Rough and Rowdy in Rural Appalachia

January 19, 2018 § Leave a comment

Rough and Rowdy is a form of amateur boxing native to West Virginia.  It appears to me to be the grandson of the 18th-19th century Southern backwoods fighting style known as Rough and Tumble, or Gouging.  It was so-called because the ultimate goal was to gouge out your opponent’s eye.  There were very few rules involved in Rough and Tumble and, while it wasn’t exactly prize fighting, winning was a source of pride in the local community.

The men who fought in Gouging were backwoods farmers, it was common in swamps and mountain communities.  In other words, the men who fought were what the élite of Southern society called (and still call) ‘white trash.’  As an aside, if you would like to know more about the plight of poor white people historically in the US, I cannot recommend Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America enough.  Nevermind the fact that the story is not untold, historians have studied and published on poor people for a long time, but that’s what publishers do to your book, they create silly subtitles to sell more copies.

I digress.  The West Virginia Rough and Rowdy is a continuation.  The Guardian produced a quick 7 minute documentary of a championship tournament in West Virginia, you can watch it here.

I have some serious problems after watching this.  The first is the behaviour of New York City-based Barstool Sports, led by Dave Portnoy (a Massachusetts boy, I might add, from Boston’s North Shore).  Barstool bought up the rights to the tournament, and, according to the documentary, stood to make $300,000 on it.  The winner of the tournament wins $1,000.  The fighters are getting nothing out of this, other than glory or shame, depending on who wins.  Portnoy is walking away with the profits.  He wants to make this the new MMA, to take Rough and Rowdy nationwide.  But he profits,the fighters don’t.  He doesn’t have a problem with that, of course, because he figures they’d be doing it anyway.

The community where this takes place is an impoverish borough in West Virginia, in former coal-mining country.  All of the social problems of Appalachia can be found there, from deep, deep-seated poverty to drugs and everything else.  It is easy to dismiss the people who live there using whatever term you want.  Portnoy calls them rednecks.  He also argues that they would call themselves by the same term.  After living in Southern Appalachia in Tennessee, I would think he’s right. But THEY call themselves that.  I did not think it was my place to use the same term, given its pejorative meaning in our culture.

Essentially, while it is true that this tournament existed before Portnoy came in, he is exploiting a poor community, with a sly grin to his viewers on the web, about the fat rednecks fighting for their entertainment.  The fighting style of most of these men is poor, if you were to look at it from a boxing or MMA perspective.  Of course it is, they’re amateurs, they don’t have training.  They fight as if they’re brawling in a bar.  And that’s what Rough and Rowdy is: amateur fighting.  It is not professional boxing.

The comments on the YouTube site are exactly what you’d expect.  Commentators mock the fighters for their lack of boxing style.  And, then, of course, come the stereotypes.  The documentary centres around one young man, George.  George has recently lost his job and he wants to win the tournament and give the $1,000 to his mother. He’s a confident in his abilities before stepping into the ring with a man a full foot taller than him, and who must have at least 60 pounds on him.  Not surprisingly, George loses the fight.  But the comments mock him. One commenter says that George died of a meth overdose three weeks later.  And so on.

And therein lies the problem.  Too many people seem to think that mocking the poor white folk of the Appalachians is easy.  They’re dismissed as stupid, idiotic, as rednecks and white trash. And worse.  This is universal, too.  This is not a conservative/liberal thing.  The poor white people of Appalachia have been abandoned.  Completely.  They’ve been left to their own devices in hard-scrabble areas where there are no jobs.  The coal mining companies pulled out.  What industry existed there has also pulled out.  Most small Appalachian towns have little more than a Dollar General and a gas station.  People get by, in part due to family connections and grow what food they can on their land.  They scrounge for other things, like roots and scrap metal, that they can sell for next to nothing.  They use food stamps.  And sometimes they just go hungry, or worse.

JD Vance’s insipid Hillbilly Elegy has added to this, and has re-shaped the conversation nationally.  Vance argued that the plight of Appalachia is the fault of the Appalachians themselves.  He blames ‘hillbilly’ culture, argues it has engendered social rot, and has dismissed poverty as secondary.  Put simply: Vance is flat-out wrong.  He simply seeks to continue in the long American tradition of blaming the poor for their poverty.

That’s not how it works.  Appalachia has been struggling for the better part of a half-century.  Politicians, including the current president, continue to ignore it.  And then turn around and pull a Vance and blame the poverty on the poor.  That is a lazy, self-centred, immoral position to take.

 

Whither the Poor? Or, Why You Need to Vote!

August 10, 2016 § 4 Comments

I live in the second poorest county in Tennessee, as defined by median income.  That puts it in the Top 50 nationally, with a median income of $28,086.  Here, the near impossibility of farming on top of a mountain, combined with the long-term effects of coal-mining are all over the place, from the environmental degradation to the deep poverty.

On Monday, I published a post on Lyndon Baines Johnson and his Great Society.  The Great Society was really the last time the government made an attempt to confront white poverty in the US.  But that was half a century ago. They were amongst the constituency of the Democratic Party.  But they’ve long since shifted their allegiances.  But the GOP doesn’t accord them any attention, they’re taken for granted.  The people here are the forgotten people of the country.

Nancy Isenberg, in her fantastic book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, argues that class has been central to American life and American history.  And for poor white people, they have been marginalized here for four centuries, just as they have been in England.  Americans like to think they live in a classless society.  They don’t.  At the time of the Civil War, a grand total of 6 per cent of white Southerners owned slaves. Yet, they managed to convince the other 94 per cent of the justness of a war to protect their economic interests.  For the massive majority of the South, these poor white people, the war was pointless.  And they came to realize this pretty quickly, as soldiers grumbled about the wealthy who sent them to their death.

By the late 1960s and into the 70s and 80s, the Republican Party gained their allegiance.  This came about due to a response on the part of poor, white Southerners to the Civil Rights Era, combined with the rise of evangelical Christianity.  In the first case, there was both frustration with being forgotten by the federal government, combined with a residual racism that dates back to the nineteenth century, when the Southern élite kept them in place by telling poor whites that, “Hey, it may suck to be you, but, you know, it could be worse, you could be black.”  And yes, this worked (don’t believe me, go check out David Roediger’s excellent The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class; think Roediger’s ‘biased’?, read this).  In the second case, the GOP nationally hitched its horses to the evangelical movement, which had its greatest successes in the South.

Driving all over the county this weekend, I noticed where the Trump supporters live.  There are people in this county who are well-off.  There is even a very tiny middle class.  But the Trump supporters, as defined unscientifically by bumper stickers and lawn signs, are the poor.  Trump stickers tend to be on older cars in various stages of disrepair.  The lawn signs tend to be outside of trailers, tiny houses, and cabins and shacks.

But what fascinates me about this is not who they support, but that they do so at all.  This is a politically mobilized group in my county.  During the presidential primaries in May, voter turnout in both the Democratic and Republican primaries was over 60 per cent.  Despite being forgotten, ignored, and left behind, the people of my county are still voting.  Angrily, but they’re voting.  They’re voting for Trump for what I see as obvious reasons: he speaks their language, even if he is a demagogic, power-hungry, liar.

A politician who could harness their anger and frustration and offer hope, something other than the dystopian view of Trump, whilst building a coalition that offered something to other frustrated constituencies (I’m thinking primarily of inner-city African Americans), could actually make a real change in the United States.

But, instead, we get the same hollow language of the Democratic nominee, versus this horrible, Hunger Games dystopian, crypto-fascism of the Republican nominee.

“Jobs Not Welfare” — UPDATED

October 20, 2013 § 2 Comments

In reading an issue of The Times Literary Supplement from September recently, I came across a review of an economics treatise, Ending Poverty: Jobs, Not Welfare, by Hyman P. Minsky.  The very title of the book struck me as an absurdity (as much of economic theory does, to be frank).  But then I realised that as ridiculous as Minsky’s title is, this reflects a larger problem in our society.  Welfare was never meant to replace jobs.  Ever.  That’s not the point.  Welfare was meant to provide a social safety net for workers when the economy failed, they lost their jobs, etc.  Welfare was never meant to be a permanent situation.

But the problem is that politicians, economists, and bureaucrats have, in the years since welfare states were created around the time of the Second World War, decided that welfare is a permanent state.  And, of course, someone reading this right now is going to argue that some people actually prefer to live on welfare permanently.  This is a stupid argument, to be blunt.  There are also some people who prefer to murder their fellow human beings.  This is not a reason to cut welfare.

People who complain about welfare and the cost to taxpayers (and those who claim that people on welfare are lazy, etc.) tend not to be people who have ever actually lived on welfare.  When I was a kid, my family did.  It wasn’t pretty.  Any study I’ve ever seen of poverty are very clear that it is nigh impossible to survive on welfare in any urban centre anywhere in the Western world.

Permanent welfare is NOT an option, nor should it be, nor should it ever be.  And yet, politicians and bureaucrats seem to think it is.  People on welfare don’t.  Thus, Minsky might actually have a point. Of course, Minsky, a maverick economist if ever there was one (he died in 1996), argues for massive government intervention to create jobs, not exactly an argument that’s going to make him a lot of friends in today’s neoconservative orthodoxy.

UPDATE: Brian Bixby published this last week with some factual basis to back up what I have to say here.

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