Fighting Words

Christopher Schaberg:

I don’t really like the label “redneck.” It’s not that I don’t like rednecks — though where I’m from, the upper Midwest, “redneck” usually means unapologetically racist, which I obviously don’t like — it’s the actual word that bothers me. I don’t like the idea of being a “type” of person at all. I don’t think identity works that way.

So imagine my discomfort when one of my former students published an essay, labeling himself in his byline as a redneck. And it wasn’t just any student.

Stewart worked his way through college performing in the streets of New Orleans, graduated, and managed to land a great job in New York City — all while composing and publishing crystalline essays, becoming a writer. Observing Stewart from afar and corresponding regularly about his writing projects, watching him thrive, has been gratifying — the kind of joy that makes being a professor worthwhile.

The essay in question was a sort of a working class origin story, venting Stewart’s exasperation at the triumph of Trump and his cruel deception of millions of citizens including some of his family members who had swerved improbably from Bernie to Trump, driven by anti-establishment rage. And there at its conclusion was the word: Stewart Sinclair: Redneck. This wasn’t the student I had known; it certainly was not the writer he had become.

I had always appreciated how delicately Stewart wrote about issues of race and class, especially considering his own trajectory as a first-generation college graduate. So his sudden embrace of the “redneck” label rankled, and it was indicative of a broader reactionary tone—as if our passionate, delicate classroom discussions of hybridity, complexity, and plurality had evaporated in the haze of his anger. All my cautions concerning claims to authenticity and stable origin stories suddenly seemed for naught.

Stewart Sinclair:

On more occasions than I can count, I’ve reached out to Dr. Schaberg in moments of uncertainty. On November 8th, it seemed that I was once again facing one of those unanticipated, insurmountable turn of events. The only difference was that it wasn’t a drama localized in my own psyche. We were all feeling it.

I can vividly remember the night of the election. I was in Dublin with my partner on vacation, five hours ahead of the east coast, watching as the results shifted improbably—against the statistical odds of any reasonable universe—in Donald Trump’s favor. And I remember opening my computer, and beginning an e-mail to Dr. Schaberg. But that e-mail, like everything else I tried to write in the time immediately after the election, went unfinished.

I wrestled with that block for over a month, trying to figure out what I could say. On any other occasion, I might have reached out to Schaberg to ask him for advice—but something in my guts told me that nobody else could help me get through this. The election had shaken me to the root, and—to borrow a now infamous expression—I alone could purge that feeling.

I found that the best way forward was looking back. The essay I eventually wrote and posted at Medium was my attempt to counter the working-class myth that Donald Trump had appropriated with a more accurate depiction of an American Blue Collar family: my own. I was trying to explain what led some of my family and friends from back home to vote for Trump (or to not vote at all), and ultimately, to show that these so-called “rednecks,” of whom I would consider myself one, were real human beings with conflicted emotions and motives. That the racist grudges and intolerance were not inherent to our being, but rather the end-result of the same tactics that have been used for decades to keep the lower classes marginalized and divided. I wanted to express how the working class—of any group—can’t be abandoned in the progressive movement going forward.

As soon as the essay went up I tweeted it, tagging Dr. Schaberg. I had—perhaps naively—anticipated that he would be just as excited about this piece as he had been about others I’d written.

CS

I was excited about this piece, at first. But I couldn’t get past Stewart’s newly put-on redneck identity. I understood Stewart’s frustration; I too had been dealing with my own disbelief at family members who had imbibed Trump’s poison.  But I felt like Stewart was slipping backward—almost, if only unintentionally, veering towards the type of white nationalism that had seeped into the political mainstream. I couldn’t ignore, much less support, his adoption of the redneck label for all that it signified.

So I didn’t re-tweet Stewart’s essay—and usually I am an avid promoter of his published work. Fully aware of the passive aggressive tacit codes of social media, I stewed for several days. When I finally texted him, I urged him to drop the redneck label. He was defensive, and claimed that it was a key part of who he really was. I tried to explain how it didn’t do him—or the community he wrote about so caringly—justice. What I’ve always admired about Stewart’s writing is how he grapples with subtleties and uncomfortable admixtures. Retreating into an as-if established identity category was not helping matters. This is precisely what Trump (or at least what Steve Bannon) wants: a war of all against all, for who can claim ownership of this country and its future, based on a priori identity markers (and with the winners and losers pre-established).

I thought I had taught Stewart about the productive impossibility of taming a wild tongue (to borrow from Gloria Anzaldúa), and it was unsettling to see him slipping into a stereotype, for comfort or sympathy. I thought I had helped him appreciate what it means to be—and embrace being—a cyborg (à la Donna Haraway) instead of a perfectly intact individual. Wherefore, then, Stewart’s new entrenchment into redneck identity?

SS

What did cyborgs have to do with anything?

For Schaberg to say that he “couldn’t ignore” my essay, or the problems that he perceived in it, is a misdirection.

Knowing full well Schaberg’s typical response time, a week is a long time to wait, especially when the algorithms determining potential readership are based on the initial hours, not days, after posting. I knew he had a problem with it.

On that seventh day, I checked twitter. Schaberg had just published a new essay. I read it, liked it, and sent him a text saying so—fully aware that if he responded, he was going to have to acknowledge my piece.

And he did. First those little elliptical dots suggesting typing is happening, and then the text arrived:

“I think you’re leaning a little too hard on this ‘redneck’ label. Your writing is (and you are) more nuanced than the stereotype belies. I know you’re trying to be provocative with it, but I don’t think it’s how you really want to lead. I don’t think it reflects you.”

It set me off. In that way that your fingers kind of shake on the screen as you tap away at your message, delete, re-tap, delete, and finally end with something along the lines of “I disagree” when what you mean is “Go fuck yourself.”

Claiming that an essay about the harsh reality of being a working class person in the United States veered on white nationalism was, at best, an oversimplification, especially when you consider that a large proportion of working class Americans are, in fact, non-white. My own family is a mix of Missouri-born white folk, New Mexican Mexicans and native Americans, along with a healthy smattering of Chinese and Filipino cousins. People in each these sub-groups have often self-identified as rednecks. Like my Mexican-Chinese cousin Larry Joe Lam, who drives from construction site to construction site on his Harley listening to David Alan Coe and Slayer. And I had relatives from all of these backgrounds who voted for Trump (remember that, depending on the source, anywhere between 18-29 percent of Latinos voted for Trump). In the small and unscientific sample size of my family, what united these disparate groups was a disaffection with the status quo, a severe lack of economic opportunity, and a notion that working class people had been left on the side-lines. The idea that being a “redneck” indicated being an “intact,” homogenous individual was the result of Schaberg’s own failure to see that I was speaking about something far more broad.

CS

Stewart was right. I was oversimplifying this identity category. For him, ‘redneck’ stood for exactly the sort of polyglot chimera that we’d explored in so many literary texts and theoretical inquiries, in class. I was, myself, not seeing the complexities within this demographic: people who—as Stewart rightly pointed out—were being lumped together as if they were a block of hapless voters.

We hashed this matter out over the course of text messages that verged on the way-too-long for that format. We didn’t come to an easy agreement or synthesis. Stewart was angry, and I was insistent: this was the time to use his education, not abandon it or assume it wasn’t relevant. At the very least, I convinced Stewart to drop the redneck label.

SS

It was the right decision. As I thought about what Schaberg said, I looked closer at how our different upbringings might have affected how we interpreted the term. Perhaps, as a southern California native, my own experiences with “rednecks” were not as charged as it would have been if I grew up in the deep south, or even the Midwest. My idea was of a typical redneck was more Merle Haggard and less David Duke. So by identifying as “redneck” in my by-line I risked signaling to others exactly what I wanted to dispel: that I was an unapologetic racist who subscribed to the gospel of Duck Dynasty.

So I dropped it, while still maintaining that not everything about my education had been beneficial. As a first generation college student, I remember feeling a tremendous pressure to prove that I was academic, intellectual, capable—that I belonged. And in the process I had sacrificed writing what was sincere. A few years out of academia had given me an opportunity to recalibrate, and the election represented a moment when my roots and my education came into direct conflict, as I found myself, like many others, uncomfortably straddling two very different world views.

Part of that world view was my own perception of a fluid identity, where I identified as much with the rednecks, the Mexicans, the Filipinos and everything else that had produced what I would eventually call my “family.” I felt equally comfortable (and uncomfortable) in all of those settings, from rural New Mexico to suburban California. At the same time, I recognized something hypocritical in the very intellectual world I had entered; a world that promotes a complex view of identity on the one hand, and yet refused to recognize that same complexity in the community I had come from. It was a feeling of being out of place everywhere.

CS

I hope I was never guilty of making Stewart feel like he had to prove himself as a capable intellectual. I’m hardly an ensconced liberal academic, much less a “coastal elite” (unless we include residing in a tiny shotgun home on the dirty coast of New Orleans). My own college years were spent in the mid-90s at Hillsdale College, a small school in rural Michigan that is a bastion of conservative thought. It was a place that can be constellated into the strange series of events that lead to the rise of Trump, as a recent New York Times article attempted. There are good reasons one might note this connection, but when I look back at my years at Hillsdale I see very little that resembles the authoritarian nightmare playing out in the White House now. At Hillsdale we read and read and read, and we relentlessly discussed the finer points of political theory and philosophies of government, across a broad history of ideas. Perhaps it’s my own early exposure to largely conservative minds that is buoying me of late, helping me not give up on these sorts of debates. That, and also the critical importance of continuing to write into what can seem like an ever-widening gyre of horror and incompetence.

Academia can seem more cut off from this sphere than ever, but I think we are seeing that higher education can also foster precisely the sorts of conversations that we need to have right now. I’ve tried to keep a healthy perspective as I’ve taught my own classes, knowing that my students are real people with real backgrounds. Stewart reminds me of the importance of this: of grappling with personal history as well as socio-political concepts and constructs.

SS

It’s not just the college campus that’s problematic. These important conversations are breaking down in every sphere. Personal histories—and their respective socio-political concepts and constructs—are being subjected to dangerous, democracy-rattling reductios ad absurdum. Even in my new life, working at a non-profit, living in New York, I’ve been constantly approached by people who felt they understood my past because they’d read a think-piece in The New York Times. It seemed “perfectly clear” to them that people had only voted for Trump because they either supported or didn’t care about his racism and misogyny—and their votes made them accomplices to his tyranny, no longer worthy of being engaged in dialogue. These well-intentioned folks would try to explain how my family felt to me. “You need to read Hillbilly Elegy” said the literary New Yorker to the token blue-collar dude.

Why the fuck do I have to read Hillbilly Elegy? I’m not from Appalachia, I’m not a conservative, and I’m not a fucking Hillbilly. At best, I’m a recovering white trash surfer bro that got woke when he realized the system was put in place to keep him where he was. And, wasn’t the whole idea of upward mobility rooted in self-improvement, escaping from those reductive labels and achieving some full-fledged, individual, non-hyphenated identity? Out of the trailer park and into the condo, right? And most people will do that without the faintest desire to look back, except to take note of how far they’ve come.

But that past is still embedded in you. It doesn’t matter that you’re writing this while listening to Miles Davis and sipping sauvignon blanc. You’re still descended from that domestic beer-drinking, wrought-iron pounding, racial slur-spouting—across various ethnic and cultural divides—lineage that you try to hide behind a couple smart references to Foucault and a passing knowledge of post-modernism. You carry around that Faulknerian aphorism like a totem: The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

But that’s also why, for recovering rednecks like me, 2016 changed my willingness to suppress parts of my past. Donald Trump based his whole platform on the usurpation and exploitation of America’s enclaves. Mexicans became drug-dealing rapists; black people became helpless inhabitants of hopeless inner cities; and blue-collar, redneck, poor white trash became the victims of the liberal agenda.

So it became essential for people to reclaim their roots. To say that Black Lives Matter. To say that this is a nation of immigrants. To take the words “Don’t Tread on Me” and shout them in the face of Donald Fucking Trump, who has no right to claim or define my or anyone else’s history and heritage any more than he has a right to claim that 2+2=5. It is only because he insists on doing so that we are obligated to counter that bullshit with the chaotic truth.

CS

Chaotic truth, I like that—and it is in the service of this obligation that we need to continue to write, to attempt to communicate, even in the face of the many headed hydra that is the Trump administration.

The ruse of any essay is that it arrives at a conclusion or an “at the end of the day”-type assessment. But these sorts of proclamations are what we have to be careful of, right now. Rediscovering roots and clinging to them isn’t going to settle anything, either.

I want to encourage Stewart to write—knowing that any critical writing under this new regime can be dismissed as “the negative media,” and pitted as “the opposition party.” I can’t stand these vapid phrases that the Trump team defensively bandies about; but, if anything, this seems to be emboldening the writers, journalists, artists, activists, and reporters who are jumping into the fray and chipping away at the administration’s ever more brittle facade. I also know there are smart people in our country who voted for Trump, but for whom there is a threshold for their support—whether this comes down to matters of principle, policy, or ethical reckoning. It is into this space that I want to see my students—present, past, and future—write. Complicate the picture, expose the deceit and dissembling—and perhaps change people’s minds. I know this can be done even if it is hard work and against all odds, right now.

SS

I think it can be done, too. In fact, I believe, with everything in me, that it has to be done.

One of the most beautiful benefits of a higher education is its tendency to bring people of different backgrounds in contact with each other. Some schools do this better than others, of course. But when it happens, it forces us to recalibrate, to learn how to defend what we believe in—and if it’s a truly successful education, to learn how to accept a hard truth the might run counter to what we have always believed.

I tried to do that by talking about who I am, where I come from—even if it hurt, even if it made me or the people I love look bad, or imperfect. The fact is, we’ve been in serious trouble for a long time, and I have yet to figure out how to escape it.                      

And if that approach is going to be taken to its logical conclusion, it also means remembering that no matter how tempting it is to entrench ourselves in our own bases of self-interest, people all over this country are now at risk of hurting more than they’ve ever hurt before. I wanted to write my most vulnerable stories, as if it was some radical act of empathy. I think Dr. Schaberg is trying to do the same, and to figure out how to work through these cultural divisions that seem so god damn insurmountable.

And we need to keep trying. There’s too much at stake not to keep trying to figure it out, even if it’s something that we’ll have to keep working on, and on.

 

***

Christopher Schaberg is an associate professor of English and Environmental Studies at Loyola University New Orleans, and is currently working on a book called The Work of Literature In An Age of Post-Truth.

Stewart Sinclair is a writer from Ventura, California. His work has been featured in The Morning News, Guernica, and The Millions. He now lives in Benshonhurst, Brooklyn.