Posted on August 25, 2023

The Poor (White) Men South of Richmond

Gregory Hood, American Renaissance, August 25, 2023

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Rich Men North of Richmond” by previously unknown singer Oliver Anthony debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 this week. Listeners streamed it 17.5 million times and bought 147,000 downloads in the tracking week ending August 17. Mr. Anthony wasn’t with any major label; he’s gone from a few hundred dollars in weekly royalties to more than $350,000 in one week.

The song’s rise was greatly assisted by conservatives on X (formerly Twitter), most notably, influencer Jack Posobiec, The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh, and black Christian Jason Whitlock. Still, the song would not have caught on if people didn’t organically take to its message. Right-of-center memes and content seem to spread more quickly since Elon Musk took over, though white advocates mostly remain banned and explicit pro-white content seems muzzled. The episode, however, is a reminder of the way culture can change if speech remains even partially free.

The song has benefitted from conservative media, and its critics know this. Press coverage of a song or movie is suspicious or even hostile if the wrong people (conservative whites) are watching and listening.

The New York Times says:

The song’s populism unmistakably leans rightward, resulting in an original track perfectly primed for a hyperpolarized moment when conservatives perceive themselves as embattled and politics unrelentingly washes into every other aspect of culture, be it sports, movies or pop music.

The Times even ties the song to the successful anti-child-trafficking film Sound of Freedom, which was “championed by conservative politicians, including Donald J. Trump, while its star sometimes promoted Qanon conspiracy theories.” (The press seems strangely defensive about the movie.)

Just after the song took off, Rolling Stone called it a “right wing country anthem” and said that “right-wing influencers just found their favorite new country song.” The song, it said, “wades into some Reagan-era talking points about welfare.”

Variety concedes that Oliver Anthony himself says he is nonpartisan, but adds:

[I]f an artist is known by the fans they keep, the highest-profile fans Anthony has quickly accumulated are very much on the right side of the aisle — insta-supporters like former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, firebrand commentator Matt Walsh, former Mumford & Sons banjoist-turned-political gadfly Winston Marshall and far-right country figure John Rich, who said he has had long conversations with Anthony and offered to produce and finance a full album. If Anthony wants to prove the centrism he professes by picking up some less partisan public figures as fans, he may have his work cut out for him, given the way he’s instantly been embraced as a hero to the right.

Such pressure may have already had the desired effect, because Mr. Anthony recently made the usual paean to diversity. “We are the melting pot of the world,” he told an interviewer after a concert in Moyock, North Carolina, on August 19. “And that’s what makes us strong, our diversity. And we need to learn to harness that and appreciate it and not use it as a political tool to keep everyone separate from it.”

The vague sense that elites are artificially dividing us to distract from our real interests is a staple both of classical Marxism and what passes for modern conservatism.

Many white conservatives believe (or at least want to believe) that blacks and whites have common interests and that racial conflicts are being invented or exaggerated. Many black conservatives have built lucrative careers by telling whites what they want to hear and thereby soothing racial guilt. Some blacks must feel embarrassed about white conservatives’ desperation to prove they are not racist.

Whites within the mainstream conservative movement try to throttle collective white identity. They tell their audience that “collectivism” is the problem, that anyone can become an American if he believes the right things, and that modern conservatives are the true heirs of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. White advocates can debunk this or even rage against it, but these myths have fully captured many conservatives, which is why every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a festival of historical ignorance and humiliation.

Mr. Anthony says Hank Williams, Jr. is his biggest influence, but it’s unlikely we will see Hank, Jr.-type songs about the Confederacy. The turn against the “rich” fits with the conservative movement’s desire for a “multiracial workers’ party” motivated by vague populism.

Mr. Anthony’s claim that diversity is good but that someone is dividing us artificially is about as deep into social criticism as most people can get. The problem, as he suggests in his new song “Brink of War,” is “people just doing what the rich man say.” One can imagine leftists celebrating this, but getting uncomfortable about his adding that the problem is also people “just doing what the TV say.” This is the general problem leftists have with “Rich Men North of Richmond.” They like the idea of critiquing the rich, but they don’t want to hear exactly what “the rich” are doing.

Mr. Anthony’s diversity comments are disappointing, but it’s naïve to expect too much from him. He has soared from obscurity to fame in days, and he’s a songwriter, not a political philosopher. Besides, though he undoubtedly means well, the usual suspects are regarding him with barely concealed contempt. After an initial delay, seemingly in shock at what was happening, the media have taken a scolding, contemptuous tone toward his song, analyzing its lyrics in a way rarely, if ever, done with rap music.

The song contains the lines “Lord, we got folks in the street / Ain’t got nothin’ to eat / And the obese milkin’ welfare” and “But God if you’re five foot three / And you’re three hundred pounds / Taxes ought not to pay / For your bags of fudge rounds.”

The British National World website says the lyrics have been “criticised as fatphobic rhetoric” and have “also been described as perpetrating the ‘welfare queen’ stereotype . . . to describe and stigmatise black, single mothers in this situation.”

Presumably, we can attack the “rich,” but we can’t criticize welfare cheats because black, single mothers, though not named, might feel insulted. Another lyric wishes that politicians would “look out for miners, and not just minors on an island somewhere.” The article declares that “this line is one which likens itself to the unfounded Qanon conspiracy theories that child abuse is widespread throughout the elites and condoned by liberals.” The line is obviously about Jeffrey Epstein, not Qanon.

Help! Is my new favourite song a right-wing anthem?” reads a Sydney Morning Herald article from August 23. The article is a struggle session the reporter is having with himself, as he agonizes over whether parts of the song are “alt-right.” (What an exhausting way to live.) He initially likes that the song attacks the rich, which is good, but not that it mentions Jeffrey Epstein, a reference he finds “strange.” He concludes with a silly call for a return to a time when “country music was all broken hearts and beer.”

Others have complained that Mr. Anthony is picking on the wrong targets when he sings about welfare fraud. Hasan Piker, another YouTube-hosted “socialist” who never needs to worry about opposition from Big Tech, snickers about the loss of coal-mining jobs and says Mr. Anthony shouldn’t criticize other poor people, no doubt including welfare queens. The focus must be kept entirely on “the rich,” presumably excluding himself. (Mr. Piker bought a $2.74-million mansion in West Hollywood with the money he made streaming; something tells me he’ll never need to worry about ”the rich” deplatforming him.)

Greg Sargent at the Washington Post makes the same case. The right wing, he claims, “seeks to turn people against taxing the rich, social spending and government regulations designed to protect the public and mitigate inequality.”

Eric Levitz of New York magazine agonizes over whether to “treat writers of reactionary folk songs with contempt” before concluding that Mr. Anthony isn’t even responsible for his views:

Today, white working-class people in rural areas are far more likely to get their political information from Fox News and right-wing talk radio than from a trade union. Anthony’s song does a decent job of articulating the muddled ideology that arises from this circumstance. On the one hand, the white southern worker’s experience of exploitative working conditions often leaves a residue of class-based resentment. On the other hand, their socially conservative communities are attached to a political movement that is committed to perpetuating class inequality. The result is an incoherent form of populism that directs class resentment at targets that do not threaten the fundamental interests of rich men (whether they live north or south of Richmond).

Slate says Mr. Anthony “comes off as entirely sincere and genuinely angry” — angry at the rich men and at Jeffrey Epstein, which is good, but also angry at “the obese milkin’ welfare,” which is bad. “That’s a message with a whole lot of resonance for a whole lot of Americans, in the 1970s and today,” the article says. “And that kind of resentment isn’t anything to joke about.” It’s not. It is something to be angry about.

Leftist songwriter Billy Bragg issued a response blasting the rich. “Wouldn’t it be better for folks like you and me, if medicine was subsidized and healthcare was free?” he sings. Given space by The Guardian to criticize Mr. Anthony’s “divisive” song, he trots out a well known Marxist argument. The song is “a classic example of the divisive narrative that bosses have used to pit worker against worker . . . . If the poor are fighting one another over racial hierarchy or cultural grievance, their anger will be directed away from the people responsible for their plight — the rich who exploit those who work and abandon those in need.” He then praises Woody Guthrie.

If capitalists behaved the way Mr. Bragg’s says they do, he wouldn’t enjoy unlimited access to social media or have his essays published in prestige media such as Slate, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Independent, Yahoo, and other companies desperate to criticize an unknown man’s hit song. Stalinist shill Woody Guthrie might have trained all his rhetorical firepower on the rich and preached class war, but he spent his entire life defending a ruthless foreign elite responsible for untold human suffering. The fact that Bolsheviks occasionally muttered about poverty doesn’t change this and raises the question of whether Guthrie was stupid or deluded.

Woody Guthrie (Credit Image: © Circa Images/Glasshouse via ZUMA Wire)

In a New Statesman article, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes that “right-wing protest songs only benefit the wealthy and powerful.” Though Mr. Anthony has said “north of Richmond” is a direct reference to Washington, D.C., and explicitly denies it was an insult to Yankees, Mr. Zizek accuses him of being pro-Confederate. (If only.) At least Mr. Zizek understands the argument:

The new wave of rightist working-class protests and the “protect-the-minorities” corporate liberalism are not simply opposites: what they share is that they both avoid confronting the basic social antagonisms that characterise our era. While the rightist working-class protests do address actual problems that haunt many ordinary workers, they simultaneously portray the enemy as the “rich”, the corporate and state elites, and the “lazy” recipients of welfare. The struggle against racism and sexism is thus dismissed as a strategy of the elites to control workers . . . . We get here the old fascist idea of uniting workers and productive capital against the parasitic extremes of the elites and welfare-state recipients.

There’s a lot here, but Mr. Zizek then retreats and accuses a “downtrodden proletarian” of taking the side of “the rich in the class warfare.”

Anti-racist Tim Wise recycles those same arguments that the wealthy are the ones really oppressing the workers and that Mr. Anthony’s song makes a “gratuitous swipe towards the poor.” The problem is that we already know the murderous intent that Mr. Wise harbors towards whites, so we can ignore his appeal to empathy.

There’s no contradiction between blasting both social degeneracy and exploitative elites. The latter enable the former. We should ask Mr. Zizek whom the wealthy and powerful benefit with their money and their power. The problem is that “the rich men north of Richmond” almost seem eager to promote welfare dependence and even import foreigners to collect the welfare benefits Americans won’t.

Populism can best be described as a middle-class rebellion against the “high-low” alliance of elites and experts on the one hand, and a dependent class that provides social chaos and endless demands. This song resonates because it doesn’t just hammer the rich men but accuses them of wanting “total control.” And it isn’t just the rich men north of Richmond who want to “know what you think” and “know what you do.” So do journalists.

The song doesn’t mention race, but, of course,  people call it racist. In response, conservatives keep posting pictures and videos of black people liking the song. Liberals say that the rich are pitting poor people against each other and that they can detect secret racism in the lyrics; conservatives are trying to prove that they are not racist. Nothing changes in racial arguments between Democrats and Republicans.

National Review is the standard-bearer of movement conservatism, and if its opinion means anything, conservatives aren’t exactly welcoming Mr. Anthony’s message. In response to a country song about struggling workers, National Review says that anyone unhappy with his job should just find a new one. American men should just “ignore the corrosive effects of our politics and the popular culture and get on with living the good life: get a job, get married, raise your kids up right, get involved with your church, read good books, teach your boys to hunt, be present in the lives of your family and friends, help your neighbors.” The wholesale collapse of the culture, marriage, family formation, Christianity, and any meaningful community aren’t important; Ronald Reagan is still in the White House at National Review. It has learned nothing since Kevin Williamson said that “these dysfunctional, downscale communities deserve to die.”

Mr. Anthony is vocal about his faith, and you might think Christian leaders would be happy that a member of the flock is having such a big cultural impact. However, Christianity Today says the song “doesn’t love its neighbors” and fusses over “the plight of our food-insecure neighbors.” The magazine was far happier with the Barbie movie and Taylor Swift concerts, despite their promotion of transgenderism. One reason whites are so desperate and cling so tenaciously to anyone who even seems to be taking their side is because conservative and Christian leaders seem far more willing to accept the Left’s rules than defend their constituents and congregations. Even though Mr. Anthony doesn’t mention race or Christianity in the song, it’s not hard to see why whites, Southerners, conservatives, and Christians rally to it.

Deprived of leadership, whites, especially working-class whites and white Southerners, are desperate for a voice. Songs like this resonate because they identify, however imprecisely, reality, offering more than mere vague anti-elitism. The elites don’t just “divide” people; they incite the non-white poor against whites and preside over an endless campaign of media hostility against whites and Southerners in particular. The confusing “new world” in which whites are forced to exist, where their religion is mocked and their identity is considered wicked, is psychologically damaging, and many whites really do seem to want to disappear into a bottle. They really are under attack. Progressives have nothing to say to them.

Oliver Anthony performs at Eagle Creek Golf Club and Grill in Moyock, North Carolina, on Aug. 19, 2023. (Credit Image: © Kendall Warner/The Virginian-Pilot via ZUMA Press Wire)

White Americans shouldn’t have to abandon their national identity just to get a fair deal from what is supposed to be their government. The sentiments in the song aren’t pure logic: they are emotions that transcend ideology. The song says that “all this damn country does [to young men] is just keep kicking them down,” a line that hits hard, and yet many of the comments from supporters end with a patriotic slogan or “God Bless America.” There’s no contradiction here. In modern America, the system treats worst the people who love the country the most.

It’s easy to say you support workers, but it’s controversial if those workers are white. Modern progressivism has largely abandoned the white working class. At best, it demands that whites give up their racial, cultural, and religious identities and join an unwieldy Coalition of the Oppressed that will always put whites at the back of the progressive stack.

Efforts to “tax the rich” or “fight inequality” simply increase the burdens on whites and spawn new, less legitimate forms of hierarchy. The fact that elites claim they are working for the little guy doesn’t make it true, nor after decades of failure should whites listen to progressives’ excuses and alibis. Conservatives meanwhile seem indifferent to white workers. Organizations that once represented non-elite whites — from CMT to NASCAR — seem openly contemptuous of them. Though “Rich Men North of Richmond” and “Try That in a Small Town” have both been hits, there seems to be little effort by the country music industry to give fans what they want. In fact, “Rich Men North of Richmond” isn’t even being played often on country radio. Many country musicians seem to want to imitate conservative journalists, abandoning their roots and starting a new career critiquing where they came from. Country fans seem to be looking for someone who seems “authentic” and won’t abandon them.

It’s not that Mr. Anthony has consciously emerged as a musical voice for that group.  He’s been adopted by them. Perhaps his rise is artificial, but his reception is not. It would be nice if Mr. Anthony would listen to people like us and defend whites and especially Southerners. However, white advocates must first listen to him. White workers, especially in rural America, are our people. We need to have their backs, because no one else does. We also need to be honest about the real problems we face. That may not always make us popular, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves that Mr. Anthony is one of us, sympathizes with us, or even knows we exist. That said, he sees a crisis that is real. That makes him better than almost every other corporate “artist” (such as Billy Bragg). He’s a good start.