Review: Dignity, by Chris Arnade, pt 1

51fq6wczpil._sx377_bo1204203200_Part 2 is here.

Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is a difficult book to review. Dire poverty is a tough subject to face head-on without reflexive squirming. It is very tempting to impose one’s own interpretations on the author and his subjects. We want to make it, somehow, better. If we blame people for their situations, then our discomfort fades. If we shift the focus from poor people to rich people, the author, or ourselves, the discomfort fades. etc.

1. What the book is

Dignity is an unflinching series of portraits of some of America’s poorest and unluckiest people. The author visits poor neighborhoods across the country, photographing and interviewing residents about their lives. He talks to prostitutes, criminals, drug dealers, junkies, preachers, single mothers, abuse victims, the disabled, the homeless, and the destitute.

It is not, for the most part, a commentary. It does not propose solutions. The author’s intention is to simply talk to people and hear their stories. If you are looking for a book full of solutions, look elsewhere. If you want to know more about what the problems are, this is your book.

Note: I “read” this book in audiobook form, so I will not be quoting and all references are made from memory. I also, obviously, could not see the pictures that come with the paper version. 

The author is fairly liberal, and this comes through in his writing. This is a bone of contention for some people, with folks who’ve only read the summaries lambasting the author for being “pro Trump,” and the most prominent Amazon reviews lambasting the author for being “anti-Trump,” (much to the author’s consternation). Personally, I don’t care about the author’s political views, but if they bother you too much, you won’t enjoy the book. If you are interested in my views on race and democracy, I recommend you read my Open Letter to Liberals and Centrists.

I would have liked to read some stories in the book from American Indians–the situation out on the reservations is quite concerning. I also would have appreciated some statistical information on overall trends–are things getting better or worse over time?

2. Why I read it:

I like anthropology because I want to learn about the lives of real people. Literature is pleasant to read because it well-written, but its characters are generally fictions drawn from the author’s experiences or the kinds of people the author wants to write about. I am interested in the sorts of people who don’t normally show up in books.

Too many novels fall into the trap of trying to paint the poor as sympathetic because they are secretly like the author–usually plucky orphans with a love of literature. Certainly some orphans love literature, but I wager most do not. These type of characters show that these authors lack real insight into their subjects and their bias that the character is worth saving because she is improbably like the author.

In real life, the poor are not simply high-class people waiting to be discovered, maybe given a few books and a makeover. They are simply people, with their own unique problems.

Was the book effective?

I think the author wants us to identify with and feel sympathy for his subjects’s struggles. Some people I did feel sympathy for, like the woman who was born in a prison hospital to an incarcerated mom, or the man who suffered permanent brain damage when a friend accidentally smashed his head open. They were given really shitty hands in life through no fault of their own. Others I didn’t feel sorry for; they had made obviously bad decisions that led to bad places. (Even if I did feel bad for them, I am unable to stop other people from making bad decisions.)

This is true, of course, of any system–some people suffer because due to bad luck, others from bad choices. Many are in the gray zone of low-IQ, which isn’t a choice but leads to things we call bad choices. 

One of the difficulties I have with the book is that because there are so many interviews, most are, by necessity, fairly superficial. This gives us insight into many different neighborhoods and problems, but it doesn’t give us much depth for any particular problem. Since few of us like to be entirely honest about our own flaws, judging the source of a problem based on a few pages of interview is difficult.

When we talk about problems, we have to be clear what the problems are, where they come from, and if they are solvable at all. (Some problems aren’t.)

Things I think we can’t change: intelligence, drug addiction, manufacturing jobs heading to China (sorry), automation.

Things we can change: mental illness, regular illness, schools, paperwork, prisons, number of criminals on the street.

Just kidding, paperwork is here to stay until the apocalypse.

A lot of problems in this book are blamed, more or less, on white people. A typical example is someone claiming that they elected a black mayor and “the next day” all of the whites left town, hauling all of the jobs with them. Another interviewee was more honest, noting that the whites left after a riot.

There have been a lot of riots in US history, eg, 159 race riots during the Long Hot Summer of 1967. The Detroit Riot was the biggest of these:

The 1967 Detroit Rebellion, also known as the 1967 Detroit Riot or 12th Street riot was the bloodiest incident in the “Long, hot summer of 1967“.[2] Composed mainly of confrontations between black residents and the Detroit Police Department, it began in the early morning hours of Sunday July 23, 1967, in Detroit, Michigan.

The precipitating event was a police raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar then known as a blind pig, on the city’s Near West Side. It exploded into one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in American history, lasting five days and surpassing the violence and property destruction of Detroit’s 1943 race riot 24 years earlier.

Governor George W. Romney ordered the Michigan Army National Guard into Detroit to help end the disturbance. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the United States Army‘s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The result was 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed[citation needed]

The black community in Detroit received much more attention from federal and state governments after 1967, and … money did flow into black-owned enterprises after the riot. However, the most significant black politician to take power in the shift from a white majority city to a black majority city, Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, wrote in 1994:

The heaviest casualty, however, was the city. Detroit’s losses went a hell of a lot deeper than the immediate toll of lives and buildings. The rebellion put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people who fled as fast as they could. The white exodus from Detroit had been prodigiously steady prior to the riot, totaling twenty-two thousand in 1966, but afterwards it was frantic. In 1967, with less than half the year remaining after the summer explosion—the outward population migration reached sixty-seven thousand. In 1968 the figure hit eighty-thousand, followed by forty-six thousand in 1969.[84]

Riots can coerce governments into handing out more benefits or pumping more money into schools, but they also drive away anyone who can get out.

I’ve looked at the data six ways to Sunday, and it looks like “white flight” was driven primarily by black crime, which was a big deal in the seventies and eighties:

600px-Homicide_rates1900-2001

Homicide rates are still disproportionately high among blacks even if we control for income:

crimestatsbyraceandincome
source

In the first decade, 66-75, African Americans in the 75th-90th percent of incomes had higher homicide rates than whites in the bottom 10%. In 76-95, blacks in the top 10% of incomes had higher homicide rates than whites in the bottom 10%.

The author talks a bit about his own experiences with racism. He grew up in a small town in the South where he was bullied by the other white kids for having parents who supported the NAACP and desegregation. Like many “successful” people, the author did well in school, went to college, and eventually settled in a much whiter neighborhood than the racist one he left behind.

Arnade reflects on this fact–on how most of the kids he grew up with eventually mellowed, probably finding more in common with each other than with people like him who moved up and out. He’s the one who white-flighted, and I’d wager that crime, jobs, and “good schools” have driven most white movement over the past 50 years, not black mayors.

Arnade rejects simple solutions to the problems of poverty. Affirmative action, for example, pits poor minorities against poor whites, while still affirming the upper-class belief that what matters is how smart, rich, and successful you are. Arnade challenges his reader to envision a world in which we don’t value people based on how smart or successful they are.

As I said, it is nearly impossible to change someone’s intelligence for the better. (If someone has some technique that has stood the test of randomized long-term trials that control for genetics, please let me know so I can use them on my kids.) Most would-be reformers run up against this fact like a brick wall, but once you accept that you cannot fundamentally make people smarter (or more conscientious, harder working, etc), you can focus on the things that you actually can change.

The difficulty, of course, is that intelligence is really important. Not because I value it (though I do) but because “intelligence” is a rough shorthand for “being able to run your own life.” Even if we could somehow not have any “values” and love each other equally, the dumber people would still make more mistakes and end up, on average, with shittier lives than the smart people (unless we have also instituted some sort of highly coercive state to prevent people from making their own decisions).

At least Arnade does not claim that everyone is equally intelligent, that if we just made more kids do more math, they’d all become physicists. He knows and has the grace to recognize that not everyone is lucky enough to be smart. Some of us are dumb.

Perhaps his hope is not that we will vote for this candidate or that program, support this law or that institution, but that we’ll be kinder and more understanding of the troubles other people are going through.

I propose that we reduce paperwork.

Lizard people (metaphorical, not literal) love paperwork. Paperwork is how they show that they are better than you. Paperwork shows how deserving they are. Paperwork is an arbitrary hurdle used to distinguish the “deserving” poor from the undeserving, and how we discourage people from applying for welfare, food stamps, SSDI, etc. Paperwork is how big corporations drive smaller competitors out of business or prevent them from existing in the first place. Paperwork keeps poor, low-education entrepreneurs from starting businesses and keeps them trapped in low-end jobs.

Paperwork is the goddamn devil.

Unfortunately, many of the programs put in place to “help” the poor just increase the regulatory burden in their lives and make everything worse. For example, a friend of mine was homeless in San Francisco for many years. He had a fairly regular income, but also schizophrenia. San Francisco has many tenants’ rights laws, which are supposed to protect tenants from eviction, but in practice make renters unwilling to take on the lowest classes of renters–that is, folks they have reason to think they may have to evict. Dealing with all of that paperwork, lawyer fees, etc., is just too expensive for the landlords to make leasing to a high-risk tenant worthwhile, so especially poor people, even if they have the money to pay for a month’s rent, simply are not allowed to live in one place for that long, not even in the crappiest of homeless hotels.

In this case it’s not the tenants who have to fill out the paperwork, but the procedural burden placed on the landlords is still having a negative effect on their lives.

This is not me coming from a radical libertarian perspective, but the opinion I’ve formed via conversation with my friend about what it was like being on the streets and the various barriers he faced.

Many people who have spent years working with the homeless repeat that you cannot fundamentally change people. Aside from treating their mental illnesses and helping them get off drugs, the basic personality traits that lead to long-term homeless will in all likelihood persist. However, that does not mean that we need to increase the regulatory burden on landlords. There are always some people on the edge between homelessness and not, and we don’t need to make it artificially more difficult for them.

Drugs:

One conclusion I draw from Arnade’s account is that the war on drugs (and prostitution) is not going so well. As one woman he interviews says, you can’t do prostitution if you don’t have some drugs first to numb you to the experience.

Many of us use drugs–alcohol, Xanax, adderal, heroin, etc–to smooth over the stresses of our jobs or the parts of life we hate. We drink or pop medication to forget, to be popular, to make it all more bearable, and so, argues Arnade, do the poor.

I think in these discussions of why people do drugs (trauma? rejection? loneliness?) we should consider another possibility: drugs make people feel better and are really addicting. Of course not everyone gets addicted to drugs, and many people who use drugs manage to do so without destroying their lives, but it is clear that for many people, the appeal of drugs is nigh over-powering. Many drug addicts, even the ones with family who love them and try to save them, eventually lose everything and end up dead in a ditch.

If people live in an area where drugs are common, then there is a good chance that at some point in their lives they will try them, and of the people who do, a good chance that they’ll become addicted, simply because drugs are addicting.

drug graphdrug graph4Drug graph3

drug graph5
Source: USA Facts

The War on Drugs doesn’t seem to be working.

Decriminalization is one potential approach. Several US states have tried decriminalizing marijuana, so we now have some preliminary results to discuss. According to Wikipedia:

In Colorado, effects since 2014 include increased state revenues,[4] violent crime decreased,[5][6] and an increase in homeless population.[7] One Colorado hospital has received a 15% increase in babies born with THC in their blood.[8]

Since legalization, public health and law enforcement officials in Colorado have grappled with a number of issues, serving as a model for policy problems that come with legalization. Marijuana-related hospital visits have nearly doubled between 2011, prior to legalization, and 2014.[9] Top public health administrators in Colorado have cited the increased potency of today’s infused products, often referred to as “edibles”, as a cause for concern.

Summary: less crime, more people using pot. It’s a trade-off.

Slate Star Codex did some analysis/summarizing of the effects of marijuana legalization and found that it increased traffic accidents, which resulted in a lot more innocent people getting killed.

As far as I know, we don’t have good studies on the effects of marijuana on fetal development that control for genetics (or environment,) but the relevant mouse studies aren’t hopeful–looks like prenatal exposure to THC causes permanent brain damage.

So legalizing drugs looks like a bad idea, though decriminalization + increased funding for drug treatment programs might be good.

Another possibility is trying to give non-drug users more options to get away from high-use communities, and to give drug users community-based options that will help them escape their addictions, too.

Mental Illness:

Many of the desperately poor are suffering from untreated mental illnesses. Thankfully, mental illness is actually one of the things we can treat. We have very good medications that can radically decrease the negative effects from diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement here, because it’s a fairly simple mechanical fix that we can actually do, if we just identify the people who need medications and convince them to take them. (People who have just discovered that all of their “friends” were really delusions do need support, however.)

Less mental illness could also result in fewer people trying to self-medicate with drugs.

Cabrini Green

As Arnade discusses, the official places set up to help the poor, like rehab clinics and welfare offices, are generally unpleasant and uninviting. Take Cabrini Green: it looks like it was designed by someone who was suffering and wanted everyone else to suffer, too.

People do not feel welcome in such spaces, nor do they want to stay and hang out. The poor opt to hang out in other, more comfortable places, like McDonald’s, church, or drug dens. There is probably room for improvement in making the spaces where people try to improve themselves more pleasant.

School:

School is the government institution most of us have the most contact with. In my experience, most school teachers are well-intentioned and want schools to be pleasant places for children. Certainly they want kids to learn.

In my experience, though, most kids don’t like school. It’s work, it’s coercive, and for about 50% of the kids the pace is consistently too fast or too slow. Our mainstream model is based on German schools and is focused primarily on raising student test scores. Many kids simply want to run and play and aren’t suited to this particular style of learning.

As a kid I attended public school and hated it; as a homeschooling parent I use a different teaching model for my own children.

One thing kids from very deprived backgrounds generally lack is a stable adult presence in their lives. In traditional schools, students change teachers ever year (or every 50 minutes in the higher grades.) In Waldorf schools, students stay with the same teacher for their first 8 years, providing stability and the chance for a deep relationship.

There is one Waldorf school in California, Birney, that is also a public school, drawing from the general neighborhood, much of which is low-income minorities. A study of the effectiveness of this school vs conventional schools showed positive results:

African American and Lation students at Birney have a suspension rate that is ten times lower than similar students in the district.

Over five years duration for African American, Latino and other socio-economically disadvantaged students the effect of attending Birney was correlated with an increase of 8 percentile ranks (i.e. from 50th percentile to 58th percentile) in ELA. Attending Birney had a smaller but positive effect size for these students in math.

Birney’s good test scores might be a side effect of which parents chose to send their kids to a Waldorf school, but the overall happiness of the students shines in study’s many interviewees:

I remember how excited I was every single day. I was so excited to go to school. That was a feeling that was shared throughout the class. “What are we going to do today, where are we going, what are we going to learn?” and that’s the biggest thing about Waldorf. It infuses that excitement, that love for learning.

I’m not convinced that Waldorf schools are perfect; they are just one example of a different way to run schools that still works.

College:

I’ve never seen a consistent enough definition of “systematic oppression” that I could figure out what it really means and how to test it, but I bet if you were a smart kid in foster care trying to apply to college, you’d be facing it.

Our current college application system is needlessly complicated (see: paperwork). Just do like we do when kids go to highschool and assign each kid as they near the end of highschool to the nearest branch of the State U, community college, or trade school, with some adjusting for SAT scores, and let them apply elsewhere if they want to. This way, everyone can at least get some basic job skills.

This is not a recommendation for how we should pay for college.

Religion:

godhead
source: Audacious Epigone

Arnade spends a lot of time at McDonald’s and inside churches. The role of religion in the lives of the poor is notable, though as an atheist, Arnade admits observing it all from a certain distance. Why are the poor so much more devout than the wealthy?

I recently happened upon Bryan, Choi, and Karlan’s paper, Randomizing Religion: The Impact of Protestant Evangelism on Economic Outcomes (h/t Alexander Berger):

We study the causal impact of religiosity through a randomized evaluation of an evangelical Protestant Christian values and theology education program. We analyze outcomes for 6,276 ultrapoor Filipino households six months and 30 months after the program ended. At six months, we find increases in religiosity and income, no statistically significant changes in total labor supply, consumption, food security, or life satisfaction, and a decrease in perceived relative economic status. Exploratory analysis suggests that the income treatment effect may operate through increasing grit. These effects fade away at 30 months. We conclude that this church-based program may represent a method of increasing non-cognitive skills and reducing poverty in the short run among adults in developing countries, but more work is required to understand whether the effects can persist and if not, why not.

This seems reasonably likely to hold true for folks in the US as well. A commitment to Jesus results in a simultaneous commitment to being honest, hard working, avoiding drugs, etc, and provides an environment full of other people with similar commitments. This works for a while, resulting in more money, which is evident to both the individual and his family and friends.

After a while, the effect wears off. People go back to their old ways. But life is long, and there are many opportunities for people to get clean, get sober, and return to the church–for at least a while.

I think that’s enough for now; I want to get this post up on time, so we’ll continue with our discussion on Monday. Edit: Part two is now up. Click here to read it.

If you’ve read the book or would like me to discuss something in particular, I’d love to hear your opinions over the weekend.

I have read a number of similar books, some of which I’ve reviewed here on the blog. If you’re interested in the subject, I recommend Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day; Phillipe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio; Trudgen’s Why Warriors Lie Down and Die; The Slave Narrative Collection; Bergner’s God of the Rodeo (Angola prison); Dobyns’s No Angel (Hells Angels); Frank Lucas’s Original Gangster; and Still a Pygmy, by Isaac Bacirongo and Micheal Nest. 

Anthropology Friday: Appalachia pt 4/4

Welcome to the final installment of Our Southern Highlanders, by Horace Kephart, published in 1913. Today we will continue our discussion of the origins of the Appalachian people, then finish with a vision of change, “progress,” and change.

Settlement:

“And the southwestward movement, once started, never stopped. So there went on a gradual but sure progress of northern peoples across the Potomac, up the Shenandoah, across the Staunton, the Dan, the Yadkin, until the western piedmont and foot-hill region of Carolina was similarly settled, chiefly by Pennsylvanians.

“Among those who made the long trek from Pennsylvania southward in the eighteenth century, were Daniel Boone and the ancestors of David Crockett, Samuel Houston, John C. Calhoun, “Stonewall” Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln. Boone and the Lincolns, although English themselves, had been neighbors in Berks County, one of the most German parts of all eastern Pennsylvania.

“So the western piedmont and the mountains were settled neither by Cavaliers nor by poor whites, but by a radically distinct and even antagonistic people who are appropriately called the Roundheads of the South.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

Roundheads were supporters of the Parliament of England during the English Civil War. Also known as Parliamentarians, they fought against Charles I of England and his supporters, the Cavaliers or Royalists, who claimed rule by absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings.[1] The goal of the Roundhead party was to give the Parliament supreme control over executive administration.[2]

War of the Regulation (1765-1772):

“About this time there broke out in Carolina a struggle between the independent settlers of the piedmont and the rich trading and official class of the coast. The former rose in bodies under the name of Regulators and a battle followed in which they were defeated. To escape from the persecutions of the aristocracy, many of the Regulators and their friends crossed the Appalachian Mountains and built their cabins in the Watauga region. Here, in 1772, there was established by these “rebels” the first republic in America, based upon a written constitution “the first ever adopted by a community of American-born freemen.”

EvX: The Wikipedia article on the War of the Regulation. It appears to have been triggered by the newly-arrived colonial governor raising taxes in the middle of a drought in order to finance the building of his personal mansion.

Daniel Boone escorting settlers through the Cumberland Gap, George Bingham, 1852

Daniel Boone:

“Boone first visited Kentucky, on a hunting trip, in 1769. Six years later he began to colonize it, in flat defiance of the British government, and in the face of a menacing proclamation from the royal governor of North Carolina. On the Kentucky River, three days after the battle of Lexington, the flag of the new colony of Transylvania was run up on his fort at Boonesborough. It was not until the following August that these “rebels of Kentuck” heard of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and celebrated it with shrill warwhoops around a bonfire in the center of their stockade.

“Such was the stuff of which the Appalachian frontiersmen were made. They were the first Americans to cut loose entirely from the seaboard and fall back upon their own resources. They were the first to establish governments of their own, in defiance of king and aristocracy.

Appalachia in the Civil War:

“So the southern highlanders languished in isolation, sunk in a Rip Van Winkle sleep, until aroused by the thunder-crash of the Civil War. Let John Fox tell the extraordinary result of that awakening.—

“The American mountaineer was discovered, I say, at the beginning of the war, when the Confederate leaders were counting on the presumption that Mason and Dixon’s Line was the dividing line between the North and South, and formed, therefore, the plan of marching an army from Wheeling, in West Virginia, to some point on the Lakes, and thus dissevering the North at one blow.

“The plan seemed so feasible that it is said to have materially aided the sale of Confederate bonds in England. But when Captain Garnett, a West Point graduate, started to carry it out, he got no farther than Harper’s Ferry. When he struck the mountains, he struck enemies who shot at his men from ambush, cut down bridges before him, carried the news of his march to the Federals, and Garnett himself fell with a bullet from a mountaineer’s squirrel rifle at Harper’s Ferry.

“Then the South began to realize what a long, lean, powerful arm of the Union it was that the southern mountaineer stretched through its very vitals; for that arm helped hold Kentucky in the Union by giving preponderance to the Union sympathizers in the Blue-grass; it kept the east Tennesseans loyal to the man; it made West Virginia, as the phrase goes, ‘secede from secession’; it drew out a horde of one hundred thousand volunteers, when Lincoln called for troops, depleting Jackson County, Kentucky, for instance, of every male under sixty years of age and over fifteen; and it raised a hostile barrier between the armies of the coast and the armies of the Mississippi. The North has never realized, perhaps, what it owes for its victory to this non-slaveholding southern mountaineer.”

“… It may be added that no other part of our country suffered longer or more severely from the aftermath of war. Throughout that struggle the mountain region was a nest for bushwhackers and bandits that preyed upon the aged and defenseless who were left at home, and thus there was left an evil legacy of neighborhood wrongs and private grudges. Most of the mountain counties had incurred the bitter hostility of their own States by standing loyal to the Union. After Appomattox they were cast back into a worse isolation than they had ever known. Most unfortunately, too, the Federal Government, at this juncture, instead of interposing to restore law and order in the highlands, turned the loyalty of the mountaineers into outlawry, as in 1794, by imposing a prohibitive excise tax upon their chief merchantable commodity [moonshine].

“Left, then, to their own devices, unchecked by any stronger arm, inflamed by a multitude of personal wrongs, habituated to the shedding of human blood, contemptuous of State laws that did not reach them, enraged by Federal acts that impugned, as they thought, an inalienable right of man, it was inevitable that this fiery and vindictive race should fall speedily into warring among themselves. Old scores were now to be wiped out in a reign of terror. The open combat of bannered war was turned into the secret ferocity of family feuds.

“But the mountaineers of to-day are face to face with a mighty change. … Everywhere the highways of civilization are pushing into remote mountain fastnesses. Vast enterprises are being installed. The timber and the minerals are being garnered. The mighty waterpower that has been running to waste since these mountains rose from the primal sea is now about to be harnessed in the service of man. Along with this economic revolution will come, inevitably, good schools, newspapers, a finer and more liberal social life. The highlander, at last, is to be caught up in the current of human progress.”


EvX: How’s that going? Have things improved? The author himself seems skeptical:

“Here, then, is Appalachia: one of the great land-locked areas of the globe, more English in speech than Britain itself, more American by blood than any other part of America, encompassed by a high-tensioned civilization, yet less affected to-day by modern ideas, less cognizant of modern progress, than any other part of the English-speaking world.

Source

“Commercialism has discovered the mountains at last, and no sentiment, however honest, however hallowed, can keep it out. The transformation is swift. Suddenly the mountaineer is awakened from his eighteenth-century bed by the blare of steam whistles and the boom of dynamite. He sees his forests leveled and whisked away; his rivers dammed by concrete walls and shot into turbines that outpower all the horses in Appalachia. He is dazed by electric lights, nonplussed by speaking wires, awed by vast transfers of property, incensed by rude demands. Aroused, now, and wide-eyed, he realizes with sinking heart that here is a sudden end of that Old Dispensation under which he and his ancestors were born, the beginning of a New Order that heeds him and his neighbors not a whit.

“All this insults his conservatism. The old way was the established order of the universe: to change it is fairly impious. What is the good of all this fuss and fury? That fifty-story building they tell about, in their big city—what is it but another Tower of Babel? And these silly, stuck-up strangers who brag and brag about “modern improvements”—what are they, under their fine manners and fine clothes? Hirelings all. Shrewdly he observes them in their relations to each other.—

“Each man is some man’s servant; every soul
Is by some other’s presence quite discrowned.”

Source

“Proudly he contrasts his ragged self: he who never has acknowledged a superior, never has taken an order from living man, save as a patriot in time of war. And he turns upon his heel.

“Yet, before he can fairly credit it as a reality, the lands around his own home are bought up by corporations. All about him, slash, crash, go the devastating forces. His old neighbors vanish. New and unwelcome ones swarm in. He is crowded, but ignored. His hard-earned patrimony is robbed of all that made it precious: its home-like seclusion, independence, dignity. He sells out, and moves away to some uninvaded place where he “will not be bothered.”

““I don’t like these improvements,” said an old mountaineer to me. “Some calls them ‘progress,’ and says they put money to circulatin’. So they do; but who gits it?” …

“The curse of our invading civilization is that its vanguard is composed of men who care nothing for the welfare of the people they dispossess. …

“All who know the mountaineers intimately have observed that the sudden inroad of commercialism has a bad effect upon them. …”

“The great need of our mountaineers to-day is trained leaders of their own. The future of Appalachia lies mostly in the hands of those resolute native boys and girls who win the education fitting them for such leadership. Here is where the nation at large is summoned by a solemn duty. And it should act quickly, because commercialism exploits and debauches quickly. But the schools needed here are not ordinary graded schools. They should be vocational schools that will turn out good farmers, good mechanics, good housewives. Meantime let a model farm be established in every mountain county showing how to get the most out of mountain land. Such object lessons would speedily work an economic revolution. It is an economic problem, fundamentally, that the mountaineer has to face.”

EvX: This brings us to the end of Kephart’s work. Though at times it paints an unflattering picture, he was at heart entirely sympathetic to his mountain friends and subjects; like all who observe “primitive” peoples on the cusp of modernity, he saw both the opportunities for material improvement and the dangers of spiritual (and physical) degradation.

Previous posts on Appalachia: What Ails Appalachia?

Anthropology Friday: Appalachia, pt 3/4

Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachia

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we are continuing with Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913, starting with homicide rates.

In my opinion, Homicide Rate data collected before 1930 or so is highly questionable, for reasons that will soon become clear:

“Mountaineers place a low valuation on human life. I need not go outside my own habitat for illustrations. In our judicial district, which comprises the westernmost seven counties of North Carolina, the present yearly toll of homicides varies, according to counties, from about one in 1,000 to one in 2,500 of the population. And ours is not a feud district, nor are there any negroes to speak of. Compare these figures with the rate of homicide in the United States at large, about one to 8,300 population; of Italy, one to 66,000; Great Britain, one to 111,000; Germany, one to 200,000.”

EvX: And yet there are very few convictions, as noted previously.

““The laws are insufficient for the Governor to apply a remedy.” One naturally asks, “How so?” The answer is that the Governor cannot send troops into a county except upon request of the civil authorities, and they must go as a posse to civil officers. In most feuds these officers are partisans (in fact, it is a favorite ruse for one clan to win or usurp the county offices before making war). Hence the State troops would only serve as a reinforcement to one of the contending factions. To show how this works out, we will sketch briefly the course of another feud.—

“In Rowan County, Kentucky, in 1884, there was an election quarrel between two members of the Martin and Toliver families. The Logans sided with the Martins and the Youngs with the Tolivers. The Logan-Martin faction elected their candidate for sheriff by a margin of twelve votes. Then there was an affray in which one Logan was killed and three were wounded.

“As usual, in feuds, no immediate redress was attempted, but the injured clan plotted its vengeance with deadly deliberation. After five months, Dick Martin killed Floyd Toliver. His own people worked the trick of arresting him themselves and sent him to Winchester for safe-keeping. The Tolivers succeeded in having him brought back on a forged order and killed him when he was bound and helpless.

“The leader of the Young-Toliver faction was a notorious bravo named Craig Toliver. To strengthen his power he became candidate for town marshal of Morehead, and he won the office by intimidation at the polls. Then, for two years, a bushwhacking war went on. Three times the Governor sent troops into Rowan County, but each time they found nothing but creeks and thickets to fight. Then he prevailed upon the clans to sign a truce and expatriate their chiefs for one year in distant States. Craig Toliver obeyed the order by going to Missouri, but returned several months before the expiration of his term, resumed office, and renewed his atrocities. In the warfare that ensued all the county officers were involved, from the judge down. …

“The posse here mentioned was organized by Daniel Boone Logan, a cousin of the two young men who had been murdered, a college graduate, and a lawyer of good standing. With the assent of the Governor, he gathered fifty to seventy-five picked men and armed them with the best modern rifles and revolvers. Some of the men were of his own clan; others he hired. His plan was to end the war by exterminating the Tolivers.

“The posse, led by Logan and the sheriff, suddenly surrounded the town of Morehead. Everybody gave in except Craig Toliver, Jay Toliver, Bud Toliver, and Hiram Cook, who barricaded themselves in the railroad station, where all of them were shot dead by the posse.

“Boone Logan was indicted for murder. At the trial he admitted the killings; but he showed that the feud had cost the lives of not less than twenty-three men, that not one person had been legally punished for these murders, and that he had acted for the good of the public in ending this infamous struggle. The court accepted this view of the case, the community sustained it, and the “war” was closed.”

EvX: older homicide stats are not trustworthy.

“It should be understood that national and state politics cut little or no figure in these “wars.” Local politics in most of the mountain counties is merely a factional fight, in which family matters and business interests are involved, and the contest becomes bitterly personal on that account. This explains most of the collusion or partisanship of county officers and their remissness in enforcing the law in murder cases. Family ties or political alliances override even the oath of office.”

On the Origins of “poor whites” and Appalachians:

“The unfortunate class known as poor whites in the South is descended mainly from the convicts and indentured servants with which England supplied labor to the southern plantations before slavery days. The Cavaliers who founded and dominated southern society came from the conservative, the feudal element of England. Their character and training were essentially aristocratic and military. They were not town-dwellers, but masters of plantations. Their chief crop and article of export was tobacco. The culture of tobacco required an abundance of cheap and servile labor.

“On the plantations there was little demand for skilled labor, small room anywhere for a middle class of manufacturers and merchants, no inducement for independent farmers who would till with their own hands. Outside of the planters and a small professional class there was little employment offered save what was menial and degrading. Consequently the South was shunned, from the beginning, by British[Pg 357] yeomanry and by the thrifty Teutons such as flocked into the northern provinces. The demand for menials on the plantations was met, then, by importing bond-servants from Great Britain. These were obtained in three ways.—

1. Convicted criminals were deported to serve out their terms on the plantations. Some of these had been charged only with political offenses, and had the making of good citizens; but the greater number were rogues of the shiftless and petty delinquent order, such as were too lazy to work but not desperate enough to have incurred capital sentences.

2. Boys and girls, chiefly from the slums of British seaports, were kidnapped and sold into temporary slavery on the plantations.

3. Impoverished people who wished to emigrate, but could not pay for their passage, voluntarily sold their services for a term of years in return for transportation. …

“Then came a vast social change. At a time when the laboring classes of Europe had achieved emancipation from serfdom, and feudalism was overthrown, African slavery in our own Southland laid the foundation for a new feudalism. Southern society reverted to a type that the rest of the civilized world had outgrown.

“The effect upon white labor was deplorable. The former bond-servants were now freedmen, it is true, but freedmen shorn of such opportunities as they were fitted to use. Sprung from a more or less degraded stock, still branded by caste, untrained to any career demanding skill and intelligence, devitalized by evil habits of life, densely ignorant of the world around them, these, the naturally shiftless, were now turned out into the backwoods to shift for themselves. It was inevitable that most of them should degenerate even below the level of their former estate, for they were no longer forced into steady industry.

“The white freedmen generally became squatters on such land as was unfit for tobacco, cotton, and other crops profitable to slave-owners. As the plantations expanded, these freedmen were pushed further and further back upon more and more sterile soil. They became “pine-landers” or “piney-woods-people,” “sand-hillers,” “knob-people,” “corn-crackers” or “crackers,” gaining a bare subsistence from corn planted and “tended” chiefly by the women and children, from hogs running wild in the forest, and from desultory hunting and fishing. As a class, such whites lapsed into sloth and apathy. Even the institution of slavery they regarded with cynical tolerance, doubtless realizing that if it were not for the blacks they would be slaves themselves.”

EvX: Note: the image of the lazy, apathetic Southern white was mostly caused by chronic anemia due to epidemic levels of hookworm infection. Hookworms came with the African slaves, who were at least somewhat adapted and thus resistant to their effects, and quickly infected the local whites (the poorest of whom had no shoes and worked barefoot in the fields, spreading, yes, human waste for fertilizer on the crops) who had much less evolved resistance to the worms…

“Now these poor whites had nothing to do with settling the mountains. …

“The first frontiersmen of the Appalachians were those Swiss and Palatine Germans who began flocking into Pennsylvania about 1682. They settled westward of the Quakers in the fertile limestone belts at the foot of the Blue Ridge and the Alleghanies. Here they formed the Quakers’ buffer against the Indians, and, for some time, theirs were the westernmost settlements of British subjects in America. These Germans were of the Reformed or Lutheran faith. They were strongly democratic in a social sense, and detested slavery. They were model farmers and many of them were skilled workmen at trades.

“Shortly after the tide of German immigration set into Pennsylvania, another and quite different class of foreigners began to arrive in this province, attracted hither by the same lodestones that drew the Germans, namely, democratic institutions and religious liberty. These newcomers were the Scotch-Irish, or Ulstermen of Ireland. …

“Being by tradition and habit a border people the Scotch-Irish pushed to the extreme western fringe of settlement amid the Alleghanies. They were not over-solicitous about the quality of soil. When Arthur Lee, of Virginia, was telling Doctor Samuel Johnson, in London, of a colony of Scotch who had settled upon a particularly sterile tract in western Virginia, and had expressed his wonder that they should do so, Johnson replied, “Why, sir, all barrenness is comparative: the Scotch will never know that it is barren.”

“West of the Susquehanna, however, the land was so rocky and poor that even the Scotch shied at it, and so, when eastern Pennsylvania became crowded, the overflow of settlers passed not westward but southwestward, along the Cumberland Valley, into western Maryland, and then into the Shenandoah and those other long, narrow, parallel valleys of western Virginia that we noted in our first chapter. This western region still lay unoccupied and scarcely known by the Virginians themselves. Its fertile lands were discovered by Pennsylvania Dutchmen. The first house in western Virginia was erected by one of them, Joist Hite, and he established a colony of his people near the future site of Winchester. A majority of those who settled in the eastern part of the Shenandoah Valley were Pennsylvania Dutch, while the Scotch-Irish, following in their train, pushed a little to the west of them and occupied more exposed positions. There were representatives of other races along the border: English, Irish, French Huguenots, and so on; but everywhere the Scotch-Irish and Germans predominated.”

Source

EvX: If you aren’t already familiar with the Appalachian chain, a god look at a topographic map reveals that the easiest area for introgression is around Pennsylvania, then southward through parallel mountain valleys, rather than westward over the tops of the mountains.