Monday, July 31, 2017

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“WHITE TRASH – The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America” by Nancy Isenberg (Atlantic Books / Allen and Unwin, $NZ45)

One of my sons used to relate with amusement the opinions of some American students, who were in the same History class as he at university. No matter how much evidence was presented to them, they refused to believe that the United States had ever participated in imperialism in the age when empire-building was common among European nations. The British, the French, the Dutch and others built empires, they thought, but the democratic USA wasn’t part of this perfidious business. Somehow they failed to recognise as acts of imperialism the progressive taking of Native American territory, the annexation of half of Mexico in the 1840s, the Spanish-American War, the capture of Puerto Rico and Guam, turning the Philippines and Cuba into client states and the forcible expropriation of Central American territory to build the Panama Canal.

Apparently, because these acts were American, they were not imperialism.

This is an example of the phenomenon of national “exceptionalism” – the idea that somehow a country is exempt from the social pressures and movements that activate other countries. I’m not so crass as to think that only Americans suffer from this delusion. When I tutored German history at university, I often heard of the German belief in the “Sonderweg” (“special way”) that their country had become unified. Some Germans apparently forgot that the unification of any country has its own unique features and is therefore as “special” as Germany is.

A foolish American belief in “exceptionalism” with regard to imperialism is less pervasive, however, than the foolish American belief that the USA is a classless society. Here again there is “exceptionalism”. The USA, goes the belief, was founded on democratic principles. All its citizens are equal and have the same rights. There is no hereditary ruler or aristocracy. Sure, there are differences in wealth, but anybody who works hard can make it to the top – “log cabin to White House” – so there are no real class differences. The USA is a meritocracy.

If Nancy Isenberg’s large (300 big pages, plus over 100 pages of notes, references and index) book White Trash has any mission, it is to shatter this illusion. By focusing on the most deprived, poorest and least educated whites in the USA (yes, there are deprived blacks, but they are not the focus of this narrative), Isenberg wants to show that there has always been an underclass in the USA, and that claims to “classlessness” are mere rhetoric. “Throughout its history”, she says in her preface, “the United States has always had a class system. It is not only directed by the top 1 per cent and supported by a contented middle class. We can no longer ignore the stagnant, expendable bottom layers of society in explaining the national identity.” (Preface, p.xv). In the modern context, Republicans are more likely to condemn the poor for being idle and dependent but, says Isenberg, Democrats have their own condescension: “Democrats, in general, endorse the liberal idea of meritocracy, in which talent is rewarded through the acquisition of earned academic credentials. Yet this dream is not possible for all Americans. Only 30% of Americans today graduate college, which means the majority does not imagine this path up the social ladder is a ticket to success.” (2017 Preface p.xxvii).

So she launches into the long history of “white trash”, whose origins predate the invention of the USA. In the 17th century, colonising England attempted to off-load many of its poorest classes as indentured labour to the wealthy colonists and plantation owners.  They were already known as “lubbers”, “rubbers”, “clay-eaters” and “crackers” before 13 colonies asserted that they were now the United States of America. “First known as ‘waste people’, and later ‘white trash’, marginalised Americans were stigmatised for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children – the sense of uplift on which the American dream was predicated.” (Preface, p.xv)

In both the New England (Puritan) colonies and the Virginian (tobacco-growing plantation) colonies, there was a rigid social hierarchy and many landless indentured labourers. Of the Puritan colonies Isenberg writes: “By the 1630s, New Englanders reinvented a hierarchical society of ‘stations’,  from ruling elite to household servants. In their number were plenty of poor boys, meant for exploitation. Some were religious, but they were in the minority among the waves of migrants that followed [the first few ships]. The elites owned Indian and African slaves, but the population they most exploited were their child labourers.” (Introduction, p.10)

Men who are now considered to represent the Enlightenment took it for granted that any society settled in American had to have social inequalities. John Locke (Chapter 2) wrote a constitution for the Carolinas which showed an essentially feudal mindset. Tenants of landowners, in Locke’s Utopia, were to be allowed no land. They and their descendants would be bound to the landowner’s land. Only thus would there be social stability.

The men who founded the American Republic had many of the same attitudes. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine (Chapter 3) both exalted the hard-working, industrious and philoprogenitive middle class, who they believed would create a new sort of society in America. They spoke of the benefits of industry, trade and commerce while pretending that social class didn’t exist. Neither of them had anything to say about slavery or about the huge classes of servants and indentured labourers. Indeed their words for the young republic’s poor were most often words of contempt. They were idle, a rabble etc.

In response to Thomas Paine’s view that America was to be the home of able, hardworking men and women, Isenberg tartly remarks: “This overly sanguine portrait cleaned up class and ignored what was unpleasant to look at. Indentured servitude and convict labour were still very much in evidence as the Revolution neared, and slavery was a fact of life. Philadelphia had a slave auction outside the London Coffee House, at the centre of the town on Front and Market Streets, which was directly across from Paine’s lodgings. In Common Sense, the propagandist mentioned ‘Negroes’ and ‘Indians’ solely to discredit them for being mindless pawns of the British, when they were incited to harass and kill white Americans and undermine the worthy cause of independence…. Civilized America was being pitted against the barbarous hordes set upon them by the ‘hellish’ power of London.” (Chapter 3, p.82)

A major framer of the American constitution was equally limited in his views. Thomas Jefferson (Chapter 4) had the habits of thought of the wealthy Virginian gentleman and plantation-owner that he was. His aim was to create an agrarian republic based on trade in agricultural produce, but headed by a “natural” aristocracy, which he believed would arise by its own talent. In effect, he wanted to perpetuate a squirearchy based on land ownership and he refused to recognise that there was an underclass, even if he did often speak of “rubbish people”. Notes Isenberg:

The question that Jefferson never answered was this: What happened to those who were not part of the talented elite? How would one describe the ‘concourse of breeders’ living on the bottom layer of society? No matter how one finessed it, rubbish produced more rubbish, even if a select few might be salvaged. If the fortuitous breeders naturally rose up the social ladder, the unfortunate, the degenerate, remained mired in the morass of meaner sorts.” (Chapter 4, p.102)

There were many “squatters” and “crackers” on the pre- and post-Revolutionary “frontier” – that is, the margin where British (and later American) territory met country occupied by “Indians”.  Many of the founders of the republic, and many of the middle classes, regarded these people as landless scum but, just as the British had recruited vagrants for their armies, their descendants the Americans used these “frontier” people to fight Indians and break open the land for later settlement. There was also (Chapter 5) the growing awareness that the votes of the “squatters” and “crackers” could be solicited in elections. The ephemeral figure of Davy Crockett gave the frontiersmen an heroic image. But the first person to appeal systematically to the underclass was Andrew Jackson, the bellicose, profoundly racist military man. Framing himself as the champion of the frontiersmen and uncouth rural lower classes, Jackson made it to the White House. But in the end, he too saw the lower classes as not being part of the political nation, given that he never moved to enlarge (manhood) suffrage and kept to a high property qualification for voting.

As she approaches chapters concerning the American Civil War, Isenberg  tends to concentrate more and more on the American South. The term “poor white trash” was already in circulation early in the 19th century, but it became a widespread usage in the years just before the civil war. As Isenberg tells it (Chapter 6), anti-slavery (abolitionist) Northerners saw the South’s poor white underclass as enfeebled because the institution of slavery had denied them the opportunity to labour honestly. Isenberg at this point surprises me by pointing out that the “Free Soil” movement, which wanted slavery not to be extended beyond the existing “frontier”, also wanted newly-settled territories to segregate white from black, so that poor whites would not drift into habits of idleness.  Meanwhile, the pro-slavery leaders of the South saw their white underclass as the products of bad biology. Even if nobody yet knew about genetics, there were already widespread theories of poor biological inheritance. This allowed the slave-owning gentry to ignore the issue of class, and to believe that the illiterate, uncouth whites among them simply had the wrong ancestors.

In the Confederate South, however, quite apart from the issue of slavery, there were huge class differentials between whites with regard to the prosecution of the war. (Chapter 7) Plantation owners with more than 20 slaves were exempted from military service. Wealthier men were allowed to send substitutes off to fight. This meant that the Confederacy relied on mass conscription of poor non-slave-owning whites, many of whom felt no loyalty to the Confederacy. This really was, as the poorer soldiers said, “the rich man’s war but the poor man’s fight”. The result was a very high rate of desertions and, in effect, a class war. As the war dragged on, Confederate posses were sent out to round up some of the more than 100,000 deserters, many of whom hid out in swamps and wasteland. As often as not, the deserters fought them off. Says Isenberg:

Wars in general, and civil wars to a greater degree, have the effect of exacerbating class tensions, because the sacrifices of war are always distributed unequally, and the poor are hit hardest. North and South had staked so much on their class-based definitions of nationhood that it is no exaggeration to say that in the grand scheme of things, Union and Confederate leaders saw the war as a clash of class systems wherein the superior system would reign triumphant.”  (Chapter 7, p.173)

It was after the civil war that the plague of eugenics swept America. Always seeking ways to “explain” why there was a deprived underclass without having to examine the unequal economic basis of society, and leaning on social Darwinism, academics and those in positions of power hit on eugenics. The “poor white trash” must be the result of poor breeding. Many who believed this came from the North. After the civil war, Freedmen’s Bureaux were set up in the South by the federal government to assist former slaves in establishing themselves in business or farming. But they also offered assistance to poor landless whites. Again and again, bureau men discovered that black freedmen were more industrious, more literate and more willing to work  than were the “white trash”. Very soon “They invoked a vocabulary that highlighted unnatural breeding, unfit governance, and the degenerate nature of the worst stocks. At the centre of the argument was the struggle that pitted poor whites against freed slaves.” (Chapter 8, p.176)

The eugenicists had a number of plans – forced sterilisation and castration; quarantining of the “unfit”; even systematic killing of the “unfit”. These ideas were mainstream.  As Isenberg notes; “Such proposals were not merely fringe ideas. By 1931, twenty-seven states had sterilisation laws on their books, along with an unwieldy thirty-four categories delineating the kind of people who might be subject to the surgical procedure. ….” (Chapter 8, p.195) As late as 1927, the much-respected justice Oliver Wendell Holmes endorsed compulsory sterilisation in the case of Burke vs. Bell (p.205). It is no accident that it was when eugenics was still mainstream that novels by William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell began to perpetuate the stereotype of slobbering, degenerate, white trash with their overlarge families of idiot children and uncontrollable sexual lusts. It was much easier to deny people decent schooling and incomes when you could say they were subhuman anyway.

When Isenberg gets to the Great Depression after 1929, she notes that class consciousness was suddenly given a boost as millions of middle-class and working-class people were thrown out of work and realised how precarious their class status had been. The white underclass in the South expanded as “…the South’s one-crop system and ‘rural slum areas’ in the countryside… guaranteed the pernicious cycle of poor white and black sharecroppers’ poverty from one generation to the next. Two-thirds of the nation’s tenant farmers were in the South, and two-thirds were white. These facts cannot be overstated. The agricultural distress of the Depression exposed the South’s long-standing dependence on sub-marginal land and sub-marginal farmers.” (Chapter 9, p.215) This was the world of Steinbeck’s Okies and Arkies and The Grapes of Wrath. Yet even in these conditions, many leading Southern politicians clung to the idea that poverty was simply the result of sloth. Hence there was sometimes in the South resistance to New Deal programmes that would have provided some social uplift. This was at the time that journalists – and especially photo-journalists – were documenting the South’s rural white poverty and esposing wide class divisions.

When Isenberg comes to the 1940s and 1950s (Chapter 10), she switches to a concern for media interpretations of “white trash” and gets into the related (and mainly Southern) phenomenon of trailer parks and “trailer trash”. She also notes the extreme shock that the ending of racial segregation was to poor whtes, focusing on the events in Little Rock in 1957. And it is only at this point that she gives some thought to the separate, but related, topic of hillbillies. Reaching the near past and the present (Chapters 11 and 12), Isenberg notes the rise of identity politics and hence the rise of “white trash” nostalgia and “white trash” pride. But there was still much middle-class condescension, as in James Dickey’s novel (and film) Deliverance, which harked back to the days of eugenics with its stereotypes of inbred, moronic white trash.

By the time we get to these chapters, Isenberg surrenders much of her detailed social analysis and – something in the manner of post-modernists – becomes more concerned with appearances and perception than with quantifiable facts. So there are detailed accounts of the appeal of Elvis Presley or of the Southern good o’ boy President Jimmy Carter and of his loudmouth slob brother Billy Carter. And there are wry pages on Dolly Parton and the wealthy (and fraudulent) preacher Jimmy Bakker and his tacky wife Tammy Fae and how they represent the “trailer trash” ethos almost driven to high camp. And there are notes on how “Slick Willie” Bill Clinton won the White House partly by manipulating his supposed “poor Southern white boy” appeal; and how Sarah Palin played to a similar audience. Indeed after all these commentaries and character profiles, Isenberg returns to sober class analysis only in the very last paragraph of Chapter 12 (p. 309).

So to her Epilogue, which stridently returns to her key theme – that America is not exceptional, does have a class structure and has always had an ignored white underclass – the “white trash” of the title. She sums up much of their historical plight thus:

They are blamed for living on bad land, as though they had other choices. From the beginning, they have existed in the minds of rural or urban elites and the middle class as extrusions of the weedy, unproductive soil. They are depicted as slothful, rootless vagrants, physically scarred by their poverty. The worst ate clay and turned yellow, wallowed in mud and muck, and their necks became burned by the hot sun. Their poorly clothed, poorly fed children generated what others believed to be a permanent and defctive breed. Sexual deviance? That comes from cramped quarters in obscure retreats, distant from civilisation, where the moral vocabulary that dwells in the town has been lost. We think of the left-behind groups as extinct, and the present as a time of advanced thought and sensibility. But today’s trailer trash are merely yesterday’s vagrants on wheels, and updated version of Okies in jalopies and Florida crackers in their carts.” (Epilogue, p.320)

            After all this, let me make it clear that I do not disagree with Isenberg’s essential thesis. In fact a big part of me wants to say that Isenberg is stating the bleeding obvious. Most informed and thinking Americans are fully aware that they live in a class-based society – as does every other human being on the planet. Essentially, rhetoric about “classlessness” is there for public orations and the cheesiest of high school civics courses. Perhaps the American “exceptionalism” is merely the fact that the lowest stratum of their society is so overtly and so aggressively ridiculed.

And here I take issue with one of Isenberg’s assertions. She speaks of middle-class condescension towards the white poor, and notes Republicans are fond of preaching the value of hard work as a means of social improvement rather than government assistance to the impoverished. But Isenberg could have made it clear that the “liberal” – and presumably Democrat-voting - urbanites are just as prone to ridiculing the “poor white trash”. Look at any late night New York satire show to see what I mean. While I’m nitpicking, I should also note that while she (quite rightly) condemns the eugenics movement, Isenberg neatly sidesteps its relationship with the push for birth control and ultimately abortion, which Isenberg clearly supports. Let’s remember that Margaret Sanger, in effect the founder of Planned Parenthood, and her colleagues were ardent eugenicists who hoped that birth control would wipe out the “unfit”, and limit the number of blacks in America, to ensure the dominance of white middle-class people who were having fewer children. My point here is that Isenberg cherry-picks her cast of characters.

One final point. In her second preface, Isenberg notes The book was originally published in the middle of the contentious 2016 presidential election season.” (2017 Preface p.xix) The impetus to write it may have come from her fears about the looming presidency of Donald Trump and the populist appeals he made. But as it happens, the book makes no further mention of Trump and his presumed fan base.

I am worried by the way White Trash wobbles in some chapters away from the social analysis that is given elsewhere; and I am not as amazed as some American reviewers seem to have been by the revelation that America does have social classes. But, messy and rambling though it is in structure, this book does give much food for thought and it is certainly a repository of many interesting anecdotes and insights.

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