Beyng, a reader of this blog who comes from Appalachia, writes on the Opiates thread:
Southern West Virginia is truly a magnificent part of the country topographically speaking. There are few regions of the country so consistently and entirely sublime than the Appalachian hills.
Culturally, socially, and economically, however, it’s a desolate wasteland. As my father astutely remarked some years ago, “[They] have no pride.” Not in themselves, not in their possessions, not in their way-of-being–which itself is a dessicated hull of a culture that isn’t worthy of much pride in the first place. Those who have no pride–the opposite of which is not “humility”–typically act like it and tend to their places accordingly.
Why is this so? By “pride,” I take Beyng to mean “healthy self-respect” — and I know what he means. I grew up seeing this in the rural South, among white and black. Among the poor, you had those with self-respect, and those who had none. Those with self-respect generally led orderly lives, and kept their houses looking neat. Those who didn’t were a mess. You got the idea that the only thing the poor with self-respect lacked was opportunity. You got the idea that not even opportunity would do much good for those other people, because of the culture they carried with them in their heads.
Robert D. Kaplan points to this phenomenon in his remarks about the slums of Istanbul, and how even amid their desperately poor circumstances, the Turkish poor eke out lives of order and dignity, in a way he did not see among their counterparts in other cultures.
This is a difficult topic to talk about, because it’s so freighted with emotion. To examine the culture (including the psychological assumptions) of an impoverished people is to open yourself up to the charge of “blaming the victim” — a misguided sentimentality that infantilizes people and denies them agency. But there is also the risk of mistakenly assuming that they are entirely to blame for their situation, when in fact material circumstances beyond their control likely play some part in their miserable condition. I would like to hear you readers’ thoughts about why Appalachia (and places like it) are like that — in the cultural sense that Beyng means — without the discussion being sidelined by “how dare you!”
Yesterday, my white preacher friend who is married to an African-American woman — both of them working class rural Southerners — was talking to me about the cultural differences he’s had to navigate. One thing that was hard for him was the cultural divide over out-of-wedlock childbearing. He said that even though we all grew up alongside African-Americans, he had not understood until he became, through his marriage, part of rural black culture around here how powerful the cultural acceptance of out-of-wedlock childbearing was. He said in his experience, it’s almost impossible to stand against it. Nobody thinks a thing of it anymore, and hasn’t for a long time. My friend didn’t bring that up to criticize the people, only to say that this was a big gulf in cultural practice and understanding that he had to navigate. I’ve been thinking about what he said, in light of what we know from social science research (to say nothing of common sense) about how incredibly difficult it is to stabilize one’s life economically as an unwed mother, and in turn what widespread unwed childbearing (including the role men play in it) does to the social and economic fabric of a community.
And more: at what point does one decide that to stay within one’s community will likely lead to one’s ruin? That is, at what point are you entitled to say that your community is so corrupt that you have to get out to save yourself and your kids? S., an African-American woman from my town who I interviewed for my book, told me flat-out that she could never come back here (she lives in San Diego, and has a great career, marriage, and family of her own) as I did because the culture is so thick and heavy with dysfunction that she couldn’t make it. She and I grew up in the same place, but in very different cultures.
Anyway, over to you.