Streetwise Professor

March 10, 2018

The FT Recycles a 19th Century Stereotyping Image to Convey the Same Stereotype in the 21st

Filed under: Guns,History,Politics — The Professor @ 6:32 pm

It is very telling that the FT chose an iconic photograph of the Hatfields to illustrate its latest act of cultural condescension.  In doing so, it is repeating a stereotyping meme for the exact reason that the meme developed in the late-19th century.

The Hatfield-McCoy feud achieved national prominence, and became the archetypal mountain feud of the 19th century.  The story resonates to this day: in 2012 Kevin Costner starred in a History Channel miniseries on the feud, and there are well over 100 books about the feud on Amazon.

Why did this episode in the West Virginia-Kentucky backwoods attract such attention? The intense coverage was largely a product of the growing urbanization of America, and the conscious and unconscious desire to distance a modernizing country from its rugged pioneer past. East Coast newspapers covered the feud for years, and portrayed the protagonists as backwards reprobates. The Hatfields and McCoys were foils for an urbanizing nation: see how different we are from those hillbillies!

This is why there are so many photographs of the Hatfields in particular, and why they were posed with guns–this is the image that coastal elite wanted to see, and how they wanted to portray the kind of people whom had once been viewed as ideal Americans–think Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, who were viewed and portrayed as rugged pioneering mountain men blazing new frontiers for freedom. But in the late-19th century press they were transformed into ominous, dangerous throwbacks.

Which is exactly the message conveyed in the FT oped, and which is exactly why that image was chosen.  So the FT doesn’t even score points for originality. They are just recycling a century-plus old slur, to serve a similar purpose.

Lost in the lurid coverage was the fact that a driving force behind the conflict–and in particular its persistence–was a battle for control over timber rights in West Virginia. The Hatfields in particular were trying to resist the inroads of large timber and coal companies, and the McCoys were to a large extent their somewhat witting, somewhat unwitting accomplices.

Another meme that resonated around the same time was the battle between moonshiners and “revenuers,” which also received considerable media attention. The message was pretty much the same: backwards backwoodsmen resisting order and progress. Untamed anarchy vs. social control exercised by progressive forces embodied in government. (This was a meme in the Whiskey Rebellion too.)  Wild borderers vs. civilization.

Again, there is little new under the sun. Political battles and the tactics employed therein may appear to be different, but they are often merely echoes or mutations of conflicts that have been raging for centuries. The FT’s use of a long-ago image that gained prominence because it conveyed a political and sociological message to frame a story about a modern political controversy intended to convey a very similar political and sociological message demonstrates that perfectly.

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  1. I’ve been interested in the American picture of the “Scots-Irish” ever since I first came across it. That picture is that they are ignorant, education-hating, violent people, and the cause is that they are descended from people of that same type who had been barbarised by living near the Scottish/English border or in Ulster.

    But the descendants in Britain of that mob – basically Lowland Scots and Ulster Protestants – have a rather different reputation. They are famously more interested in education than, for instance, the English, have produced more top grade than any other people of comparable numbers that spring to mind, bar the Ashkenazi Jews, and are over-represented in professions such as medicine, accountancy, engineering, and so on. I can still remember enjoying In my youth an article in the Daily Telegraph, a then-respectable newspaper with a weakness however for English nationalism, as it went through intellectual contortions to try to explain away the fact that IQ testing of schoolchildren gave the Scots a slight lead over the English. Very droll.

    Why the contrast?

    One possibility is that it was the worst of the Scots-Irish who emigrated to the North American colonies; it might well be that simple. But what other explanations suggest themselves?

    Comment by dearieme — March 11, 2018 @ 6:43 am

  2. @dearieme–Interesting contrast. I don’t have an answer. I’ll give it some thought.

    Ironically, the Hatfields were not Scots-Irish. Solid English stock. Came to the colonies in the mid-1700s.

    Comment by The Professor — March 11, 2018 @ 12:27 pm

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