Rebecca Solnit on culture wars and environmentalism

by Chris Bertram on March 11, 2008

Rebecca Solnit has “an interesting piece”: in Orion Magazine on Elvis, country music, environmentalism, racism, “rednecks”, stereotyping, and one or two other matters.

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Words of a true Uniter « doop HQ
03.12.08 at 5:52 am



Russell Arben Fox 03.11.08 at 1:14 pm

Chris, thanks very, very much for the link to this piece; I might have gotten around to finding it eventually, but it is a wonderful take on oft-ignored the centrality of class and culture to any progressive movement, including environmentalism. I’m going to have to write something about this.

It might mean giving up on the environmental movement as a separate sector and thinking more holistically about what we want to protect and why, including people, places, traditions, and processes outside the wilderness. It might even mean getting over the notion that left and right are useful or even adequate ways to describe who we are and what we long for (or even over the notion of rural and urban, as food gardens proliferate in the latter and sprawl becomes an issue in the former). We must also talk about class again, loudly and clearly, without backing down or forgetting about race. This is the back road down which lie stronger coalitions, genuine justice, a healthier environment, and maybe even a music that everyone can dance to.

What a great conclusion.


StephenJohnson 03.11.08 at 1:36 pm

A problematic piece, with a real issue at its core – ubiquitous contempt for southerners – especially poor, rural, white ones – is a problem. However, blanket contempt applied to any group is a problem. It just happens that poor people (and especially poor rural southern evangelical white people), like fat people, are one of the groups who have been singled out as ok to mock in our society.

Most of the rest of the piece is the usual nonsense – I won’t argue about musical merits “de gustibus non disputandum” and all that, but it’s not seriously arguable that country music as a whole is anything other than reactionary. And the argument that long haired hippie environmentalists offend decent working class folks – puhlease!

Anyway, I’d like to briefly speak to my impression of what southerners are like – I lived in the southern US for about 10 years in all, mostly Texas and a little Louisiana. Mostly it was pretty enjoyable – people were generally much more sociable (in my entirely unscientific overall impression) than, say, the folks in Seattle, where I also lived. They were also kind and likeable.

However, I think that was in large part because I happened to have the right skin colour. On many occassions people I didn’t know felt compelled to share their unflattering opinions about [insert random ethnic or national group here] with me, a total stranger. I found this very odd and profoundly disturbing. There is (IMAO) an undercurrent – not just of racially-tinged meanness, but outright insanity in the south, and it’s a bit scary up close. However, it’s not completely absent elsewhere – it’s just stronger and closer to the surface in the south.

I suspect it’s all rooted in the universal assumptions of identity group politics – American exceptionalism and its peculiar US-client state variants, such as Thatcherite conservatism, Harper’s (or Mulroney’s) slavish desire to emulate the US, etc.


Chris Bertram 03.11.08 at 3:18 pm

it’s not seriously arguable that country music as a whole is anything other than reactionary

I have no idea what this could possibly even mean. The idea that a musical genre “as a whole” has a clear political character is bizarre.


notsneaky 03.11.08 at 3:19 pm

I guess this is a good place to make my standard reminder that all great music of the 20th century originated in the American South. Granted, it was often exported and “improved” or “developed” elsewhere, but it all started below the Mason-Dixon line.


Crystal 03.11.08 at 4:07 pm

but it’s not seriously arguable that country music as a whole is anything other than reactionary.

I disagree. There’s a HUGE difference between Johnny Cash and the Dixie Chicks, and Toby Keith. And let’s not forget Loretta Lynn singing about a housewife who won’t put up with her husband’s BS anymore because she has the Pill.

Country music (and Elvis for that matter) are to rural Southerners what Oprah, scented candles, and Celine Dion are to women: dog-whistles, pulled out to mock those categories of people.


Chris Bertram 03.11.08 at 4:23 pm

_I guess this is a good place to make my standard reminder that all great music of the 20th century originated in the American South._

… or in Vienna.


grackle 03.11.08 at 5:07 pm

I guess this is a good place to make my standard reminder that all great music of the 20th century originated in the American South.

… or in Vienna.

…or, say, Morocco? (This could go on for some time)


notsneaky 03.11.08 at 5:09 pm

Ok. Great music of the 20th century that is widely to listened to worldwide.


bi 03.11.08 at 5:39 pm

“Caskey describes how ‘coal companies turn communities against each other by telling their employees that the environmentalists want to take away their jobs.'”

Well, the anti-enviros tell the same thing to _everyone_. The whole economy will collapse if Al “Fat Al Bore the Antichrist” has his way, yadda yadda yadda…

At the end of the day, it’s just a story to scare little children into obedience, just like all the scares about immigrants and blacks and the whole enchilada.


bi 03.11.08 at 5:40 pm

Al… Gore, that is.


Western Dave 03.11.08 at 5:59 pm

I wonder if Solnit is either a) reinventing the wheel or b) not acknowledging her intellectual debts. Much of this article is a rehash of Richard White’s “Are You an Environmentalist or do you Work for a Living?” piece that appeared in the Cronnon collection Uncommon Ground (among other places) combined with a rehash of bunch of work on whiteness and country music but what jumps to mind most immediately is James Gregory’s book American Exodus. There are several straight lines that can be drawn from Woody Guthrie to Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, the Beach Boys but also, say, Los Lobos.

Country music is no more reactionary than heavy metal, prog rock, or even much of punk or for that matter gangster rap. Give me a break.


Russell Arben Fox 03.11.08 at 7:20 pm

Some further thoughts on the whole mess of issues surrounding environmentalism, class, and country, found here.


Random African 03.11.08 at 7:36 pm

Ok. Great music of the 20th century that is widely to listened to worldwide.

Kingston, Havanna, Kinshasa.. and South Bronx.


Random African 03.11.08 at 7:39 pm

Did I forget Detroit and Chicago ?


Alex 03.11.08 at 8:15 pm



notsneaky 03.11.08 at 8:40 pm

South Bronx, Detroit and Chicago all had roots in the South.


Chris Bertram 03.11.08 at 8:43 pm

Ok Notsneaky, but the musics of the South had their roots in West Africa and with the Scots-Irish ….


notsneaky 03.11.08 at 8:46 pm

But not in the 20th century.


notsneaky 03.11.08 at 8:46 pm

Manchester was spin off and embroidery on what was invented elsewhere.


notsneaky 03.11.08 at 8:54 pm

random african, I’m thinking about the others. I’m not sure what the appropriate criteria to be used here for “listen to worldwide”. It’s pretty obvious that people listen to blues, jazz, country (yes, country), and rock ‘n roll all over the world. Of course people all over the world listen to music from Cuba. But it’s a different kind of thing – not exactly the same phenomenon. As far as Kingston – except for Bob Marley and maybe, maybe, Peter Tosh I don’t think you can say reggae is listened to world wide. So again, different.

Ok, lemme be more precise. All great “Western” (American + Europe) music of the 20th century, which subsequently spread all over the world, was invented in the American South. That still’s a lot for one region. I mean, what have the Europeans done (again, in terms of pure innovation, not later development)? The Germans might claim techno, but let them have it. We’re talking great, or at least good, music here.


Stuart 03.11.08 at 8:56 pm

notsneaky, how about Bollywood and the musical traditions behind that – which is listened to by many more people than you were talking about.


notsneaky 03.11.08 at 9:02 pm

Again, I don’t think Bollywood has the same international coverage as “rock n’ roll” or “blues” or “jazz” or “rap”.

Ok, maybe an analogy will help (very Americo-centric):
American musical genres – “jazz”, “blues”, “rnr”, “rap” – are like McDonalds, Wendy’s, KFC, etc. They’re freakin’ everywhere.
What generally falls in the category of “World Music”, even when it does have a world wide audience, is like a Perkins or Waffle House. While you can find it around, it’s on a much smaller scale then the first category.

Man, I hope that offended at least somebody.


Random African 03.11.08 at 9:17 pm

I don’t know..NotSneaky.

The Southern Roots of Techno/House or Hip Hop are not really obvious to me. But let’s forget that and Kinshasa too.

You’re right that Salsa and Reggae are not like KFC and MacDonalds, they’re like Chinese Restaurants and Croissants. They’re listenned to globally but outside of Bob Marley, they lack flagship artists. Basically they’re popular genres without a popular brand.

Then there’s the fact that at least for cuban music, there’s a late-20th century bias that make us forget about how important it was in the middle of the century, in the West, in Asia, in Africa.

That said, you’re right about “western”. Even if that doesn’t say much, really.


Random African 03.11.08 at 9:18 pm

I mean, what have the Europeans done (again, in terms of pure innovation, not later development)?

Don’t underestimate the global reach of italian disco, french “varieté” and ABBA.
Europeans invented musical blandness ! And that’s quite an achievement.


Roy Belmont 03.11.08 at 9:42 pm

The distinction between “came from” and “came through” would be signal here.
Music doesn’t originate anywhere, it’s been there since before we had language, before we walked upright. Even someone raised by wolves wouldn’t “originate” music, but adapt, reconstitute, interpret that beautiful howling.
The contributions of the American South to 20th c. popular music were immense, and central, and even though the cliche is jazz originated there, it really only developed and became formalized there. The name did originate there and then, but what’s in a name? It’s a commodifying, utilitarian handle.
The music is an uninterrupted matrix, and goes all the way back. Which some people seem to find unsettling.
For an example of the immediacy of cross-pollination, check Sinatra’s perfect rendition of Gershwin’s immortal “Foggy Day In London Town”, then listen to “Street Fighting Man” by the Rolling Stones. It’s very nearly the same song – not commercially or legally, but musically.


Angry African on the Loose 03.11.08 at 10:44 pm

We should also look at other cultures that might suffer because of global warming – but that is caught in another type of Catch 22. Africa might suffer more from the changing climate than any other continent. Especially because of the lack of social safety nets provided by governments. Is there a solution for Africa when they have so much else to focus on – health, poverty, war and hunger? Or are we caught in a Catch 22 with no sustainable solutions? More on this in my blog at


dsquared 03.11.08 at 11:22 pm

This is basically unsustainable on anything other than some sort of musical version of the “one drop of blood principle”. For example if you’re going to say that Cole Porter’s songs count as being “originally” from the American South (because you’re claiming that there’s nothing in them but jazz, and you’re claiming that all jazz is from the South and New York City never developed anything important), then you can sustain this argument, but at the price I think of not being taken very seriously any more.

Also you have to pretend that all the jazz, blues and country forms were invented ex nihilo in the twentieth century, which is much less credible. They had music halls and vaudeville houses in the 1850s and they weren’t playing jazz, blues or country, but they were clearly influential in the South, among other places.


Righteous Bubba 03.11.08 at 11:29 pm

Previous musical generations tended to beat on the sides of a pianoforte, whereas in the 20th century the “keys” were discovered by innovative New Orleans musicians blazing new trails.


notsneaky 03.11.08 at 11:36 pm

Well, no, I didn’t claim Cole Porter’s songs were “originally” from the South, or anybody else’s for that matter. I claimed jazz was “originally” from the South which is an altogether different thing.

And yes, there is the whole pile of sand problem in this. There were music halls and vaudeville’s in 1850’s and then there was jazz in the 20th century. But even though it wasn’t invented ex nihilo at some point the grains of sand did have to turn into a sand pile.


dsquared 03.12.08 at 12:31 am

Well, no, I didn’t claim Cole Porter’s songs were “originally” from the South

well then you’re implicitly claiming that either they weren’t written in the twentieth century or they weren’t great music. C’mon, don’t get soft on me man.

By the way, the official position of CT (by which I mean the iron line which all contributors have to adhere to, as spotted by perceptive commenters like john m) is now that we have to respect and acknowledge the validity of all aspects of Southern white culture except for their belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ. I am not 100% sure how well this is going to sell to be honest, but let’s give it the old college try, as they say at Kent State.


notsneaky 03.12.08 at 4:09 am

His songs were from Midwest/New York. And I’m claiming the genre they were a part of does not have worldwide popular appeal in the same way as other genres.

And it’s cool to not respect the Southerner’s faith in the divinity of JC, as long as you respect all the great songs that were written about it. Which I guess means a kind of a respect for the cultural faith in the divinity of JC of Southerners. So the official CT position still needs to be tweaked a bit.


dsquared 03.12.08 at 6:20 am

And I’m claiming the genre they were a part of does not have worldwide popular appeal in the same way as other genres.

You’re claiming that the Broadway musical was a local taste that never really took off?


notsneaky 03.12.08 at 6:43 am

It’s similar as with Bob Marley and reggae. There’s a few of’em that have worldwide recognition but the genre as a whole doesn’t.


dsquared 03.12.08 at 8:06 am

You’re off your cake mate. Name me a city where Phantom of the Opera didn’t play to packed houses. And that’s a pale imitation of the genuine classics of the genre, fifty years after the peak of its popularity.


notsneaky 03.12.08 at 8:36 am

Alright. First “Broadway Musical” isn’t a musical genre, it’s a genre of a stage show, unless you think Jesus Christ Superstar, West Side Story, Dolly and The Lion King are in the same “genre”. Second, so what if PoO played to packed houses? I’m sure Pavarotti sold out shows as well but that doesn’t mean that opera is as universal as rock n roll. Hell, I’m sure there are plenty of Zydeco bands neither me nor you’ve ever heard of who “play to packed houses” (of a given size). Third, PoO played to packed houses in certain places and with certain people. People in rural Moldova didn’t see it (though they might’ve given the opportunity out of sheer curiosity and novelty aspect – the latter being sort of the point) but they still listen to rock n roll and to a lesser extent jazz and blues.


Dave 03.12.08 at 7:20 pm

[cue Monty Python] Is this the room for an argument…?


yehiel 03.13.08 at 3:59 am

jazz, blues, etc are absolutely not ‘all over’ india. just over a very small section of the rich urban populace. but bollywood and those horrid tamil-pop songs absolutely are. and they are absolutely based in raag/ragam and have very little to do with the american south except very very superficially. maybe the same case can be made for china (SE asia, africa, arab countries) too but i’m on less firm ground there. local pop varieties are way more popular at least in asia (SE, arab countries, iran etc) than any rock/jazz/blues except for a few very obvious pieces.

as for the piece. prejudice cuts both ways. or else why would someone’s hairdo(n’t) offend anyone? good will and grassroots action may be able to change it (prejudice) somewhat but it has been and is being exploited to great political profit by everyone so i can’t see it ever stopping.


Roy Belmont 03.13.08 at 8:16 pm

#136:“…serious issue, for example, with the (more or less unconscious) modernist metaphysics that the world is ‘made’ of passive inert stuff, reducible to particles, subject to ‘laws.'”
Actually that’s just late 19th/early20th c. physics. Professor David Deutsch, no slouch on the physics tip in his own write, is convinced and pretty convincing that there are many “other worlds” than this one. In their own universes.
He spreads it out as a kind of linear and parallel thing, but obviously if you have other worlds and universes especially many of them, you can easily have a meta-organization to which all those worlds belong. Must have, pretty much. And then there’s lots of room in that larger picture for all kinds of beings, divine or otherwise. Because its boundaries are infinite, or nearly so.
Those reduced-to “particles” are just the places where the antique instruments began to lose their resolution, bestowing an inaccurate and opportunistic finality on what they found.
“Quarks! The final particles!”
“Whoops! There’s more!”
And more and more, because it’s as infinite, or nearly so, down there, as it is above and beyond.
An assumption in many of the main critiques of religion, and in things like the rejection of telepathy by people like The Amazing Randi et al. is there’s nothing outside the laboratory but noise.
And since there are no such things anyway critics feel they have no responsibility to conjecture pre-existing conflict around them, resistance – opposition to the public explication.
No tension other than between scoffing and credulity.
If telepathy is a real capability in human beings it’s probably been around a long time, and probably developed into and among groups of the like-minded, behaving the way contraband economies or repressed sexual minorities do, and the lack of mainstream verifiability and examples may have more to do with occult business practices and weaponization than dipshit chimeras and delusional fantasies.
The Scots especially, and Gaels generally, have a long tradition of second-sight and prophetic dream, Native Americans as well. Polynesian kava-visions recorded the Europeans coming before it happened. No accident perhaps these cultures were broken violently.
The facts and hypotheses we’re getting now from the front lines of physics seem as weird and counter-intuitive as anything analog or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction ever carried. It doesn’t take much more than an open mind to project that weird wonderfulness into some kind of much bigger than human reality, with much bigger than human players working in it. The Matrix being only one fairly mundane example.
Not that I’m saying that’s exactly what’s up, but the anally-clenched rationalism that refutes the childish beliefs of the religious won’t stand up to the blowback from its own team’s illuminations. There’s either other dimensions out there, or there’s something even stranger. No going back to the Edenic world of simple things.
The rationalists demand reasons to alter their views, which makes sense, as does the reliance on faith by believers. The conflict’s really about survival isn’t it? Or is that a diversion?
Faith abets the surviving of the faithful, as sceptical reason abets its adherents.
What everyone wants is insurance against being scammed. My personal experience is that the louder and more obvious sellers of that insurance are generally scammers themselves, and make dubious allies at best.
There’s something tender and open in the public faith of people like Lindsey. Something vulnerable that gets chopped up in the jaws of logic. Even though I don’t believe her view of things is accurate enough as it stands, I’ll insist it’s no more inaccurate than most rationalist worldviews. Just less rational, which you’d expect.
Rationalism gets its eminence from its immediate utility, and that gets reinforced in an educational system that makes it central to success, which constantly rewards logical patterning in the young, and all too often discourages and trivializes the intuitive and imaginative. By the time most of us get out of university the primacy of rational thought is asseverated like dogma, it’s in the air we breathe, even though most of our experience and behavior most of the time has little to do with conscious logic.
In the Church of Logical and Rational Positivity, as with any system of tenuous and unsupported beliefs, heresy gets met with scorn and violent denunciation, and given enough political strength, outright persecution.
Calls for humility and tolerance become brave in that context.


Roy Belmont 03.13.08 at 8:17 pm

wrong thread sorry

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