The whites, part 1
For some non-trivial bio, see my post Color coding. Also think globally, recognizing that “Europe” is a fiction. Wait, what? OK: think of the entire coast of the Mediterranean, all the way ’round, with a heavy emphasis on the Levant. That’s a dense node of the geographic presence of most humans who’ve lived on this planet. Now think of a swath running continuously east-west across the northern edge of the entire hemisphere, basically Iceland to Siberia. And before you start talking about “European” vs. “Asian,” keep in mind that epicanthic folds are common along this swath’s northern margin all the way along. The western end of that swath runs along the land’s northern margin, and at this end, linguistically, Nordic-German, of which Anglic (“English”) is a variant.
American white, as a status and paralegal category, comes from subdivisions of that region, but not in one bitty ocean-hop and arrival. To reference American Nations again, and staying at the coarsest level, there are:
- Yankeedom (dissenting urban English), Midlands (German), New France (French), Tidewater (royalist/landed English), Deep South (convict/indentured rural English), New Netherlands (Dutch), and one more I’ll talk about in a minute.
- The core point is that North America is much much bigger than the postage stamp of provinces called Europe, so each of these became a considerably outsized economic and political presence, globally, than would otherwise have been possible. (This goes for pre and post American Revolution; it has nothing do with where the governing body may happen to be located, and the various trade routes and economic centers were disrupted not at all.)
This is a comics blog, with an entirely arbitrary focus on Marvel Comics based on my autobiography, wherein one may ask, “So what?” The “what” must be located within the bubble of the New Netherlands, the greater New York City region:
Established by the Dutch at a time when the Netherlands was the most sophisticated society in the Western world, New Netherland has displayed its salient characteristics throughout its history: a global commercial trading culture— multiethnic, multireligious, and materialistic—with a profound tolerance for diversity and an unflinching commitment to the freedom of inquiry and conscience.
That’s the nice part; Woodard also discusses the blatantly tribal-racist “we grab what’s ours” power structure resulting from constant high-impact immigration. Your point of origin back there is your neighborhood here and now. You don’t sweat the derogatory label you carry, it is indeed derogatory, but everyone’s got one. With the exception of black people, who are treated as deeply-unwanted refugees and routinely “pacified” (police murder is only a visible bit of it), you get in there with “your people” and you find a corner which you can hold down; otherwise, tough.
This isn’t just New York culture, it’s how New Yorkers see America, and for that matter, the world. Marvel Comics, in its naturalistic 50s and 60s roots, expressed this perspective not as topic but as unquestioned reality, and one of these days someone with the relevant degree is going to notice that Stan Lee and his most active co-creators were practically anthropologists of whiteness within it. Consider, for example:
- Henry Pym and Janet Van Dyne, from the original settler Dutch, so wealthy that it never occurs to them, so patrician that no one else is threatened by their status, while deferring to it entirely.
- Yes, Lee’s Wasp casually bosses everyone around – and they obey. They don’t obey Stark. You noticed that, right?
- This is text: who names the Avengers? Who tames the berserk Captain America, upon his awakening, and adopts him into the group? Who always exerts executive power over who’s in and who’s out, and who are the only members who’re in or out based on their own desires of the moment?
- The more recent gentry, Warren Worthington III, the heir to the intensely Anglophilic, jumped-up neo-Victorians, for whom more deliberately displayed airs accompanied conspicuous consumption.
- No, this is not nouveau riche; this is the last sector of American “old money,” the group that the nouveau aspired to later, e.g. the aforementioned Tony Stark
This was material and designated “white” in that bubble, as so perfectly expressed in these works, with the W in WASP,not anywhere near as broad as the term was and is used elsewhere. Similarly, the P was not “Protestant” in any broad sense, but Episcopalian (a term dating from when the American Anglicans and English Anglicans had to pretend they were different churches after the Revolution, a pretense which lasts to this day; hey, when you get the chance, investigate the relation of this religion to the American presidency). In the New Netherlands, it’s the group that doesn’t have to hustle. Nor is it really liberal in the senses of either egalitarianism or guilt (which are very Yankee things); the proper if disturbing term would be generous, in the sense of noblesse oblige.
Now, a new sort of whiteness was afoot, in stages during the 20th century (but less than people say), and snapping solidly into place during the 1960s and 70s, part of the uniquely American, war-and-bank interpretation of “middle class.” There’s a big literature on how Jewish, Irish, Italian, Polish, Spanish (but not Mexican, hence much “latino” and “hispanic” waffling), and a couple other American designations became white – but it’s not Janet-and-Hank or Warren white. It’s TV-white, a status, not an ethnicity, and still racist but more general, related to that north-south Europe-as-peninsula thing. I’ll be writing about that in the next post, so hold off on your what-about-what-about for various white comics characters. Today is for the top and the bottom.
The bottom, you say? Now for the the white no one likes to include: Ulster Scot/Scots-Irish, and as Woodard calls the region in the U.S., Greater Appalachian. It’s not southern. Tidewater Southerners came from Royalist England; Deep Southerners came from Barbados and from England’s jails and press gangs. I’m not talking about Englishmen even a little.
The first sign is that unbelievable accent, something like, “awlahoolawallading-dong … ratt?”Just the beginning of a bevy of regional and cultural features known to everyone in stereotype, yet stripped of relevant history. And that history matters. “Appalachia” is merely the point of arrival; wave after wave came from blood-soaked Ulster for two centuries, treading west regardless of who said what was whose, killing to settle it, and killing to keep it. Flash-forward to the Civil War, which for these regions was a mini-civil war with almost nothing to do with Union or Confederacy, a particularly bloody one that would surprise no one English, Irish, or Scottish, and which has been obscured by mid-twentieth century nonsense promulgated by those who benefit from the myth of “the South,” pro- and anti- alike.
There have been some recent books, “white working class,” that kind of thing, but I find them off-base and tin-eared, blinded by the sensu lato TV-white. Income alone isn’t enough; it takes its shape in regional and ethnic terms. Almost every poll or demographic summary keeps mixing up economically and ethnically distinct groups into “white” to create a false statistic. The way to go is Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus, in which a left-radical but very native-son Greater Appalachian explains to white liberals just why and how they’ve fucked it up for decades, long ahead of any recent events which have led to the finger-pointing and hand-wringing.
Not gonna lie: when you do look, this is not a loved group. They’re regarded as nothing more nor less than human dogs, in the worst sense of that animal metaphor – just smart enough to team up or to submit to a stronger force, skulking and watchful, territorial over what seem like indistinguishable patches of ruined real estate, given to inexplicable “turning on you,” bullying toward one another, vicious toward those with less power. Their extensive folklore and music are well-known only once they’re appropriated into someone’s mainstream usage, stripped of regional serial numbers, usually re-cast as “country” or “southern.”
It’s one of the shortest-lived North American demographics, least educated, chronically-ill, most dependent on public funds, most violent, most associated with home-grown illegal drugs (meth mostly), and most represented in the military groups. It’s the one who invented evangelical Christianity, which engulfed nationwide rural populism around 1900, and horrified the Southern Baptists until they sucked it up and made a coalition in the 1970s. Uniquely among U.S. citizens, they don’t know where they’re from; they do not reference their pre-New World origin and identify only as “American.” It’s also the most patriotic by a significant length, in a curious fashion that doesn’t poll pro-war when no very-public war is happening, but 100% behind it when it is; and also curiously, literally abominates “government.”
People from this background – and I don’t mean rural-country, I mean ethnically – who get into mainstream power, do so through means familiar to other marginalized but semi-included groups: prominence via the military, unconventional insights, shucking and jiving, and ruthless local power-mongering. You know something? When they get there, they’re fucking mean. Andrew Jackson was the first U.S. president of the sort; Bill Clinton is the most recent – and you might be shocked at how similar their policies were, and how much the latter’s skill in selling it was born in the evangelical tradition.
I can talk like this. This is me, or the most visible portion anyway (Basque and Mediterranean French on the other side). Look at my eyes, white-shot steel blue like a dog you don’t trust. Look at my teeth, when I’m not hiding them, something I learned to do in college. I’m one-step removed as my dad is the “one who left” the grape fields in Southern Cal via the Navy, the only male in the whole clan who attended college even briefly. I remember them from very occasional childhood visits, people with pigs in the yard and names like Chalmer and “Frosty.” But look at my damn posture in that photo, and you know what anyone else looking at me sees. Especially those laying claim to TV-white – they do not want me there with them.
Wait, aren’t I Californian? Yeah, because this is also the most migratory & settle-in population in the continent. They’re thought of “up there in those there hills” when in actuality they’re all over the place, with multiple migratory nodes. adapting to the local power structure yet remaining very much themselves. They swiftly take up low-status farming and service sector wherever they go, operating as immigrants as they establish jobs and then act as magnifiers for new arrivals through the power structure of those jobs, via kin ties.
Crucially: they fold right into the police, militia, and “community” action of the violent, loyal-to-power kind. They’re really good at it, more effective than the Klan ever was, much more widespread, less politically specific (whatever you want boss, as long as I get to not be a nigger or an injun or a meskin or a trouble-maker), and crucially, not driven by fear. Most of their political presence nationwide is defined by this cruelty and adaptability to power, aiding and abetting racist oppression with a safely deniable grassroots agency.
But you don’t see them in Marvel Comics! Why not? There are two kinds of invisibility involved. First, the places they don’t penetrate are New England and Greater New York, and the politics and media there are either blind to or baffled by them. That includes Hollywood, which began as an expat extension of New York, and it definitely includes comics of the 1960s. Lee and anyone else didn’t know from Greater Appalachia and didn’t write about any.
The second kind of invisibility is an extension from there via Hollywood, which began as an expat colony of New York, and continued as a temple to TV-whiteness. That’s also reserved for the upcoming post. I’ll only briefly state that as far as this … whatever you call it demographic is concerned, what you see in the media culture is something very alien – never “us” from the messaging side – and thoroughly confounded with southerners. Whole volumes may be consulted about what Oklahoma! had to do with this. There’s an interesting standout in TV history, The Beverly Hillbillies, which was apparently sympathetic and a little edgy in practice, and despite being very popular it was shitcanned along with a bevy of “too southern, too country” shows like Green Acres. I’d like someone to take a closer look at Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons in this context too, because I only know these shows from glimpses at friends’ houses – I didn’t watch much tube as a kid, what with the counterculture and all. A good recent example is Shane in The Shield, who begins as the picture-perfect SoCal specimen of what I’m talking about, but as the series goes on, the writers cannot imagine he’s anything but a Georgia cracker and change him up considerably.
In comics, there’s no mistaking Li’l Abner, which if I were not separated from the culture by my father’s attempted rejection of it, I’d be inclined to consider hate speech. Then again, I don’t really know – I barely encountered the strip as itself, but instead it’s mixed up in my tween mind with the rich subversive mining of Capp’s style and hillbilly topics, plus more explicit degeneracy, by Frank Frazetta and Berni Wrightson, and the not-indirectly related cartoon/comics strips in various porno mags. A recent example – and the time-jump indicates the scarcity – is Warlords of Appalachia, which I note their website pitches as “Southern Bastards meets Dune.”
This southern-but-not thing is a big deal: it’s about co-opting Greater Appalachia into “the South” as a political bloc, which was cemented into place during (and about) the Vietnam War, to the point where – always historically pig-ignorant – the demographic actually believes it now. I shall now finally get to the point.
The Black Panther Party, as a name, was used by several groups, many of which connected during the late 60s but never entirely. A given region makes more sense by itself, where you see the BPP working in tandem with like-minded groups. In Chicago, one such group was The Young Patriots, young white people from a recent migration there from southern Illinois (part of Greater Appalachia; see the map), whose local work was just the same, providing food for school kids and education about the police. They and Puerto Rican groups and the Panthers formed an epic alliance organized by Fred Hampton, profoundly dedicated to destroying racism from the ground up. This is the origin of the term Rainbow Coalition, which would take on a different, mainstream meaning 15 years later.
The Patriots didn’t even have time to get a logo, as the Chicago police murdered Hampton and other leaders, and the Rainbow scattered, to be flensed from memory. They wore the Confederate Flag, citing Appalachia as an example of a colonial holding in the Fanon sense exactly as the Panthers did for black Americans; learn more at Young Patriots and Panthers: a story of white anti-racism. This is what provides otherwise puzzling meaning to the Warren Zevon song and its relation to the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (the successor to Weather in the Midwest; Weather had been founded in response to Hampton’s murder, if you didn’t know):
The song sounds surrealistically tin-eared today but it meant something at the time. Briefly, the actual James Gang of the 1880s was of little account to anyone in any way, except that they served as an ongoing topic for a viciously anti-Reconstruction opinion-leading newspaper. But in the 1960s and 1970s, that history wasn’t well known, and the dark cowboy-outlaw, “rebel anti-lawman” imagery had gained considerable Hollywood identity – here, it was repurposed to activism, with the Confederate flag, however obnoxiously to modern eyes, repurposed as civil rights revolutionary anti-establishment.
The scuttling of the Young Patriots from political memory is also the root of the problem with the modern term “privilege.” Breathe in and out a couple times. Ready? Privilege is what the Wasp and the Angel have. I reject the notion that not being shot at will, not being restricted to designated areas, not being incarcerated into slavery, not being prevented from political power by lawfare or force, and not being kept sick via health care deprivation, all of which are happening at this minute, is privilege. Not experiencing those things is the expected, reasonable baseline. Experiencing those things isn’t lack of privilege, it’s oppression, outright human rights violation in no uncertain terms.
What you’ve got is the classic case of an underclass accepting the shit-stained, useless, just-shy of suicidal distinction of not being another underclass who’s getting more overtly immiserated and murdered, “earning” that distinction by becoming the most direct instrument of oppression against it. Including the sharp lesson of what happens to the dogs who didn’t obey.
And the deal has worn threadbare, forty-five years past the killing of the Civil Rights movement. It’s been five lousy decades of meth addiction and having your balls blown off by IEDs. They’re restless now, doubling down on their “loyalty” as they saw it, not their masters. They know they were betrayed, but can’t understand by whom exactly, or why, and they’re biting more-or-less at random. I, and anyone like me, who (through my father) escaped from that culture but not successfully into another, we see it plain as day. Bageant tried to tell you, I’ll tell you now. Expect more of that. A lot more.
… Well, how ’bout them comics? There’s something important in there. The next post concerns the TV-white, mass-media construct, which is indeed, unsurprisingly, evident in comics – and intriguingly, in the X-Men with the exception of Warren, and in the bleaching of such originally-ethnic characters like the Punisher.
Links: Young Patriots, Black Panthers, and the Rainbow Coalition, (edit addition) The truth about “trailer trash”
Next: The whites, part 2
Posted on December 1, 2017, in Politics dammit and tagged American Nations, Angel, Black Panther Party, Deer Hunting with Jesus, Frank and Jesse James, Greater Appalachia, Joe Bageant, Li'l Abner, New Netherlands, Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, Rainbow Coalition, Stan Lee, The Beverly Hillbillies, Ulster Scot, W.A.S.P, Warren Zevon, Wasp, Weather, white, Young Patriots. Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.