Sunday, August 14, 2016

“16 Tons and What Do You Get?”

“White Trash – the 400 Year History of Class in America,” by Nancy Isenberg, 2016

This book has been on the NYT best seller list for weeks, which shows that the idea of class is no longer taboo in the U.S.  The real ideological battle right now is between identity politics and class politics.  This book is a large weight on the class side of the equation. 

It lambastes the upper class conservative and liberal disdain for the lowest strata of the white working-class, called by the last acceptable insult - ‘white trash.’  Isenberg here refers to this layer as generically ‘poor’ and rarely points out that low-paid white workers actually have to earn a living.  Over these 400 years Isenberg hints that they have been indentured servants, hunters, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, convict labor, small farmers, general laborers, textile workers, migrant laborers, slaughterhouse and construction workers, even illegal alcohol producers.  Most of her textual pictures in this book consist of drunks sitting around shacks doing nothing – having no economic role at all.  These pictures come from the ruling elite of the day, not from the populists.

Every suburbanite's nightmare
Ultimately this study is a political and cultural one.  It is not filled with statistics or economics.  Isenberg’s idea of class is based on income and wealth, not the economic role people play.  As such, she seems to divorce this ‘underclass’ from the rest of the working class.  Isenberg understands that both liberals and conservatives do not want a unity of black, Latino and white workers in the U.S., which is the cause for their focus on ethnic ‘identity’ instead.  Being ‘white trash’ even became a cultural identity in the 1980s, conforming to the times.    

She has compiled, I think, the longest list of insulting terms for this strata of any historian, from the old and arcane to the recent.  Scourings, waste-people, mudsills, lubbers, squatters, swamp dwellers, bog-trotters, clay-eaters, scalawags, tackies, crackers, mongrels, hillbillies, white niggers, rednecks, trailer trash - white trash.  Or as one theorist put it, the “reserve army of the unemployed.’  You get the idea.  The problem is that this barrage of invective does not have much of a response in her text, so you start to believe it.  She cites the first use of the term ‘redneck’ in the late 1800s based on its usage by right-populist politicians, not from the 1920s coal field wars on Blair Mountain when radical coal miners wore red kerchiefs around their necks. 

Isenberg is relentless in her focus on this working-class strata, showing how it closely intersects with ‘racial’ ethnicity and especially the conditions in the rural U.S. south.  As she puts it:  “The Civil War was a struggle to shore up both a racial and a class hierarchy.”  The planters were afraid that an end to slavery would also impel landless whites to rise up.  In the Civil War non-slave owning whites were dragooned into fighting for the slave-owners and planters … until they deserted or were killed.   Union generals and ‘Red’ Republicans also understood the class nature of the war.  Isenberg points out that these 'waste' white people mostly owned no land - so like black slaves and freedman, they had no power, no money, no education, no nothin’.  If they did own land, it was unproductive – sandy, rocky or in the hills.

After the Civil War, ‘white trash’ were still treated almost as poorly by the Southern aristocracy and businessmen as were the super-exploited victims of Jim Crow – no education, no land, no real wages, no respect.  The south was studied by Howard Odum later during the 1930s and he concluded this about sectionalism’s destructive legacy: “The straitjacket of ‘states rights’ has suffocated southern progress long enough.” As Isenberg puts it, the south had squandered land to erosion; it tolerated poverty and illiteracy; it had little technological training or even basic services.  Much of this continues to this day.

Ultimately Isenberg shows the passivity and docility of white workers in the South has deep historical roots.  However Isenberg ignores any labor struggles in which white workers in textile mills or lumber camps or mines united with black workers and fought against the capitalists - in the south or in the north.  There are many examples during the progressive period around the turn of the century and again in the 1930s.  This lack paints ‘white trash’ as hopeless and again emphasizes that this is a political study centering on views ‘from the top.’

Isenberg paints a cultural and political history that exposes the class snobbery of our more progressive ‘founders’ – Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, Adams and even Andrew Jackson.  Harriet Beecher Stowe and Thoreau also held hostile opinions about ‘poor’ whites.  She clearly shows how the British class and colonial system permanently stamped the U.S. and especially the South.  This is something that the U.S. still retains, like a permanent birthmark.  Davy Crockett, who became a politician, stands out as one of the few people to stand up for the landless and forgotten folks, as did the “Free Soil” party that preceded the Republicans.   

She delves into the later eugenics movement, which was not just directed against black ‘rednecks,’ but principally aimed at ‘slatternly’ white women who couldn’t stop having babies.  The Supreme Court ‘Buck v Bell’ ruling allowed 4 southern states to pass sterilization laws.  As she puts its:  “The major target of the eugenicists was the poor white woman.” Marriage, kinship, pedigree and lineage were thought to determine a person’s class – an idea from Britain which continued strongly into the 1920s.  Humans were seen as the same as horses – subject to ‘breeding.’  This view saw class as genetic hereditary, not based on economics or capitalism at all. 

Isenberg covers the 'redneck' cultural scene of our recent memory, from Elvis to ‘good ‘ol boys’ LBJ and Carter and “Billy Beer;” Tammy Faye Baker and Dolly Parton; ‘Elvis’ Clinton and Wasilla’s Sarah Palin and now, Duck Dynasty.  Everything from redneck chic to redneck stupid.  This is one of the weakest parts of the book, as little new information is added, especially for people who lived through this period.

Occasionally Isenberg looks into the background of events or culture that impacted the American view of lowly-paid white workers.  The villains in “To Kill a Mockingbird?”  They were the white trash Ewells, though Harper Lee wrote that they picked through the town dump and had no indoor plumbing. This is something not shown in the film, allowing them to appear even more awful.  Another is the book and film “Deliverance” by James Dickey, the son of rich north Georgia landowners.  In once scene a deformed young albino boy ominously plays banjo, bringing out all the fear and loathing of suburban whites. The actor who played the boy was pulled out of high-school and paid almost nothing.  A boy then, that man today works at Wal-Mart for very little pay, and has for many years.  

An American cultural/political follow-up to Piketty's work on class, "Capital," "White Trash" puts another nail in the coffin of identity politics.

Prior reviews on these subjects:  Slavery By Any Other Name,”The State of Jones,” (film and book); “Jacobin #18, 2015 on the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War;   Also a small book, not reviewed that reflects on this topic:  They Were White and They Were Slaves.” 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
August 14, 2016

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