April 2018

Being Appalachian Isn’t Just About Owning Guns

A few weeks ago I wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post’s “Made by History” series about gun violence and white supremacy. I expected some backlash, and I got it.

“Don’t be such a cuck, Nathan. You’re from West Virginia for God’s sake.”

“You’re not a hick. You’re a poseur in a skin masque.”

“Your parents were just civil rights activists that moved to the country after they ruined the tri-state area.”

—sampling of comments I received on Twitter after publicly supporting gun control

I grew up in Appalachia. I support gun control. Evidently the people above consider that a contradiction of sorts. I don’t. But, then again, the Appalachia I know and love has always been more concerned with family than firearms.

A few weeks ago I wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post’s “Made by History” series about gun violence and white supremacy. I expected some backlash, and I got it. Most of it was run-of-the-mill anti-Semitism, things I’ve heard since childhood. Back then, it was my Jewish, “not-from-around-here” father running for school board that brought the global Zionist conspiracy rushing to the forefront of my friends’ and neighbors’ minds. Last month, it was me trying to take away everyone’s guns.

For me at least, being called a “kike” enough times means that it has a bit less of an impact than its authors probably intend. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t feel great at the time, but eventually it just fades into a fog of similarly unpleasant memories that mean nothing for my day-to-day life. It might have something to do with the fact that I wasn’t raised in the faith. I’m just someone with a few opinions and “-berg” at the end of my name. I may be a target of anti-Semitism, but I’m not part of the community, so it doesn’t hit as close to home.

The Appalachia I know and love has always been more concerned with family than firearms.

Maybe that’s why the few comments that mentioned where I was from ended up being the ones that have stuck with me. With the exception of two years at the beginning of my doctoral program, I’ve spent my entire life in rural areas, the bulk of it in Appalachian Pennsylvania. When people ask me where my home town was, I have to tell them that there was no town and that the county I grew up in had fewer people in it than there are students at my current university.

When I lived in the city, my body felt like it was vibrating at the wrong frequency. In West Virginia, where I live now, I feel like I’m home again. But, according to my many new and angry fans online, I’m not really from the country unless I own a gun, am conservative, and am most definitely not Jewish.

Wuertenberg Guns Image 1
Sign from the March for Our Lives protest at the State Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia. Courtesy of the WV Gazette-Mail.

Demographically, there’s something to that perception, I suppose. My home county has voted Republican in every presidential election since Barry Goldwater ran in 1964 and voted for Donald Trump by the highest margin in the entire state. I was one of only three students in my entire school district with Jewish heritage (none of us were mitzvahed; we used to joke that we should really only count as one Jewish person for census purposes). Almost everyone I ever met there owned at least one gun if not many, many more.

If those were the only metrics of belonging in Appalachia, I might not feel at home there at all. And yet, I do.

I don’t want to be disingenuous. If someone rolled into my home county, they’d find enough stereotypes to go home satisfied that the nonsense J.D. Vance pedals in Hillbilly Elegy is true. There’s ignorance, racism, sexism, and homophobia. There’s poverty. There’s addiction. There are a few people that have called me a “Jewboy” and a few more that have told me I don’t belong. Some of my friends have sworn to never return and, knowing what they went through, I can’t blame them.

But, from where I’m standing, the good outweighs the bad. Guns may have been ubiquitous where I grew up, but I was never made to feel less than for not liking them or for not hunting like everyone else. Most of my friends might have leaned right, but I never lost any of them for leaning left. My father and I might have been Jewish, but when I was diagnosed with a degenerative visual impairment, I ended up on every prayer list in a 50 mile radius.

From where I’m standing, the good outweighs the bad.

The Appalachia I know is home to kind and decent people. They don’t care what I believe and they don’t care that I support gun control. All they care about is that I’m there for them when they need me to be. And I always will be, because being from Appalachia isn’t about what you believe or which amendment you think is the most important. It’s not about a place or a culture or a political party. And it’s certainly not about owning a gun.

It’s about family. Mine’s in the mountains. And you can pry it from my cold, dead hands.

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Our collected volume of essays, Demand the Impossible: Essays in History As Activism, is now available on Amazon! Based on research first featured on The Activist History Review, the twelve essays in this volume examine the role of history in shaping ongoing debates over monuments, racism, clean energy, health care, poverty, and the Democratic Party. Together they show the ways that the issues of today are historical expressions of power that continue to shape the present. Also, be sure to review our book on Goodreads and join our Goodreads group to receive notifications about upcoming promotions and book discussions for Demand the Impossible!

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I am the founder of The Activist History Review and one of its executive editors. I am currently a doctoral candidate at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. I am conducting research for a doctoral dissertation on the 1775 American invasion of Quebec, entitled “Divided We Stand: The American War for Independence, the 1775 Quebec Campaign, and the Rise of Nations in the Twilight of Colonial Empires.” I received my MA in history from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana and my BA in history and Spanish from McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. I recently contributed a chapter to the two-volume series Violence in American Popular Culture entitled “From Knights to Knights-Errant: The Evolution of Westerns through Portrayals of Violence.” I can be followed on Twitter at @nwuertenberg.

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