by Ramin Mazaheri
Americans, whether you like it or not, and whether you admit it or not, this book review is about our family.
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016) by Nancy Isenberg is a book so necessary that it compelled reviews in “The New York Times” and “The Wall Street Journal” because it finally gives White Trash the place in American history that they have always been denied.
After all: “The tenant farmer with his mule and plow is not a romantic image to remain in historic memory.”
In the book’s final paragraph is a pithy historical summation of America’s contempt and disregard for White Trash: “They are not who we are.”
Any good history book allows the reader to draw parallels with the current age. “They are not who we are,” also aptly describes the raging combat in the United States between the Trumper and anti-Trumper camps.
What was the book’s goal?
“If this book accomplishes anything it will be to have exposed a number of myths about the American dream, to have disabused readers of the notion that upward mobility is a function of the founders’ ingenious plan, or that Jacksonian democracy was liberating, or that the Confederacy was about state’s rights rather than preserving class and racial distinctions.” (My emphasis)
Lack of social mobility and preserving class distinctions: keeping peasants in their place – the ultimate goal of aristocrats and today’s anti-Trumpers.
What this book does is to prove how poor Whites have systematically been denied land, opportunity and a voice just as much as Blacks and women.
There has never been social mobility for all Whites – just rich Whites – and this will be the bursting of a major myth for many people who believe America is, or at least used to be, “the land of opportunity”.
If you are not dissuaded of that myth at the end of this book review all I can say is: Read this book.
This book has been criticized by some reviewers for ignoring Blacks.
Well, it’s a book about Whites, and I see no reason not to study this ethnic group. I also see no reason to delve into race wars in this column either, so I guess I’m a racist too, or whatever.
As a communist, I view all race war as a legislatively-correctable absurdity, anyway.
Instead of discussing race politics, I argue that this book proves we absolutely must reject the anti-Trumper’s contention that the current schism in the US is a cultural divide and not a class war.
The White Trash Revolution (WTR), a theme of mine which gained a foothold with Brexit, has always been about class and not race. How else could someone named “Ramin Mazaheri” be one of its leading propagandists?
But elevating race in order to deny class is what Americans always do, and that’s why the author decried this systematic class unconsciousness on the book’s very first page:
“It is as though in separating from Great Britain, the United States somehow magically escaped the bonds of class and derived a higher consciousness of enriched possibility….The very act of migration claims to equalize the people involved….”
It does not, so give up your racial, gender and sexual politics. Let’s get to the down-and-dirty of it all – class.
The foundation of the US is White Trash and you know it
What is trash? Above all, it is waste.
16th century England was obsessed with waste, and that certainly fits in with the stereotypical view of an obsessive English person who can’t waste a thought, much less a minute and even still less a New World of “wasted” natural resources.
The author relates that it also meant “waste people” – i.e. the poor.
So-called “peoples’ history” books such as these are so great because events like Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, “one of the greatest conflicts the colony ever witnessed,” are restored from obscurity to show that class was always from Day 1 in America.
There is, “…ample evidence to show the participants made it about class warfare….It is important that we understand that Bacon’s Rebellion for what revealed: the most promising land was never equally available to all.” (Author’s emphasis)
And imagine if America’s kids identified with the true situation of their 17th century counterparts? You’d have a nation of budding communists: “Waste men and waste women (and especially waste children, the adolescent boys who comprised a majority of the indentured servants) were an expendable class of laborers who made colonization possible.”
Such books also remove the luster of historical figures, which is probably why Arkansas is considering a bill to ban the books of Howard Zinn’s, such as “A Peoples’ History of the United States”.
The deconstruction of Thomas Paine is especially interesting as he was the main propagandist of the American Revolution. As a journalist who is regularly accused of being a propagandist, I’d like to note the already-clear differences between him and me: “His overarching argument was that European-descended Americans were a new race in the making, one specially bred for free trade instead of the state machinery of imperial conquest.”
Critically, the Englishman Paine had been in the US for just a year when he wrote “Common Sense”.
He clearly had only a very superficial level of understanding of how America actually worked, and I can only imagine how false my analysis of France was after only my first year here.
However, Paine did make a true democratic contribution: He destroyed the godly aura of monarchy and openly revealed its parasitic nature – this anti-authoritarian idea was indeed radical.
But his outlook was inherently aristocratic: “(Paine argued) Therefore, if the leadership class did not seize hold of the narrative, the broad appeal for political independence would be supplanted by an incendiary call for social levelling.”
Despite the historically-revisionist claims of today’s jingoists, social leveling was thus not a goal in 1776.
The West as a White Trash dump
The US had so many advantages and possibilities to build a true Utopia, and yet their unparalleled geographical richness has been squandered by capitalism and imperialism.
Beginning with Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase, the West became a hugely-effective safety valve for class discontent but it was never the hugely-effective producer of social leveling that people assume.
“The western territories were for all intents and purposes America’s colonies,” and squatters, crackers and poor White Trash would flee to the frontier to escape the indentured servitude of tenant farming.
However, they were rarely able to stay there for long, much less for generations: At best, early settlers would clear the land for the “real farmers”, i.e. rich farmers with connections to land speculators, who had government contacts that would sell them the best farmland as each new region turned into an official state.
The lack of social mobility is evident in the name given to these squatters, such as “swampers”, and good luck raising good crops there. “Tarheel”, “bogtrotter”, “briar-hoppers” and “tackies” are all both insults and descriptions of the lousy land they lived on. In 2017 even “trailer trash” is a term to describe someone who lives on a bad and small patch of land isolated from society.
“By the 1850s, poor whites had become a permanent class. As non-slaveholders, they described themselves as ‘farmers without farms’…. Whether they stayed put or moved west, poor whites occupied poor land.”
‘Biology is destiny’ means Trash stays trashy
In the 1840s and 1850s, as Europe was discovering Marxism, the US was only discovering a reactionary social science known as evolutionary biology.
This ideology made biology destiny, and in the 1850s the term “White trash” became widespread. The author repeatedly stresses that the term mainly connoted physical defects, and not just a culture of poverty and a character marked by frontier wildness.
Poor whites were now labelled as a degenerate class, biologically induced to crime, immorality and even incest. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s humanistic and moral “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (praised by Tolstoy) had a 2nd book that was as anti-white trash as the first was anti-slavery, per the author.
By promoting evolutionary biology instead of Marxism, America employed such great ideas like the right to exterminate all the Indians, mulattos being defects, Hispanics being unevolved. Sweet, righteous Anglo-Saxons could not even live by Indians.
But let’s forget all that, because such racism is already well known.
What this book focuses on is the widespread belief of the time that – much like undocumented immigrants lowering wages today (sidebar: that solution is total amnesty and open borders) – slavery was something which was ruining not just the allegedly-perfect DNA of whites, but the living standards of poor Whites.
“In barring slaveholders from the territories he (the Republican presidential nominee of 1856 and ‘Free Soil’ supporter) would prevent northern white laborers from being reduced to virtual slaves in the West.”
What? I thought the US Civil War was to free the Blacks?
Admit it, American: You already knew that the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t issued until 1863, two years into the war. Why do you suppose that was?
They never gave us a satisfactory answer, but it’s – as usual – class and not race.
Forget what you knew about the Civil War
“We are not told the whole story, then, because social insecurities and ongoing class tension preoccupied the politicized population too.”
Is it any wonder the WTR is so anti-government when it is no exaggeration to say that the first thing the US federal government ever did for White Trash was to launch the Civil War!
Because our Southern American readers have just spit up their coffee over the previous paragraph, I will quote extensively here:
– “By 1861, both sides saw the other as an alien culture doomed to distinction….The two class systems – slave and free – were locked in a battle for domination and only one would survive.”
– “In (Commanding General of the Northern Army and future President Ulysses S.) Grant’s estimation, the war was fought to liberate non-slaveholders, families exiled to poor land, who had few opportunities to better themselves or educate their children. ‘They too needed emancipation.’”
– “Discontented whites had been given the vote and, ‘being the majority they are the depositories of all your political power’.” James Henry Hammond, leading pro-slavery intellectual.
– “Sherman (general who led the total war/scorched earth “March to the Sea” campaign) made sure his men understood the class dimension of their campaign…They (Northern soldiers) saw secession as a fraud perpetrated against hapless poor whites.”
And, my favorite:
– “As one angry Southern writer declared, the northern party should not be called “Black Republicans”, but “Red Republicans,” for their real agenda was not just the abolition of slavery, but inciting class revolution to the South.”
(This is the very first mention of Socialism in the book, and there are only 3 others!)
In this way, the Civil War was the death of aristocracy in the US, but only the feudal kind – a capitalist kind was immediately elevated without any of the leavening of European socialism.
What capitalists and free-market proponents have always hidden is that Northern troops truly were rallied by an ideology in which “…they were benefactors of a government and society that promised class mobility and a genuine respect for the working man.”
What’s key is that this was the first time any such promises were made in American history.
Of course, we working men and women are still fighting today for these promises to be delivered.
But, because this America, we have to get back to race politics. Ugh.
The Age of Eugenics (class groans audibly)
Because Socialist ideas could make no headway in the US, what reigned supreme instead was Social Darwinism. It was simply “nature” that men were unequal; that Whites were the supreme race; that legitimized the imperialist doctrine of Manifest Destiny – and no legislation could change that, so why even try?
It’s the same thing today….
The idea that “biology is destiny” is fundamentally rejected by communists, who award primacy to environment and culture. When we compare the literacy, health and security levels of White Trash in the US with the same indicators among Cuban, Iranian and Soviet Trash there is no comparison that the latter won out in a much, much faster manner.
But while the politically-correct revolution (PCR) focused on the White supremacy aspect of the eugenics era, this book focused on the fact that White Trash were also just as condemned for their lack of “fitness” to survive.
Because just imagine how the conquering Northerners viewed White Trash, who are now White Trash War Refugees, flooding into St. Louis?
Northern White Trash were now occupying Southern White Trash – it’s the poor who staff all armies, after all.
The author relates plenty of historical examples of Northerners talking of the “worthless barbarian” they had conquered; of the “ignorant, illiterate, and vicious” poor white, who had simply stopped disappearing into the bushes of the postwar South.
Blacks were often viewed more positively in the Reconstruction era: they were industrious strivers, now that their wages went all the way to something from nothing.
The pre-war Northern White Trash had been threatened by the “no-wage” system of the south, but now they were threatened biologically if they procreated with White Trash War Refugees.
It sounds crazy, but it’s true!
You know it’s true because this late 19th century era was the time of “eugenics mania” across the West as well as the colonial “Scramble for Africa”, and the two went hand in hand, of course. This was the time of Nietzsche’s “Ubermench” – the White Superman.
And in the US the Northern White (Trash) Superman was superior, genetically as well, to the Southern White (Trash) Conquered Superman.
This era produced fears of “mongrel” blood; hypotheses that isolated White mountain folk were genetically “pure”, just not “graded up”; sterilization laws in most of the country; “fitter family” competitions at state fairs just like blue ribbons for county’s prize pig; the idea of a “aristogenic” class (genetic leadership class).
“Even with such racial overtones, the major target of eugenicists was the poor white woman,” which I include due to its importance.
Why were Southern Trash so far behind, from a genetic/health standpoint?
Obviously, it was the centuries-long lack of public education funding and basic health or sanitation programs – it was not genetics, but the dominance of capitalist policies instead of socialist policies.
Fortunately, with the 1917 Russian Revolution this hysterical, discredited, absurd ideology all evaporated.
But only in the USSR.
“The 1920s saw social exclusiveness masquerade as science as disdain for rural backwardness and the mongrel taint intensify. In a culture under siege, white trash meant impure, and not quite white.”
Are we still White Trash when all Whites are poor?
White Trash went nationwide in the 1920s…but not in your family, I’m sure, superior anti-Trumper.
When unemployment hit 20%, the definition of White Trash suddenly expanded.
In 1934 the frontier was official closed by the government, ending the so-called “safety valve” of the disproven “frontier migration thesis” of alleviating poverty and providing social mobility (so easily conflated with personal mobility in the US).
By 1937, the author writes, “…most Americans had already come to accept the uncomfortable truth about their national situation: equal opportunity was a grand illusion.”
But many formerly middle-class Whites found their Trashy status intolerable, and so White Trash Power spurred the demands for the first government assistance to White Trash since the war refugee assistance after the Civil War.
To make a long Depression story short: The United States could not remedy the problems of the Great Depression until they final overcame their hatred of White Trash.
(And we see the same phenomenon at play with today’s Great Recession and Trump, whose right-hand man Steve Bannon is a self-described “Leninist” who urges economic protectionism in order to, one hopes, redistribute wealth to the re-enlarged class of White Trash in America.)
It is not until 1935 that we first read of a centrally-planned, government-supported effort at attempting an obviously socialist remedy in the history of the United States: the Farm Security Administration.
This meant actually helping peasants: Loans for farm improvements, loans to improve living conditions like adding outhouses (indoor plumbing comes later), government education programs for new farmers, building experimental communities instead of tolerating shantytowns, etc.
It’s almost as if America realized that the government could do something, anything at all, to help clean up White Trash? What a radical use for taxes….
The head of this agency was mocked as a “parlor pink” who was “winking at Marx” – and this was the 2rd and 3th reference to Marxism or socialism in this entire book devoted to class analysis, with 4 references in the book total! Only in America….
(And this lack of Marxism is why the book got a major publisher – Penguin Random House. Had she added in more Marx…goodbye book deal.)
“The New Deal’s mission was to make individualism available to those ordinarily deprived it, freeing the many from their virtual imprisonment at the hands of the few.”
Winking at Marx indeed, Ms. Isenberg! Did you have to fight your editor to get that line included, LOL?
The Red Radical Isenberg proves (at least to me) that the famed Tennessee Valley Authority program – which coordinated among many southern states and created monumental public works – is the apex of socialism in America.
Its success is not disputed by anyone, not even school textbooks. It built not just dams and bridges, but libraries, recreation facilities, training centers, unprecedented adult education programs – “The TVA led to well-designed communities….”
The TVA remains a testament to the need for central planning today, whose success in creating steady economic progress amid capitalism’s inevitable depressions is attested to by the long-term growth rates of nations with 5-year economic plans like China, Iran and others.
“The straitjacket of states’ rights had suffocated southern progress long enough.”
Indeed. People are calling for a new TVA program today, and much of Trump’s legacy will rest on if he funds similar employment/public works programs.
Or we can just go back to mass war, like the US did with World War II.
Lotta money to be made there…but the Pentagon never did economic redistribution to White Trash.
Very interesting vignette, especially if you have read this far: At this time an intellectual sent questionnaires to top academics to define what “poor white” meant to them. The most common adjective was “shiftless.”
“It was connected to a string of synonyms: purposeless, hand to mouth, lazy, unambitious, no account, no desire to improve themselves, inertia.”
Basically, today’s version of “welfare queens”. Sure….
Elvis, the great White Trash rehabilitator
All hail the King:
“Elvis had achieved what no white trash working-class male had ever dreamt possible: he was at once cool and sexually transgressive and a “country boy”. No longer a freakish rural outcast, as in the past, Elvis was a ‘Hillbilly Cat,’ something many teenage boys wished they could be.”
The King in American-style democracy should be White Trash…that’s simple numbers.
Of course, communism is not mere “majority rule” democracy (which is actually “mob rule”) but elevates all together, realizing that harmony is produced by adding black ink to a white page.
Cultural sidebar: The author notes that popular early television shows like “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Andy Griffith Show” were mainly based on caricatures of White Trash, but also contained characters who were positive White Trash figures, like the star of the latter.
More importantly, these shows “…tapped into suspicions that modern America had failed to create a genuine melting pot; the cultural distance between rural and urban life, between rich and poor, was immense.”
And this cultural divide remains the main divide in Trumpian America because when was it ever resolved?
Crucially, it’s the 1960s which mark the true entry of White Trash into the American power structure.
Finally giving White Trash, not just Blacks, the vote
The passing of the 24th amendment in 1964 – the banning of poll taxes – is rarely brought up, despite being one of just 27 amendments to the US Constitution. What’s given far more press is the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when Blacks who were finally given the right to vote.
Giving Blacks the vote is correct, of course, and gives one a nice feeling that America has become a moral society.
So why is America not more openly proud of the 24th amendment? Because America ignores class, of course.
The author demonstrates that poll taxes were always used to disenfranchise White Trash as well. It’s much more well-known that prior to the post-Civil War introduction of poll taxes you had to be a landowner to vote in the US, but from 1865-1964 countless Whites were denied franchise, especially in the South.
If you insist on focusing on racial/identity politics you cannot explain, much less appreciate, the significance of the 24th amendment.
So we can use the elimination of poll taxes as when White Trash, when all Trash, truly began the WTR.
I’m getting a little misty here – sniff, sniff – for when the WTR turns into the ATR: the American Trash Revolution (i.e. communism).
And it should not be thought of as a coincidence that giving Trash the vote lent democratic support for major socialist-inspired successes like Johnson’s “Great Society” programs.
The civil rights movement meant: “Whites could no longer speak for people of color. Men could no longer speak for women.”
And now that White Trash truly had the right to vote, even in the South, politicians had to address them. Address them only with policies, but also changing their image to win their vote.
Saxophone-playing Bill did this; fake cowboy Dubya did this; Trump did this.
By the end of the 1980s “white trash” was finally reclaimed as a class having cultural value. In 1996 a man was charged with a hate crime for using the epithet “cracker”, while “redneck” became a badge of pride.
This was, of course, part of the PCR: “A larger trend was turning America into a more ethnically conscious nation, one in which ethnicity substituted for class. The hereditary model had not been completely abandoned; instead, it was reconfigured to focus on transmitted cultural values over inbred traits.” (Emphasis mine)
And this is the failure of Trumpism: Because It lacks the modernity and unity of socialism, it is merely an updating of the totally discredited ideologies of eugenics, racism, Darwinism. “White Trash versus the world!”
Of course, the moneyed White conservatives funding Trump also rely on a false and imagined economic history: “The same self-made man who looked down on white trash others had conveniently chosen to forget that his own parents escaped the tar-paper shack only with the help of the federal government.”
It is only via the promotion, application and enforcement of communism that people finally learn it is morally wrong to resent government programs which uplift the poor.
Again, a book on class but no Marx? Only in America….
Because no book review is “objective” unless it contains criticism….
Nearly 125 of the book’s 460 pages are just the footnotes: This strongly implies that the author is primarily a technocrat in her worldview.
This is a book by a major publisher and not an obscure university press – 27% of the book should have gone towards ideological discussion instead of anal facts us average readers will never bother to pursue.
Despite the Communist Manifesto being written in 1848, the revolutions of 1848, and the fact that Marx worked as journalist in New York, the first reference to communism does not occur until about 1861, just prior to the outbreak of the civil war. As previously stated: 4 references to socialism in a book about class seems willfully blind.
The author’s lack of political intelligence to accept and promote Marxism implies the acceptance of the contrary view – capitalism and racism.
And there is proof of this: Isenberg decries capitalism’s eugenics-filled and racist worldview and yet the title of her otherwise-fine epilogue is, “America’s Strange Breed”. (Emphasis mine)
It is not ironic but sad and bewildering that she uses this term to title this section, because the epilogue is otherwise rightly filled with condemnations of outdated genetic human branding of “breeds”.
But without communist class solidarity, one will always rest upon divisions: national, ethnic, religion, skin color – “breeds”.
Of course communists don’t believe in breeds. In Cuba nobody has improved more than Blacks (except women) after 1961. Russia was the first empire founded on affirmative action. Iran’s Supreme Leader is ethnically Azeri and Iran has the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel (with their own parliamentary representative).
“The sad fact is, if we have no class analysis, then we will continue to be shocked at the numbers of waste people who inhabit what self-anointed patriots have styled the ‘greatest civilization in the history of the world.’” (Emphasis mine)
I don’t’ see what’s sad about it? Class analysis is, by the author’s own admission, a freeing perspective. She clearly has some sort of bias against it, and that is to her own detriment.
And yet despite clearly not being a Marxist, the author is not interested in religion’s role in White Trash, either positive or negative? The only examination of lower-class Christianity is not until the 1980s and the Jimmy and Tammy Faye Bakker televangelism scandal. What about all the storefront holy-rollers, Pentecostal snake-handlers, etc.? Why only the sensational Bakkers and not the radio-era evangelists? Ignoring religion is the author’s right, but it should be all or nothing, I would think.
A far more major fault is that the author – who teaches at Louisiana State University and lives in Virginia – focuses way too much on Southern White Trash at the expense of both Western and Northeastern White Trash: “(Teddy) Roosevelt would have agreed: the distinct culture of the West did not translate to the South,” but this certainly not true of America 115 years later.
Television and the internet have created a situation where the “country twang” accent is a clear class delineation from coast to coast. Someone who speaks with a twang certainly lives all over the rural areas of so-called “blue states”.
Finally, the author, perhaps due to the lack of sympathy for humanity instilled by communism, vacillates too often between sympathy for White Trash and a clear abhorrence of them. She recounts way too many stories of a sensational or titillating nature about hut-dwelling, violent, unstable, dirty White Trash peasants.
If just a portion of these boringly scandalous stories had been replaced by proper ideological-based condemnations of the system she has studied, her book would have profited the reader much more both intellectually and socially.
Great book overall.
Now all we need is to get this White Trash painted red!
(This book review is paired with an editorial which uses the author’s insights to analyze the role of White Trash in the election of Donald Trump.)
Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for Press TV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. His work has appeared in various journals, magazines and websites, as well as on radio and television.