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Amy Clark: Don't scapegoat Appalachia

Eric Rudolph's arrest lets media vent one of the last acceptable prejudices

Saturday, June 21, 2003

Eric Rudolph made national headlines when he was captured May 31 in the western North Carolina town of Murphy. But the story took a new twist when reporters heard some Murphy residents say they felt sorry for him.

Amy Clark, a native of Virginia, is a Ph.D. student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (bnrk@iup.edu)

Soon after his capture, a syndicated editorial cartoon by Stuart Carlson showed a potbellied male with one tooth, pointing to a bomb-laden Rudolph and saying, "Behold -- an American hero!!" Another cartoon showed two mountain men in a one-room shack offering refuge to Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Rudolph.

Television soon joined the party. "The Daily Show" on the Comedy Central channel ridiculed what they called the Appalachian region's paranoid assumption that they are helpless against the "larger forces conspiring against the white Christian male."

Apparently, some members of the media had all the proof they needed to assume that a few comments from members of the Murphy community were representative of the ideas of an entire state.

You might not feel the sting of stereotype when another state is being cast as a fool. However, if you happen to be living somewhere in the 900-mile stretch of Appalachia, it doesn't matter whether you live in North Carolina, Virginia or Western Pennsylvania.

When it comes to defending our dignity, we're all in this together. There is no justification for sympathy once someone is convicted of a crime as heinous as those for which Rudolph is charged. But those few Murphy residents aren't the first people who have taken sides with a fugitive. Consider the case of O.J. Simpson, who fled from police on a Los Angeles freeway to cheering throngs of bystanders holding signs that encouraged him to keep running. Simpson gained sympathy from plenty of people -- many of whom were from minority communities -- who suspected that he had been framed from the beginning because of his race.

Though they may have poked fun at the general population for doubting Simpson's guilt, I don't recall cartoons, columns, or television broadcasts that ridiculed the ethnicity of minorities who supported Simpson. Why? Because that would be media-sanctioned racism.

And yet Appalachians make up the last living minority that can be openly ridiculed without fear of retaliation. It isn't necessarily because Appalachia is largely populated with whites. This issue isn't race-based, but it has everything to do with class.

Our smaller communities depend on coal and agriculture and many are far removed from metropolitan areas. We're working-class people. Our ideas are largely conservative and our roots grow deep. We hold on to traditions and we value religion.

Our culture clashes with American assumptions about money, prestige, trends and a fast-paced society that won't slow down long enough to get the facts before jumping onto a bandwagon. After years of ridicule, who can blame our suspicions? If a distrust of government lingers, it is the result of years of environmental exploitation. We take nothing for granted, and many of us still grow our own gardens because we haven't forgotten the Depression. Does Murphy or the rest of Appalachia support domestic terrorism? The mere suggestion is as irresponsible and ignorant as racism.

But here's why I feel more pity than anger toward members of the media who continue to pull Appalachia out of the files when they need a scapegoat: They don't know us.

They never had the pleasure of sitting on my great-grandmother's front porch and listening to her stories until well after sundown. They've never been serenaded by katydids on a hot summer night or floated down a river that mirrors the hovering mountains.

They've never tasted my granny's blackberry jam or sat down to a country meal at a harvest table fashioned from the boards of an old home place. They've never heard haunting ballads wafting over hills or been to a church service that leaves your ears ringing with the spirit.

And they haven't met the rest of us, who believe in justice, not judgment.

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