Apology

A reader of my post on “Freedom Fries” rebukes me for invoking prejudice against the rural poor in calling the two Congressclowns in question “backwoods Yahoos” and referring to “Carolina moonshine.” I agree that the convention under which poor rural whites, especially those from Appalachia, can safely be made the butt of ethnic slurs and jokes is an appalling one, and didn’t mean to invoke it. If I seemed to be doing to so anyone who actually shares that identity, I ask that person’s pardon.

It’s very unlikely that either of the Congressfools is actually poor, and I actually don’t know whether either or both of them represent rural areas. “Backwoods” was intended to mean “provincial.”

Of course, even “provincial” embodies a kind of anti-rural prejudice; it’s primary meaning, after all, is simply “non-resident of the capital city.” It has been the case probably since the rise of civilization that rural people hated urbanites as lazy, morally weak, and exploitative, while city-slickers despised farm-dwellers as ignorant. (Even “clown” originally meant “Countryman, rustic, or peasant,” which is the first definition given in the OED; the circus clown descends from the pantomime or commedia del’arte clown, representing a bumpkin visiting the city dressed up absurdly in what he thinks is finery.)

It’s probably not wrong to think that rurality in the geographic sense correlates with provincialism in the cultural sense, but I agree that it would be nicer not to engage geographic prejudice in mocking that rather widespread (and perhaps characteristically American) failing. If anyone knows a term meaning “Proudly ignorant of anything not local to him” that doesn’t have overtones of “rural,” please let me know.

“Yahoo” I take to be the most general possible term of abuse, with no particular geographic reference. The image “Yahoo” calls to my mind is that of ignorance, servility, laziness, and filth. (Swift’s Yahoos are, as Orwell says, merely human beings viewed in an unflattering light.)

The reference to “Carolina moonshine” was intended to parallel French wine; it seemed funnier than “North Carolina furniture,” which is how that passage read in the first version posted. (I couldn’t think of a characteristic Ohio export except polluted air, which is hard to boycott.) I’m not actually a consumer of moonshine (or baseball on television, since I don’t own a television); in any case it would be absurdly spiteful to boycott a state’s products to express disapproval of the actions of its elected officials, which was precisely my point.

My use of insult and abuse in place of argument was calculated; I was responding rudely and unseriously to what I took, and take, to be a rude and unserious gesture by two people whose official position ought to make them want to act better.

Update: Readers suggest “parochial” and “insular” as synonyms for “provincial.” Not bad, though neither conveys the implication of ignorance not only of things foreign but of high culture generally that “provincial” and “backwoods” convey. [“Boorish” is pretty good in attributing rudeness and ignorance together, but “boor” is simply an old word for “peasant” (German bauer, from which “Boer”).]

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com