Bill O'Reilly, Pine Knots and War

I stopped watching Bill O’Rielly long ago–and since I don’t have a TV at the moment, I don’t watch any of the Cable Newsertainment channels, whether CNN, MSNBC or Fox. I stopped watching O’Rielly when I realized that he displayed an amazing degree of ignorance or oversimplification when he discussed subjects with which I was familiar. I then concluded that I shouldn’t expect him to do any better when reporting/discussing topics about which I was not familiar; so I decided it was better to get my information elsewhere. My opinion has been confirmed many times since, most recently in an interview O’Reilly did with Diane Sawyer regarding poverty in Appalachia. His first mistake? In my book it was pronouncing it “Appa-LAY-shah” instead of “Appa-LATCH-ah,” but that’s (somewhat) debatable1. What isn’t debatable is the fact that his condescension is evidence of a long-standing problem. Whether one is speaking of language2 in particular or culture more generally, the people of the Appalachian mountains have been the acceptable butt of jokes in popular American culture. Betty Wallace over at the Appalachian History blog calls for an end to it, and an end to the passivity with which most mountain people put up with it, in her post Hillbilly stereotypes: picking up pine knots and going to war (If you’re curious you can see a YouTube clip of O’Reilly’s remarks below the fold).

Bill O’Reilly’s recent contemptible rant against Appalachian Americans is only the latest example of the widespread and multigenerational problem of Appalachian hillbilly stereotypes.

Quite simply, O’Reilly reminded the world once again that people of the Appalachian Mountains are still the only cultural group in America that many people have the audacity to ridicule publicly as being of low intelligence, and worse.

Can you imagine if O’Reilly had made the same despicable statements about ________ in _________, or ________ in ________, or _______ in ________. (Fill in the blanks with any racial or ethnic or cultural slurs you can imagine, the more insensitive the better.)

How can we as a people ever overcome this pervasive hillbilly stereotype? Why do we continue to pull in our heads like turtles and pretend we don’t care and that we will survive regardless of the outside world? Well, I do care—for myself, my family and friends, and my culture—and I don’t believe that we are surviving very well or will survive in the future as a culture with a shred of honor and dignity if we do not rise up, en masse, and protest at every opportunity this kind of insensitive abuse.

We continue to loll about in our insular Snuffy Smith, Lil Abner, Mammy Yokum, Jed Clampett, grits-and-possum stereotype as if the opinion of the rest of the world does not matter, even while we are being brutalized every time someone laughs at our dialect or accent, or asks WHERE are you from, or rejects us for a job, or does not publish our writing because how could an ignorant hillbilly possibly have something to say.

A professor at the University of Colorado once said to our own Charles Frazier, “Imagine that! A hillbilly with a Ph.D.!” Even worse than the professor thinking such a misbegotten thought was that she felt entitled to publicly say it right to his face. Can you imagine her making that statement to a person of any other racial or ethnic or cultural group? “Imagine that! A ______ with a Ph.D.!”

{Read it all}

The problems O’Reilly mentions are present in Appalachia, as they are present in any poor community, urban or rural. Meth in particular is a problem that has swept the country and has been particularly devastating in rural areas. Additionally, while I am one to push for personal responsibility and accountability, as someone who grew up in Western North Carolina–an area of the mountains that has escaped the worst ravages of industrialization such as coal mining (but has it’s own issues with exploitation in the past and rapid development and population increases in the present)–I find it interesting to note that many of the areas afflicted by the worst poverty and attendant problems are also those places that have endured the greatest outside exploitation.

  1. As if the varying boundaries weren’t enough, there is no fundamental agreement even about how to pronounce the word “Appalachia.” Residents of southern and central Appalachia pronounce the term with a short -a- in the stressed third syllable; further north, the same -a- is given a long pronunciation, as in “Appal-achia.” Most of the experts and bureaucrats who came from Washington and elsewhere to fix the region’s problems beginning in the 1960s adopted the northern pronunciation, while resident experts favor the southern– which led to a situation, according to one commentator, wherein “people who said AppaLAYchia were perceived as outsiders who didn’t know what they were talking about but were more than willing to tell people from the mountains what to do and how they should do it.” Finally, while a majority of both long and short -a- users crunch the third syllable as though it were spelled Appal-atch-yuh, in New England– where the term “Appalachian” first came into widespread use by nongeologists thanks to the Appalachian Mountain Club and the development of the Appalachian Trail– a variant pronunciation uses “sh” rather than “ch,” as in Appal-ay-shuh. (Appalachia: A History, by John Alexander Williams, p14) []

  2. APPALACHIAN ENGLISH: The English of the mountain region of Appalachia in the south-eastern US: in parts of Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and all of West Virginia. The most influential settlers in these areas were the SCOTS-IRISH, who began arriving in the British American colonies c.1640 and moved to the south and west. Because of the relative isolation in which it has developed and the continuance of forms regarded elsewhere as archaisms, Appalachian English has been regarded (popularly but incorrectly) as a kind of Elizabethan or Shakespearian English. However, it shares features with other kinds of non-standard English, particularly in the South: absence of the copula (That alright); the use of right and plumb as intensifying adverbs (I hollered right loud, The house burnt plumb down). Phonological features include: initial /h/ in such words as hit for it, hain’t for ain’t; -er for -ow as in feller/tobaccer/yeller (fellow/tobacco/yellow). Grammatical features include: a-prefixing with -ing participial forms (He just kept a beggin’ an’ a-cryin’) and the use of done as a perfective marker (He done sold his house: He has sold his house). A-prefixing is a relic of a construction containing the OLD ENGLISH preposition on in unstressed positions before certain participles: He was on hunting (He was engaged in hunting). Currently, Appalachian English is often socially stigmatized because it is spoken in its most distinctive form by poor, often uneducated, mountain people. See DIALECT (UNITED STATES), SOUTHERN ENGLISH.

    From: “APPALACHIAN ENGLISH” Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Ed. Tom McArthur. Oxford University Press, 1998. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of the South. 2 March 2009 []

  • Tom Farrell

    Speaking as a gay man… yeah, I damn well CAN imagine a group besides appalachian people (oh by the way, I grew up on one of the mountains, and it was pronounced app-a-LAY-chun where I’m from. Pronunciation is regional) being considered fair game for insults. Frankly, nobody has ever insulted be for having lived in the mountains, but people have no problem blaming me for 9/11, earthquakes, tornadoes, the flooding of New Orleans, or the collapse of the economy because I’m gay. They don’t hesitate to call me the antichrist because I’m gay. They don’t hesitate to spit at me as I walk through the park holding hands with my boyfriend, or to cover their baby’s eyes so it won’t see us.

    So please don’t give me your holier-than-thou sermon about how mountain people are more downtrodden than anyone else in this country. Yes, Bill Oreilly is a blowhard, but the rest of your hyperbole simply isn’t reality.

  • Betty Cloer Wallace

    Tom Farrell,

    There are many, many groups of people discriminated against in many, many ways, and gays are clearly one of those groups, but my point is that only “hillbillies” are considered dumb and ignorant. Gays as a group are not stereotyped as being of low intelligence as are people from Appalachia. My gay friends and family here and elsewhere say that the two kinds of discrimination are very different, although both, of course, are destructive–personally, economically, and culturally–and to be gay in Appalachia (or gay anywhere else with an Appalachian accent) really requires extraordinary fortitude!

    Appalachian people as a group, though, are far too reticent to stage public marches and protests against such stereotyping, which has compounded the discrimination against us for over a century. People from Kentucky did not start marching and protesting publicly until they saw their mountains being removed for coal—not just the mountaintops, but the whole mountains! What an irreversible tragedy, and for many people there, it is too late.

    You can read my entire essay on the Appalachian History blog.

    Betty Cloer Wallace in Western North Carolina

  • Jody+


    Thanks for stopping by, and leaving the comment. I enjoyed your essay.

  • Hotspur

    1. Bill O’Reilly is nuts. I have worked with him professionally. Keith Olbermann is nuts too but very nice to support staff; Bill is the opposite. (At least Keith realized he had a problem and got help…this seems to be a common denominator with folks at the upper end of the media totem pole).

    2. Try getting a job with a thick Canuck accent! I have had to tamper mine down to be treated seriously in some gigs. They teach the classic “Midwestern” accent in radio and acting schools for a reason… NYC accents won’t make it outside of the Northeast US.

    3. Understand the Gay/Lesbian frustration. Sometimes you have to sit back and read up on how long it took our African-American friends in the civil rights movement to get just basic rights. The quote “taking a blow dryer to a glaicer” stands out in my mind. Hang in there…but please get the chip off the shoulder. It doesn’t help anyone…including yourself. Just go do your bit and let G-d handle the rest.

  • Jody+


    The essay wasn’t written by me, so it’s not my hyperbole. Also, I think if you re-read the essay (you can read the original by clicking the “Read it all” link), it’s not saying that no other group is insulted for anything, but rather that no other group is insulted in this particular way: automatically having their intelligence questioned, masking accents to get jobs etc. That’s not the same as saying that no other group faces discrimination for other things (e.g. such as someone not revealing their sexual orientation for fear of loosing their job). It is obviously hyperbolic–people from the South, Midwest etc… (anyone, in fact, without a California accent) has to face some regional stereotyping based upon their accents, and various ethnic groups face stereotypes about their intellect all the time. Nevertheless, people are, for the most part, more aware that those stereotypes exist. For a lot of people the hillbilly isn’t considered so much a stereotype as documentary footage.

    As for pronunciation being a regional thing, I recognize that–hence footnote #1

    Thanks for stopping by.