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From sea to shining sea, including Arkansas

I admit it - I'm from Arkansas! Everyone knows about Arkansas. It is populated by creatures called ''hillbillies'' who don't paint their houses or wear shoes, and who never venture outdoors without their rifles. Their most cherished possessions are their illegal stills. Many of them belong to a Protestant denomination known as the ''holy rollers''; others are practicing witches.

During a faculty reception at a small Eastern college, I once found myself in a conversation that went smoothly enough until a woman asked me where I was from. ''Arkansas,'' I said. The conversation came to a halt. After an awkward silence, the woman said in a strained voice, ''Oh.''

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Nothing more, just ''oh.'' After all, what does one say to a native of Arkansas?

My close friends are less inhibited. When I mention Arkansas, they simply double up with laughter.

My situation is a common one. Raouf Halaby, an Arkansas college professor of Palestinian Arab descent, wrote recently in the Arkansas Gazette that when he travels he finds himself not only defending the Arab cause but also explaining that the people of Arkansas have indeed discovered such technological wonders as the indoor toilet and the shoe.

Nobody enjoys having his favorite legends debunked, so what I'm about to say may shock and upset a good many people, but when I visited my hometown last summer the typical hillbilly had abandoned his still and gun altogether. Instead , he was speeding along the crowded highway in his Toyota, trying to get home in time for Dan Rather's evening newscast. On his way, he might stop off at the shopping mall, where he could buy a copy of ''The World According to Garp'' or ''No Bad Dogs the Woodhouse Way.'' He could also play Pac-Man - if he didn't mind waiting in line.

Back at home, if Dan Rather's report proved uninteresting, our hillbilly could read an article in the Gazette about how to make an overseas telephone call by direct dialing (the headline read ''Technology Makes It Easy to Reach Out and Touch the Ayatollah''). Then he could take his little hillbilly children back to the mall to have dinner at the Pizza Hut and to see the movie ''E.T.''

For better or for worse, middle-class life in Arkansas is much the same as middle-class life elsewhere. From the parking lot of the Northwest Arkansas Mall , Dogpatch seems far away.

Well, one might ask, what of it? If the nation wishes to amuse itself by believing in hillbillies and other monsters, what is the harm? The harm is that prejudice is painful and humiliating - at least to the victims. It also breeds hostility.

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In self-defense, we Arkansans have created a few legends of our own. For example, we believe in creatures called ''Yankees.'' Yankees live at the pace of a roller coaster. They have no time to care about their fellow human beings, and they are rude to strangers.

I know people who claim to have seen these creatures.

I have made several visits to the Northeast. I have attended professional meetings and studied there; I have also shopped in grocery stores, eaten in restaurants, ridden in taxis and buses, had my hotel reservations mixed up, and gotten lost. All the while I have searched for these vast hordes of tense, callous, obnoxious Yankees. So far it has been like looking for a herd of unicorns.

Most of the Northerners I have met seemed reasonably human; many of them were actually pleasant and considerate. Once I thought I saw a real Yankee in New York City, but he ran away so fast that I couldn't take a picture of him. I am forced to conclude that the rude, uncaring Yankee is as rare a creature as the gun-toting, moonshine-guzzling hillbilly.

The truth is, I suspect, that every section of the country has its own share of cruelty and kindness, poverty and wealth, depravity and innocence; and that in this age of satellite communication and long-distance overseas dialing, our regional stereotypes are becoming increasingly silly. We ought to reevaluate our attitudes. While the world agonizes over the issues of nuclear disarmament, does it really make sense for Americans to cherish regional grudges, to treat one another as objects of ridicule and contempt?

When we were children, most of us learned a song that concludes with a prayer for ''brotherhood from sea to shining sea.'' This is more than a chauvinistic jingle. It is a goal worthy to be pursued.

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