What will Der Spiegel’s German readers make of Kevin Rudd’s dispute with comedian Robin Williams? In an interview with David Letterman Williams jokingly said that Australians were "basically English rednecks". And in a later radio interview the PM hit back (video). But the Germans don’t have a word for ‘rednecks.’ So in Der Spiegel, Williams is calling us proleten or ‘proles’ — a word that doesn’t have quite the same connotations. Even native English speakers can run into this kind of problem with slang terms. Try explaining what Williams meant without using the word ‘rednecks’.
Is it about class?
Proleten can be translated as ‘peasants’ or ‘proletarians’. So in a strict dictionary sense it’s about social class. And that captures at least part of the meaning of the American word ‘redneck’. For example, in his 1893 book Some peculiarities of speech in Mississippi, Hubert Shands wrote:
Red-neck (red-nek). A name applied by the better class of people to the poorer inhabitants of the rural districts. The word explains itself : men who work in the field, as a matter of course, generally have their skin burned red by the sun, and especially is this true of the back of their necks.
But if that was all there was to say about the meaning of ‘redneck’ it would be odd for the PM to object. After all, Rudd makes no secret of his own working class, rural origins. As a child he grew up on a share farm in rural Queensland. He told Julia Baird that he didn’t recall wearing shoes too often. When he was 11 his father died as the result of a car accident and the family was evicted from their home. He remembers that "being evicted actually was the harder bit because we were share farmers, we didn’t own the property so bury Dad one day and get tossed off the property virtually the next with nowhere to go and no assets because you don’t own a house if you’re a share farmer either."
It’s hard to have a blazingly red neck unless you’re white. According to Merriam Webster’s, a ‘redneck is "a white member of the Southern rural laboring class". The stereotypical redneck has English, Scottish or Irish ancestors. Although poor and often landless, rednecks are members of the dominant ethnic group.
In his book on speech in Mississippi, Shands lists another term for poor whites:
Po’ white trash. The common name given by the negro to poor white people, whom he holds in utter scorn and detestation. Members of the colored race have frequently said to me : "Dem po’ white trash don’t know how to treat we niggers, and we all hates ’em like snakes."
Not only does this hint at the racism of poor whites in the American South, but it suggests that even those at the bottom of America’s status hierarchy saw the poorest whites as worthless. In 1833, Frances Butler wrote in her journal:
In the south there are no servants but blacks ; for the greater proportion of domestics being slaves, all species of servitude whatever is looked upon as a degradation ; and the slaves themselves entertain the very highest contempt for white servants, whom they designate as "poor white trash."
Despite the advantages of race and ethnicity, these poor whites had failed to get ahead. And this is an enduring part of the redneck stereotype. While prejudice might hold back blacks and recent migrants, the rednecks are seen as having no excuse for their low status. Their poverty is seen as entirely their own fault.
A culture of poverty?
The MacMillan Dictionary defines redneck as "a working-class white person from the southern US, especially one who is not educated and does not like people who are not white". According to the stereotype, lack of education is the chief reason rednecks remain poor.
Not only are rednecks seen as lacking in education, but they are seen as not placing any value on it. They live in a ‘culture of poverty’ where disadvantage is passed on from parents to children. In the 1950s, Northern cities like Detroit and Chicago saw a wave of immigrants from the South. Less educated Southern whites were often called ‘hillbillies’ (although strictly speaking, the term ‘hillbilly’ is restricted to those who come from mountainous areas like the Appalachians and Ozarks). Writing in Harpers Magazine in 1958, Albert Votaw described the living conditions of hillbilly migrants in Chicago:
Settling in deteriorating neighborhoods where they can stick with their own kind, they live as much as they can the way they lived back home. Often removing window screens, they sit half-dressed where it is cooler, and dispose of garbage the quickest way. Their own dress is casual and their children’s worse. Their housekeeping is easy to the point of disorder, and they congregate in the evening on front porches and steps, where they find time for the sort of motionless relaxation that infuriates bustling city people.
Their children play freely anywhere, without supervision. Fences and hedges break down; lawns go back to dirt. On the crowded city streets, children are unsafe, and their parents seem oblivious. Even more, when it comes to sex training, their habits — with respect to such matters as incest and statutory rape — are clearly at variance with urban legal requirements, and parents fail to appreciate the interest authorities take in their sex life.
Negative attitudes to poor Southern migrants were common in big American cities. West Virginian bluegrass musician Hazel Dickens arrived in Baltimore in the 1950s: "I remember people like me walking up and down the street looking for apartments", she says, "I saw one sign that said, NO DOGS OR HILLBILLIES."
In his 1968 book The New Language of Politics, William Safire defines a ‘redneck’ as: "A bigoted rural white, especially Southern; used as an attack word on all Southern conservatives or segregationists" (p 561). He explains that the label is "descriptive of what the speaker thinks is ignorant, rustic, anti-Negro, and anti-Northerner."
As early as 1891 poor rural whites were taking back the derogatory label ‘redneck’ and wearing it with pride. The post-civil war South saw a rift between poor ‘rednecks’ wealthy ‘bourbons‘ on the issue of the franchise. Bourbon Democrats sought to disenfranchise black and poor white voters through property tests, literacy tests and poll taxes. Populists fought back. A letter published in the Pontotoc Democrat on August 13 urges rural whites to vote in an upcoming state election (pdf):
Primary on the 25th.
And the "rednecks" will be there.
And the "Yaller-heels" will be there, also.
And the "hayseeds" and "gray dillers," they’ll be there, too.
In the same way, today some of the South’s rural poor and their descendants are proud of being rednecks. They see it as a lifestyle choice and emphasise the label’s connotations of poverty rather than those of racism. For example, country music singer Gretchen Wilson grew up in a trailer park and dropped out of school when she was 15. In 2004 she had a hit with an ode to the redneck life — ‘Redneck Woman‘:
Well their stuff’s real nice
Oh but I can buy the same damn thing on a Wal*Mart shelf half price
There’s a whole segment of the population with a mentality that bases good times on where they can go and what they can buy … You’ve got another segment that’s a lot bigger (whose) priorities are more about friends and families and what they can do to have some fun, based on [a] limited budget.
For a long time, because it goes against the message that the advertising world sends to you, they were ashamed they didn’t have the coolest clothes, the coolest cars, couldn’t afford to go here, buy this and do that. I think we finally all got together and went, ‘You know what? We like being this way.’
New York state born singer John Karl styles himself as a "Yankee redneck". In his song ‘Redneck Rich Hillbilly Happy‘ he sings about being "Dirt poor proud" and brags that "we ain’t got much but we got enough". For some Americans being a redneck means embracing a lifestyle where money and education don’t matter as much as friends, family and whoopin’ it up on Saturday night (video).
And maybe this is the sense of the word Robin Williams had in mind when he used the term. Responding to Kevin Rudd’s comments he said: "Mr Rudd I apologise it’s linguistics I would like to modify my terminology and say English Good Old Boy." (He also mentioned that he’d love to visit a strip club with the PM.)
As for accusations of racism, most of today’s self-styled rednecks deny that bigotry has anything to do with their identity. "I’ve never associated being a redneck with racism", says Gretchen Wilson, but goes on to concede that some of the older generation were a bit "ignorant". From this point of view, hostility towards rednecks and their way of life is interpreted as snobbery. It’s about more educated, better off people looking down on those who don’t share their ambitions and pretensions. And as UC Berkeley linguist Nunberg suggests, this is why the label is so attractive to conservatives who portray their opponents as snooty members of an over-educated, urban elite.
As in the 19th century, politicians continue to appeal to Southerners by reminding them that their political opponents think of them as rednecks. According to Nunberg:
… modern conservatives never tire of contrasting their own solidarity with Southerners and rural Americans with the disdain that liberals have for them. In fact the word redneck is about twenty times more likely to appear in the pages of conservative publications like National Review than in the Nation or the American Prospect, chiefly because conservatives are fond of setting the word in the mouths of imaginary left-wing elitists in the course of reminding the good people of the heartland how much contempt liberals have for them (p 81-82).
Today’s liberals typically emphasise education and healthy living. But the redneck lifestyle is defiantly lower class. It’s about drinking and smoking and eating large quantities of fried and barbecued food. And TV, rather than books or newspapers, is the medium of choice.
Although German has no direct counterpart for ‘redneck’, Der Spiegel’s readers also worry about their lower classes — the proleten and Hinterwäldlern. In an article titled ‘Die neuen Proleten‘ (‘The new Proletarians’), Gabor Steingart argues that the ‘new proletarians’ or ‘underclass’ are deprived because of their behaviour rather than their lack of income:
… what stand out are the symptoms of intellectual neglect. The poor of today watch television for half the day. These days, television producers even refer to what they call "Underclass TV." The new proletariat eats a lot of fatty foods and he enjoys smoking and drinking — a lot. About 8 percent of Germans consume 40 percent of all the alcohol sold in the country. While he may be a family man, his families are often broken. And on Election Day, he casts a protest vote for the extreme left or right wing party, sometimes switching quickly from one to the other.
But the main thing that sets the modern poor apart from the industrial age pauper is a sheer lack of interest in education. Today’s proletariat has little education and no interest in obtaining more. Back in the early days of industrialization, the poor joined worker associations that often doubled as educational associations. The modern member of the underclass, by contrast, has completely shunned personal betterment.
He likewise makes little effort to open the door to the future for his own children. Their language skills are as bad as their ability to concentrate. The rising rate of illiteracy is matched by the shrinking opportunities to integrate the underclass. The Americans, not ones to mince words, call them "white trash."
Even in the German language text of this article "white trash" is written as "white trash". Steingart’s account of the ‘new proletariat’ has a similar tone to Albert Votaw’s account of Chicago’s hillbillies. Neither writer seems at all worried about offending the people they are writing about.