I find this interesting because of John Green’s commentary on so-called “hill people.” It’s difficult, as Green says, to talk about “civilzations” in any sort of detailed analysis because the term is very loaded, comes equipped with societal judgments, and is not entirely based in reality.
However, I was intrigued by the theory that “hill people,” as they are called by historian James Scott, were not attracted to or abandoned by civilizations but rather formed as alternatives to agricultural states and their many downsides, including taxes, subjugation, and conscription. Additionally, fleeing for the hills tends to be a safe, sustainable, and more or less successful response to the droughts and wars and plagues that hound what we think of as traditional states.
It’s quite glamorous to think of hill cultures as the last sentinels of true liberty, championing freedom on the fringes of civilizations, but I think the fact that it sounds glamorous is a warning sign. We tend to try to tell stories when we look at history; that’s only natural, as we are a species driven and shaped by stories. We live in narratives of our own making. But we make a mistake when we try applying narratives to history. We assign good guys and bad guys, and we make judgment calls on who was in the right and who was in the wrong, and whether one people group’s culture is more or less valuable than another’s. It’s just an inevitable side effect of storytelling, no matter how the story is turned on its head.
I have been mulling over this idea of hill people making a conscious choice to avoid civilization. However, I am repeatedly reminded of the sheer lack of infrastructure in Southeastern Kentucky’s Appalachia region that denies people the much-needed, state-provided amenities of hospitals, highways, and information routes. Many of these people didn’t necessarily flee to the hills as much as flock there for jobs, and they were abandoned when those jobs were exhausted. As Green says, even history’s exceptions have exceptions, just as some in Appalachia do take pride in their isolation from the outside world. It’s impossible to make one story, one interpretation, work for every person in even the smallest Appalachian community. I am sure the same could be said of “hill people” from around the world.
I think Appalachia is beautiful. I love its hills, its music, its stunning art, the people I loved and grew up alongside, and its vibrant written and oral culture. However, I also think that it’s just as dangerous to romanticize hill people as it is to judge them. In the end, they still become objects instead of complex people who may or may not have the agency to change their circumstances. So while I find this video intriguing, I cannot stand by it entirely. Thoughts?