Virginia, when indentured servants were sunburnt while tending plantation crops.
In other words, if my parents had been born in the southern United States, rather than rural Victoria, they’d have been considered ‘rednecks’. And in an angry outburst ten years ago, Jim Goad wrote The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies Hicks and White Trash Becames America’s Scapegoats:
Culture maverick Jim Goad presents a thoroughly reasoned, darkly funny, and rampagingly angry defense of America’s most maligned social group — the cultural clan variously referred to as rednecks, hillbillies, white trash, crackers, and trailer trash. As The Redneck Manifesto boldly points out and brilliantly demonstrates, America’s dirty little secret isn’t racism but classism. While pouncing incessantly on racial themes, most major media are silent about America’s widening class rifts, a problem that negatively affects more people of all colors than does racism. With an unmatched ability for rubbing salt in cultural wounds, Jim Goad deftly dismantles most popular American notions about race and culture and takes a sledgehammer to our delicate glass-blown popular conceptions of government, religion, media, and history.
Well, something like that. It’s been quite a few years since I read the thing, and while it has its flaws, it’s an entertaining and frequently informative rant about matters often — as the publisher’s blurb suggests — left unspoken by ‘mainstream’ (corporate/state) commentators. Of which, Pryor — in her well-meaning but, I think, ultimately misguided attack on Australian working-class (‘redneck’) racism — is merely a very recent example.
Rednecks (with guns)
The story of the other ‘rednecks’ — armed UMW members who in the 1920s fought police and scabs — is also a fascinating one, with an equally obvious class dimension, and constituting an equally neglected episode in working class resistance to oppression:
Despite being the second largest armed insurrection in American history (exceeded only by the Civil War), the Battle of Blair Mountain [August, 1921] is one of labor’s most neglected episodes. Robert Shogan, author of The Battle of Blair Mountain, blames the neglect on what he calls a “dominant middle-class” perspective that “discourages attention to struggles to achieve economic and social justice, if they threaten the sanctity of property values and the maintenance of law and order.” The author concludes, “As a result, the significance of class conflict in the making of America is overlooked and misunderstood.”
“You want to be treated like men? You want to be treated fair? Well, you ain’t men to the coal company, you’re equipment. They’ll use you till you wear out or you break down or you’re buried alive under a slate fall and then they’ll get a new one, and they don’t care what color it is or where it comes from.”
Generally speaking, flying a flag upside-down, especially on a ship, is intended to signal distress. (Well, that appears to be the popular understanding. For an interesting discussion of the meaning and significance of this practice, see Timberwoof.) Anarchists and other radicals, as well as ‘ordinary folk’ (shit, maybe even that bloke at the Meredith Music Festival Pryor refers to in her article), have done so in order to register protest and dissent. In July of last year, for example, a woman in the US was reported to have done so after her son, an Iraq War veteran, committed suicide upon his return home:
Terri Jones lost her son Jason Cooper just over a year ago. He was an Army Reservist in the Iraq War. On July 14, 2005, four months after returning home to Iowa, he hanged himself.
He was 23.
Since then, Jones flies her American flag upside down, though someone came on her property once and turned it right side up, and another person stole it…
(‘Mother of Iraq War Vet Who Committed Suicide Flies Flag Upside Down’, Matthew Rothschild, The Progressive, July 18, 2006; also ‘Arrest, Death Threat, for Farmer with Upside Down Flag’, Matthew Rothschild, The Progressive, July 19, 2006.)
Besides, while I may be a vegetarian, I don’t surf (even though I live in Torquay) and I don’t own a big television… I like potato gems, I’ve been known to drink cordial, I smoke, I drink beer, and I’m always returning videos late!
- See also : (the truly wonderful) Louis Adamic, Dynamite: A Century of Class Violence in America, 1830–1930, Rebel Press, London, 1984 (1934)