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Apologia Pro Redneck, or: In Defense of a Word - and a People

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This time it's a duly certified, establishment-vetted, card-carrying member of the Mainstream Media who's been caught, tried and convicted by the always watchful PC Police. This time it was no Howard Stern or Don Imus, or even a football coach lettin' 'er rip at a press conference. This time it was NBC's own, always respectable if not downright pedestrian Andrea Mitchell, aka Mrs. Alan Greenspan. Goodness. What did she do? It seems the lady went and referred to an area of southwestern Virginia as "redneck, sort of bordering-on-Appalachia country."

Ooh-wee! The linguistically delicate of southwestern Virginia are still squealing. These easily offended types must be crying in their martinis - because the folks who prefer Schlitz couldn't care less. The real rednecks in southwestern Virginia must be wondering what all the fuss is about.

It happened when Ms. Mitchell was using her cultivated nasal tones to describe footage of a campaign stop by the Democratic presidential nominee presumptive and a former governor of Virginia in lovely Bristol, Va. And this is what she dared say:

"Interesting images today Š Barack Obama, Mark Warner in southwest Virginia. This is real redneck, sort of bordering-on-Appalachia countryŠ."

You'd have thought she said Those Dumb Crackers. All overly sensitive heck broke loose on the poor woman.

The speech cops swooped down on her in an instant. How dare she use the R-word? The local paper got all uppity. To quote the Bristol Herald Courier: "To correct Mitchell, Bristol doesn't border "Appalachia" country.' It is part of the Appalachian Mountain region. While the region faces challenges, it doesn't deserve to be the butt of jokes."

The butt of jokes? The use of "redneck" when referring to what was once known as the Southern yeomanry is now a joke - and one in bad taste at that? The rednecks in these parts, and probably everywhere, tend to 'ppreciate redneck jokes. ("You might be a redneck if you're stopped by a state trooper, he asks if you have an I.D., and you say, 'Bout what?' " -Foxworthy, J.)

So what term are we enlightened. reconstructed, re-educated Americans of the thoroughly thought-reformed 21st century supposed to use instead of "redneck" - working-class white? That's not English, it's sociologese. Redneck is a brief, vivid descriptive phrase for an American type we all know. Once upon a time, brief, vivid description was what good journalism was about. Naturally the term now has been declared verboten.

Andrea Mitchell, on her way to the stocks, was quick to apologize for speaking plain, the ultimate sin in our denatured times:

"I owe an apology to the good people of Bristol, Va., for something stupid that I said last week. I was trying to explain based on reporting from Democratic strategists why Barack Obama was campaigning in southwest Virginia. But without attribution or explanation, I used a term strategists often use to demean an entire community."

What's the world coming to? Here we have political strategists talking plain and reporters using mushspeak. The world's done turned upside down.

Sure, some words should be off-limits, and everybody knows which ones they are. That is, everybody who had a mama who threatened to wash his mouth out with soap if he ever used that word again. But "redneck"? What next? Will we be forced to say "the Y-word" when we mean Yankee?

Every time a perfectly good American word is lost, we are all deprived. And the cumulative effect is a life-destroying erosion of the language, which is sapped of its power, vitality and variety. Redneck an insult? Rednecks would only laugh at the idea - because rednecks are proud of who they are. That's why they can afford a sense of humor. In a world of anemic, self-censored, pre-washed, so-called commentary, their pride is refreshing.

Who are these rednecks anyway? One inadequate definition would be to say they're the descendants of the Scots-Irish who pushed the American frontier across first the Appalachians and then ever westward, spreading as far north as the hills of Pennsylvania and as far south and west as wide-open Texas, leaving their manners, speech and customs an indelible if often unremarked part of the American character.

Oh, yes, rednecks are also fighters. Which means that, ignored and snubbed in times of peace, or just patronized by those who think their very name an insult, they are always called on when the country's in real trouble. To this day, they are part of the backbone of the United States military. They are, in short, people to tie to. They will stand their ground, as America's enemies have discovered since 1776 and long before. They need no one to come to their defense, let alone shield them from their honest name. Yes, they can be touchy, but only about matters of honor.

Rednecks embrace simplicity as a welcome change from the kind of fraudulent sophistication you can hear at a click of the channel on television or on National Platitudinous Radio. But that doesn't make them simple. Quite the opposite. Their code is as involved as any Bedouin's, and maybe more so than the Southern gentleman's. Indeed, the two - gentleman and redneck - are part of the Southern whole, complementing and competing with each other, each half-envying, half-pitying the other but aware they share an indissoluble bond that involves the land, the language and whatever is the essence of what the South is, or was. Both may now be endangered species, united by what they are not: false.

Those who object to the name redneck, if not the species itself, might as well take offense at Arkie or Okie or black or Creole. Hasn't the Southern language lost enough distinctive words, and therefore distinctive thought, to the bowdlerizers, the euphemizers and sanitizers who would leave the treasure of the Southern tongue as barren and burned-over as the once green acres Sherman ravaged on his march to the sea? Enough verbicide. The toll has already been too heavy. Let's not lose a word that sums up a whole ethos.

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