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RFK, the Beverly Hillbillies, and Chicago in the 60s

In 1968, Robert Kennedy made a much heralded visit to Eastern Kentucky. He’s interviewed here: It is a flashback to a time when Democratic politicians were not full of mush in their mouth (human capital, retraining, green jobs), but said things like look at how wealthy we are, and look how poor our citizens live, and this reflects on all of us.
At the same time, of course, popular culture was nattering on libidinously and nastily, as it does. In 1968, the Beverly Hillbillies was in its sixth season. What Amos and Andy was to African Americans, the Beverly Hillbillies was to poor white folks.
In Chicago, Studs Terkel had found thousands of poor white folks from the South crowding the North side. They lived below the belt of affluent white suburbs – where Hillary Clinton grew up. The mainstream idea is that black and white are two lumps, each homogenous in itself. But we know that this isn’t so – we’ve seen the Beverly Hillbillies, for instance. Clinton’s problem with a certain group of white midwesterners is always approached in term of the white working class, and never approached in terms of the relatively recent relocation to the Midwest of millions of Southern and Appalachian whites, just in time for the great slowdown of the seventies and the great trade sellouts of the nineties.
Racism becomes a variable that reflects the resentment of a white working force that started out as a disdained but useful working force for the white middle class. In reality, those wealthy suburbs have long found ways to protect themselves from integration. Terkel interviewed one ostracized Evanston homeowner, Mrs. James Winslow, who, with her husband, fought to integrate the more prosperous neighborhoods of Evanston – but in vain: “The Winslows were becomoing profoundly disquieted, especially in the matter of housing. One of his Negro clients  - there  were few Negro lawyers in the suburb – was denied the right to add a bbathroom to his house by the zoning board. “Why in the world would the board not allow a Negro to upgrade his home?” Further study revealed that not one Negro block was zoned for single-family dwellings. “Yet this was Evanston’s great drawing card…’”

The million and one tricks of deniability have become familiar and wearisome to us all. It is a system that points to the dissipation of the feeling of race hatred while, at the same time, creating a labyrinthian structure to maintain racism’s historic product.  So, at the same time this structure deflected racism into a matter of sentiments – of heart – it sought out the actors of that hate and found them in poor whites. Meanwhile, poor whites saw that they were being systematically excluded from the neighborhoods and institutions by the movers and shakers of such places as Evanston, and came to the conclusion that these people were making the “government” for the blacks. Illusions and delusions in social life have effects that are as real as any other social force.  In many ways – and here I am going to engage in pure speculation – Clinton’s difficulty finding the correct tone in the Midwest and Pennsylvania (a state where her family had a summer house when she was growing up) can, perhaps, be tied to the perplexities of trying to navigate the conservative but happy and prosperous upbringing she had in an all white upper middle class Chicago suburb and the reality of the Chicago of which it was a satellite. We all know the literature produced by the Midwesterner who goes to the East Coast – Sinclair Lewis,Scott Fitzgerald, Dawn Powell, and even Jonathan Franzen. But how about the Midwesterner who returns from the East Coast? This was the story – or one of the stories – in which Clinton was entangled.    


Ray Davis said…
"West Briton," then? As any litt fule kno, that accusation encourages navel-glaring rather than useful action, so I don't kno where to take it from here. But I appreciate that (unlike some of my friends) you're not demanding that Hillary Clinton be pilloried for being an ambitious politician who worked goddamn hard.

Also, although the saber swing of your "Beverly Hillbillies" cite resembles (to me, at least) a chivalric stand-for-the-threatened-peasants, that show and the very weak sugary tea of "Petticoat Junction" and the absinthe-minded paranoia of "Green Acres" and the compromises of "Mayberry RFD" were all actually Nielsen-supported by us hix in stix, which is why back in the day they were descried as idiot kibble rather than brilliant satire. OK, I don't like "Beverly Hillbillies" much by myself; still, I loved watching it with my grandma Edna (pronounced Ednie) Hawkins back in Braymer (population 800, SAH-LOOOT!) because it gave her such joy. "They're so STUPID!", she'd say.

(I love this series of essays but love makes me want to talk.)
Roger Gathmann said…
Exactly! The way in which people are enamored of their own servility is, after all, n'est-ce pas, the reason that The Apprentice was such a success. You're fired - it makes our rear ends quiver to think that the rod might descend on us!
On the other hand, I'm a little suspicious of the ways tv minds work. I don't remember any tv series called "wildcat strike" about unions, although there are plenty about cops, hillbillies, genies, lawyers and the real life daughters of rich Beverly Hills professionals.
I'm simply after a little complexity is all. We keep talking about whites as though they were all one group, but as any daughter of a Chicago suburbanite would know, there are white and whites.
And my pov of the election is not to blame Clinton, at least directly, but rather to blame her terrible campaign crew. She won, after all, and pretty much by the percentage predicted in the polls. So I'd say that instead of some sweeping generalization about strategy and ideology, we need to look at tactics. Although that the Ds were shellacked in senate and state races forces us back to ideology I think. Hey, Ray, I'm a complex guy, although I can't figure out a Rubrik cube worth shit!
Ray Davis said…
There's powerful pleasure in feeling recognized at all, though, no matter how the recognition is coached. As the only game in town, a sizable black audience followed "Amos 'n' Andy". And the sub-"B" market of African-American movie production included several Stepin Fetchit vehicles, At the other end of the racial spectrum, Archie Bunker was enormously popular among the vilest bigots I knew; they simply ignored his comeuppances as pro forma impositions by the network.

It lends me a little comfort of my own to refer to my home country as Knock-Me-Down-Again Missouri or Another-Sir-Please-Harder-This-Time Missouri, but I know their inattention to cause-and-effect is driven more by fear, propaganda, and tribal allegiance than by a resurgence of the English Vice. Beta bullies pack behind alpha bullies because they support the ethos. (I similarly respect anyone who can break through my stubbornness to teach me something new.) I don't think Kanye West's pseudo-endorsement of Trump reveals a desire to star in "Another 12 Years a Slave: Ole Miss Dropout" so much as pure fellow-feeling towards petulant rich jerks with trophy wives and reality shows.

All of which supports what you've written here and elsewhere in your essays. Ideology is a roiling stew which assembles whatever ingredients are close at hand into a base of unexpressable unmeetable desire. "Ideologies" and "demographics" and "economic choices" are far messier than people who make a living from the words can afford to admit. I agree and I'm grateful to you. It's just this one little strand of asides which seemed off.

Aside from that thread-plucking, I remain stuck on my original point, the question of (as you say) tactics. Come the civil war, what's a West Briton to do? After four decades, I've got Exile down pat, but Silence and Cunning don't satisfy like they used to.