Not too many years ago, trailblazing reality TV was strangling the soul of this nation. Shows like Big Brother and Survivor 1 subjected ordinary Americans to trials and humiliations only dreamed of by such dystopian writers as George Orwell and Sherwood Schwartz; and they were roundly denounced, by both TV critics and the opinion-making press, for leading an exploitative, voyeuristic race to the bottom. The tone of such critiques tended to be somewhat leftish, expressing shock at the indignities to which people would subject themselves in tribute to unchained capitalism.
There's a new blight on the culture, but this time the objections are coming largely from the right side of the echo chamber. "In the land of 'hate' crimes, affirmative action, diversity and multiculturalism, it's still OK to revile Southerners," Orlando Sentinel columnist Kathleen Parker fumes about CBS's Real Beverly Hillbillies. A Washington Post article on the show mentions unnamed "Southerners" who double as CBS executives and are secretly irate about the program. Most vehement of all is National Review's Rod Dreher, who condemns CBS for mocking "the only ethnic group in the country that it is permissible to mock in polite company."
These critics—whose complaints eerily recall the pans that greeted the original Beverly Hillbillies—recognize the secret agenda behind a CBS program that will take a family of "real" hicks and move them into a mansion in Beverly Hills for one year, closely videotaping the wackiness that is bound to ensue. Parker throws down the Word Moses-style: "One truth that can't be ignored is that we enlightened 21st century Americans would never permit such blatant denigration of any other group." Instead of seeking out Yell County yokels to move into a Beverly Hills mansion for a year, Dreher wonders, why didn't CBS seek stooges in "the Bronx, Compton, and the south side of Chicago?" What can be the purpose, if not to mock folks "who tend to own guns, believe in God, love their country and vote Republican?"
You might not know from these objections that fake concern for the feelings of Appalachians is one topic on which left and right agree—witness Rev. Jesse Jackson's attempts to uplift the tire swing set. More conveniently, the arguments against the new Hillbillies skip quite a bit of CBS history. The latest instantiation of the fish-out-of-water franchise may partake of Sharon Osbourne's revitalized reality genre, but is it really a departure from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air or the Tiffany Network's own The Jeffersons, which famously moved poor black folk into whitey's most rarefied neighborhoods? Dreher, who avails himself of the opportunity to use the n-word twice in just one article, could even take heart from the number of black people who really do own palaces in LA's best neighborhoods—not least among them formerly Fresh Prince Will Smith. (Sadly, one-time Smith sidekick Jazzy Jeff has to make do with a guest house at the Spahn Ranch.)
If poor white southerners truly comprise the last "ethnic group" that can be disparaged with impunity—and in recent months we've heard the same claim made about Arabs, Italians, Catholics and Muslims, among others—perhaps it's due to a sneaking suspicion that they don't have any excuse for being poor. The same pundits now defending the Clampetts also argue that poor black people—whose neighborhoods are targeted by the War On Drugs and whose most frequent reality TV spots involve being beaten by police—don't have any business complaining about their lot in America. Why should any extra consideration be given to low-born southerners—a group so oppressed that it recently furnished America with a two-term president?
As for the lucky hillbillies who will get to spend a free year in a luxurious pad in the hills, they will in fact be people who volunteered for the experiment. (Not that this will prevent us from, in Parker's breathless, deathless phrase, "[observing] these pathetic people making fools of themselves, like Romans watching enslaved gladiators who also happen to be amputees.") And more power to them. Rather than waiting for Jesse Jackson to bridge the digital divide, or President Bush's steel tariffs to touch off a light industry boom west of the Allegheny Mountains, they're partaking of America's greatest, proudest tradition. They're movin' on up.