White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America

white_trash

I find myself much disappointed in Nancy Isenberg’s much hyped White Trash: The 400 Year Untold Story of Class in America. If anything, as far as I can tell this particular “untold story” happens to be WELL KNOWN to anyone whose head is attached.

While the book is impressive in scope and exhaustive in detail, it is also shallow in useful insight. Once again, we come upon a cultural product that treats of those at the bottom from the perspective of a great height. This is another book “about” poor whites, without perceptively being “by”, “of” or “for” them. It is essentially a sequential chronicle of how the powerful in America (planters, politicians, presidents, the ruling class and later the media) have dealt with the masses beneath them, culturally, socially, legally and politically. We learn (if we didn’t already know) that large numbers first came to America as convicts or indentured servants, and were kept down. Then we learn that they were scorned in polite society and depicted derogatorily in pop culture. What we don’t learn is who they are, how they think and feel, or what they’ve ever made or accomplished. In fact, it’s rather difficult to tell from the tone of this book if the author feels differently from the elites in her opinion of the titular “rubbish”. Since, let’s be frank, those very elites are the very people who’ve been reading this book and touting it as some sort of lodestone of understanding into the mind of the Trump voter, I am not particularly heartened by the book’s success. It bridges no gaps, blazes no trails, brokers no new understanding. What it does do is provide us with an alarming revelation: if the elites take this book’s self-evident truisms for insights, it means that they hadn’t even thought that much about poor white people.

It may be countered that this is the very point: spending all our time in the heads of the aristocrat Thomas Jefferson or the eugenics-friendly Teddy Roosevelt points up the aloof, cold distance between those at the top and those whom they pay lip service to admiring, even as they take steps to keep them culturally quarantined. And there are clues that that may be the strategy. I came across a perceptive quote in the book from an Australian observer to the effect that in America we place great stock in adopting democratic manners without actually being democratic. The supreme example of this of course is Donald Trump, born with a silver spoon in his mouth and eats a thousand poor people every morning for breakfast, but somehow won the allegiance of millions of them merely on the strength of being coarse and crass and thus “authentic.” Another great quote I found in the book and must always remember, “It’s better to be a Corleone than a Loud” (i.e. of a genuine, human folk culture than part of the antisepctic, vapid, modern American suburban middle class). And I walked away from the book with an enhanced and renewed respect for Lyndon Johnson, a problematic figure to be admitted, but the sort of man I would vastly prefer to the present autocrat in the oval office. Johnson of course, may have done the poor some good. Trump’s plan seems to be to wipe them out.

My stake in this of course is that I am of the benighted class and care about them, even as I have moved away from the majority of them in how I look at things politically. It pains me to see them duped for the millionth time and once again politically disempowered. It seems right now America’s only hope as a nation is for some kind of conversation to happen between its starkly polarized halves. This book won’t break the ice.

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