Public First Program


Shane Elson


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November 2006 # 3

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Hillbilly Dreams

Many years ago I was a great fan of a US TV program called “The Beverly Hillbillies”. The program was based around the premise that a “hillbilly” named Jed Clampett was, “out one day shootin’ at some food, when up from the ground came a bubblin’ crude. Oil that is. Black gold. Texas Tea”. As the title song says, “Well the first thing you know, ol’ Jed’s a millionaire … so he packed up the truck and said ‘we’re moving out of here.” As the song and the story line goes, Jed and his family moved to what was, and perhaps still is, the place of many American dreams, Hollywood. 

This was, on the surface, a story about simple and poor but good people, having a stroke of good luck who face the world with nothing more than grit and determination and always, always end up waving goodbye to us from their front porch with a smile on their faces having overcome the potential disasters of the episode. It was a classic ‘feel good’ story during the Cold War years. 

However, as I mentioned, this is only the surface story. The program could be watched, as I’m sure it was by most people, as a tale of how even the simplest people, because in Eastern America there was no simpler people than “hillbillies”, could rise above their status and enjoy the wealth good fortune had offered them yet still live the simple life. 

For instance, one of the plot devices used throughout the series was the Clampett family dress. They always dressed as they had when in the hills. In fact I think Jed wore the same battered suit in every episode while Jethro and Elly May wore jeans with string for a belt. Granny Clampett always wore hobnail boots and an apron, which designated her position as little more than domestic help. The reason I go into such detail to explain the story and the characters is to show how common everyday stereotypes are used to reinforce the status quo. 

When one considers that almost all of the viewers of this program would 1) never strike oil and become millionaires and 2) are not “hillbillies”, I think we need to ask how a program like this reinforces our own feelings of helplessness in the face of the existing system we call ‘capitalism’ and how that system, rather than assisting us to improve our life position, actually ensures that nothing really changes in the relationship between the ruling classes and the rest of us. 

The Clampetts, so the story goes, began with nothing. I think it is fair to say that most of us have very little other than those possessions and relationships we have laboured to obtain and maintain. In the story, the forces that were their adversaries were the same as our own – mendacious economic advisers; mindless boredom in the same old routines; shallow friendships based on what we could do for others and on the list goes. Yet, even though the Clampetts had acquired enormous wealth nothing really changed except the depth and scope of the problems around them. 

If we recognise this, then the only conclusion we can draw is that the “simple life” is far better than having to deal with the complexities of attempting to make a better life for ourselves and those we care for. This is, I believe, the myth that lies underneath the comedy that was “The Beverly Hillbillies”. I draw this conclusion by looking at what we encounter at every turn.  

The corporate media is replete with stories of danger and fear. The war on terror, to take one example, is positioned as a war against the ‘everyman’, the ‘simple’ man if you like. The war on terror is not a war against a real enemy, it is a war against the ideal that there should be equality and freedom and the right to practice ones religion or not without fear.  It is a war against the right to obtain the value of the wealth that your community expropriates from the land. It is a war against the will to improve the lot of yourself and those around you. In similar fashion, the war the Clampett family faced was the war of greed and avarice that encroached on their desire for a ‘simple life’. 

Their every turn was met with a new obstacle to overcome, a fear of losing what they had, of being deceived whether it be by a used car salesman or a banker trying to rip them off for his own enrichment. Don’t we face similar situations all the time? Don’t we find ourselves being impeded by the systems we are told are there to assist us? Don’t we sometimes fear that all we have worked for will be undone by a rapacious corporation that will repossess the car, the house, the dog or whatever if we are late with the payment? Don’t we fear, at least occasionally, that all we have worked for will come crashing down and we will end up living a life of poverty and destitution because of one silly mistake or miscalculation? 

What do we do when these thoughts overwhelm us? Don’t we retreat to what we consider safe and known? Don’t we withdraw and seek solace in the familiar and comfortable? There is nothing wrong with this. This is basic human nature and is nothing to be ashamed of. Unless! Unless this becomes our prime way of operating and addressing the world and those we encounter. What “The Beverly Hillbillies” program attempted to do was show that at the end of the day, you can’t ever really change anything so just get on with enjoying what you have and enjoy the ‘simple life’. 

The problem that is highlighted by “The Beverly Hillbillies” is that it reveals the fact that there must be struggle if we want to ensure a better life. However, what the program also revealed was that if the only thing we want to do is protect what we have or greedily grab for more, then we really have not achieved anything. 

I mentioned earlier that at the end of every episode the family would stand on their front porch and wave goodbye to us. What is worth mentioning is that they did this alone, in isolation. What I think this little plot device reveals is the real message of the program. That is, we are alone and at the end of the day nothing will really change and we should resolve ourselves to his fact because tomorrow will be no different so we had better get used to it. After all, this small plot device tells us, there is really nothing we can do to change the world for the better. We are alone and nothing we can do will prevent the world from progressing as it has for aeons. 

This raises my final question and one that I think is increasingly important. My question is, if all we want to do is maintain what we have at the expense of the rights of others, are we willing to endure the perpetual isolation and accompanying loneliness that this will entail? In short, in our haste to obtain the “simple life” will we forego engagement with the world around us and the potential that has to enrich us all. After all “The Beverly Hillbillies” was just a fantasy designed to lull us into a sense of helplessness and complacency. Surely there is more than living in fear of what lies beyond our front porch. One hopes that there is more than just striving to maintain only that which we know and failing to experience the real richness of the world around us. Perhaps if we are not willing to engage then the hills really are the best place for us.

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