The Enlightenment Philosophy of “Hillbilly Humanism”

Last week on my favorite radio show, On the Media, Nadine Hubbs appeared to talk about the scholarship on class, politics, and country music. On of the things she and the host discussed was the theme of “hillbilly humanism,” the persistent trend in country music that pays attention to the lives of lower-class and non-elite Americans, and insists on their “dignity” and their worthiness for “compassion,” as Hubbs writes in Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (76-78).

I took a brief detour into studying the politics of country music a few years ago—that research project is now on indefinite hiatus I suppose—and I’ve been thinking a great deal about humanism, so this gave me some food for thought. I haven’t read Hubbs’s book, so take any of my ruminations not as a questioning of any aspects of her book, but a way to frame some of my own thoughts in a new light offered by her brief appearance on the radio.

In short, I want to use this as an opportunity to play out the question of what humanism really means. Briefly, we can understand modern humanism (as opposed to that of classical antiquity) as a philosophy centered around the primacy of the individual, and the understanding of individuals as autonomous and rational beings. Humanism meant that people at the turn of the Enlightenment could understand the world around them, have some sort of sense of history or human development, and work to improve their own conditions.

Humanism (and its close cousin liberalism) derive from this understanding of autonomy and “free will” a particular conception of egalitarianism. This conception can best be understood as legal or political, but not social or material. Humanist egalitarianism simply says we are all equal in the sense that we have “natural rights” or that we are all “born free.” Or as Hubbs puts it when defining hillbilly humanism, “nobody’s better than anyone else.”

As an egalitarian philosophy, humanism forms the bases of thought systems that vary wildly. Liberalism, for example, understands our nature as free and equal beings as justification for contractarianism, or the premise that human relations—and thus societies and even hierarchies—are initiated by agreements between rational and consenting individuals. Socialism, on the other hand, might borrow from humanism the notion of egalitarianism in order to make the case for an equality of outcomes, trading in political or legal egalitarianism for social egalitarianism.

So where does country music fit into all of this? On the radio, Hubbs brought up some different examples of hillbilly humanism. One was “Redneck Woman” by Gretchen Wilson, which was a big radio hit. In “Redneck Woman,” Gretchen Wilson insists that she isn’t a “high class broad.” As a result, she claims, “some people look down on me,” even though she’s “just a product of [her] raisin’.” The song doesn’t reject white trash stereotypes as such, but more importantly, she insists on a cultural pluralism that sees drinking beer as just as good—if not better—than drinking “sweet champagne.” (I’m with Gretchen on this one.)

There is no doubt whatsoever that there is a dominant strain in American culture that sees poor whites as culturally deficient. As Nancy Isenberg has chronicled in White Trash, this strain has perpetuated systematic marginalization and exploitation of the poor. Wilson’s plea for “recognition,” to borrow a term from Nancy Fraser, is apparently an effort to combat such a culture, and it does so on the grounds of the sort that liberal humanist forefather John Locke used to emphasize the importance of tolerance.

But tolerance only gets us so far, as Wendy Brown brilliantly argues. The radical political formations of the last couple of centuries have sought to move beyond calls for “dignity” and towards calls for power and solidarity. Hillbilly humanists, on the other hand, might understand itself as the “working class” as defined by relative material social positions, but not in terms of a political consciousness or formation. It’s most likely, however, that hillbilly as a class is tacitly defined among mainstream country music by a cultural orientation. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a cultural conception of class. I argued just a few posts back that, as poststructural thinkers from Hall on down have posited, solidarity can be fostered in identities beyond those strictly associated with labor. I think you still need a post-liberal, post-humanist kind of epistemic frame though.

A shift to such a thing is necessary to find a political resolution for Hubbs’s observation in Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music of what other commentators have seen as a paradox: that “white working-class voters” revealed a humanist “moral counter-ideology” in their support for George W. Bush over John Kerry (78). Such a phenomenon was of course apparent in relation to the presidential race of 2016, although it should be said the role of poor and “working class” whites has been overstated.

This is all tricky business. Humanism offers great promise. It forms the basis of our understandings of human rights. Yet from a perspective of posthumanism, we might argue that liberal humanism is necessarily against social egalitarianism. Once you presume individuals are autonomous free-thinkers and actors, that they have have “free will” in the liberal sense of the phrase, social egalitarianism—that is, social justice—appears to violate the premise of contractarianism, the idea that individuals have the rationality and the free will to determine their own social relations.

I want to be clear here. That there are limits to humanism doesn’t negate the legitimacy of country music as a genre. Personally, I take enormous pleasure from listening to country music old and new: from Hank Williams, to Dwight Yoakam, to Sturgill Simpson. Further, we can find the limits of liberal humanism in other genres too. Consider Jefferson Cowie’s excellent work in Staying Alive in analyzing the appeal of and limits to the rock music of the late seventies, that which identified the era’s alienation much as country does, while also looking to individual will and expression for salvation. If country music fetishizes a solitary, rebellious working class loner, so does the music of Bruce Springsteen.

And I think one can find in the margins of hillbilly humanism a more progressive humanism, or even one with an antihumanist bent. Consider one of my favorite Dwight Yoakam songs, “Readin’ Rightin’ Route 23.” The song avoids the didacticism of others that insist on egalitarianism, or worse, milquetoast brands of tolerance—see the Brad Paisley and LL Cool J duet from a few years back—and instead does what country arguably does best: narrates situations with empathy. Notably there’s no bluster or pride in Yoakam’s song (contra “Redneck Woman”), it’s simply about the limits of freedom under liberal modernity.

In pointing out the limits of hillbilly humanism, I only mean to point out that liberal humanism seeps into the language that we use to talk about politics in funny ways. Movements for social justice—the civil rights movement, or the labor movement, for example—are rarely simply about dignity, compassion, or tolerance. They’re about power. When humanism defines the limits of our political imaginations, we don’t have to stop experiencing humanist art—try to get me to give up my Springsteen collection—but we do need to be conscious of its epistemic effects.