Category Archives: Resources

Notes on two new books added to Resources

Hi, all — just wanted to let you know that I’ve added my notes on two new books to “Resources, Non-fiction Books.” They are No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Want by Naomi Klein (2017) and Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2016). The notes on Nothing Ever Dies also include my notes on Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize winning 2016 novel about the Vietnam War, The Sympathizer. Look for “Resources” in the top bar of the web page.

As always, I heartily recommend that you read these books in their entirety yourself, but in case you don’t have the time, money, or interest to do that, these notes may be helpful to you. Share any and all widely.

An effective way to counter Trumpism

Just listened to Micah White on the This Is Hell podcast (the 11-19 episode), and want to try to share his main points with you while they’re still fresh in my mind. First of all, White doesn’t think the incremental reformism of most progressives, including Obama and Hillary Clinton, will get us far enough fast enough – especially in terms of attracting voters. Since the election of Donald Trump (which demonstrates this), White thinks we’re in for a long spell of populist fascism (the Trump model) unless we can create populist democracy by building a broad social movement focused on gaining governmental power. Dismissing street protests unconnected to such a goal as mere feel-good exercises, White points to the speed with which Trumpism gained power and similar time-lines for left-social-movement parties in Europe (Syriza in Greece, Five Stars in Italy, and Podemos in Spain).

Once political power is gained, changes can be made – like ensuring that no one goes hungry in Nehalem, OR, where White recently gained 20% of the vote for mayor. Believing that trying to gain control of small local governments should be part of any left social movement, White points out that leftist-controlled cities and towns could change from a city council form of government to one controlled by a popular assembly, beginning a movement toward “horizontal” (decentralized) democracy. At the same time, revolutionary (wanting real change) leftists could run for state and national offices for the purpose of changing government to be accountable and democratic, which it definitely isn’t now. For years Congress has been almost 100% unresponsive to what polls indicate most Americans want on a variety of issues. This, I believe, is why the majority of eligible voters (57.9% in this year’s election) choose “none of the above” by not voting.

White believes the best way to oppose Trump and Trumpism is to start planning now to try to win elections in 2018 and 2020. Get power in order to change how power functions. Dissatisfied Americans who voted for Trump would see how much responsive to their needs this kind of government would be, and switch from being unconscious fascists to conscious democrats.

Sounds like the only way to me. What do you think?

Why Clinton lost and what to do about it

If you want to hear a good analysis of the recent election from a leftist Brit, check out podcast episode #927 at www.thisishell.com. Or better yet, subscribe to the This Is Hell podcast on iTunes. Unfortunately, “This Is Hell” transcripts are a year behind, so I went to the article “Saturn Devours His Young” by Richard Seymour and his fellow editors on www.salvagezone.com. Here are its salient points:

“Between 2012 and 2016, the Republican vote barely changed, but the Democrats shed, at the latest estimate, approximately six and a half million votes. And 2012 was already three and a half million votes lower than Obama’s 2008 peak.” Early on, Clinton demoralized Democrats, managing “expectations down to close to zero, scolding Sanders supporters that universal healthcare was ‘never going to happen.’ She barely even had the grace to be red-faced about her convivial relationship with Goldman Sachs and Wall Street. Far from embarrassed, she was proud of her plaudits from Henry Kissinger, Laura Bush, and Dick Cheney. Meanwhile, her team noised it abroad that she would be looking to privatize social security, and re-arm liberal imperialism after Obama’s ‘Realist’ detour. And, while she dropped her old opposition to gay marriage and rowed back on locking up those ‘superpredators’ she once warned us about, she deliberately focused her campaign on wooing suburban Republicans. To little overall effect, other than the collapse in the Democratic vote.

Low voter turnout has always been key to Clinton’s strategy of “center-fishing” for the largest single segment of a shrinking pie. Banking on mass demoralization and abstentionism, it’s a democratic maneuver that embraces the hollowing-out of democracy. If discussed at all, this relied-upon and too-little-investigated mass disaffection has generally been described as ‘apathy.’ Liberal intellectuals are more likely to rage against marginal third-party candidates than look at the decades-long shame of a crisis of representation.” Ninety million eligible voters stayed home on Election Day this year, an estimated 57.9%.

Trump voters aren’t “mainly the poor and ‘left behind.’ Ample research and exit polls demonstrate that Trump had stronger support from among those with incomes above $50,000 than Clinton, including specific groups like male college graduates. The likelihood is that most workers, white or black, rather than rallying to Trump, simply didn’t vote. Numbers voting for both parties were down on 2012: but for the Republican candidate, only by relatively little; for the Democrat, by a lot.

This is not to deny that Trump won over some white workers, that he shook loose some elements of the Democratic coalition. The particulars of this are important though. Many commentators, for example, are citing, a ’16 per cent swing’ to Trump in certain rustbelt states – but declining turnout might mean that is rather than evidence of large-scale party defection, this represents greater motivation of Republican voters to actually vote. Such judgments can only be made with close analysis of the statistics across several variables. For example, in Wisconsin, the level of Republican support increased by just over 1,200 votes. The bigger change was that the Democrats lost roughly 240,000 votes. In Michigan, thus far, the Republican gain of approximately 165,000 votes is greatly outnumbered by the Democratic loss of roughly 300,000 votes. On the other hand, in Pennsylvania, the Democratic losses and Republican gains were more or less even at approximately 230,000 votes. To assess the meaning of this, one would still need to understand how much of the Republican gain in these states was concentrated in the working class, and how many of these were new voters, as opposed to former Obama voters. Instead, already every datum is being fed into the rapidly emerging nostrum that Trump ‘won over the white working class.’ The national figures alone already tell us this is wrong, as are many of the conclusions the anguished Left is coming to, especially the idea of blunting, with whatever niceties, our pro-migrant, internationalist, anti-racist politics.

In neglected, rusting areas in the US and Europe there are concentrated layers of unemployed and poor workers who don’t vote, downwardly mobile ‘skilled’ workers who often vote right, and middle-class strata who resent being ‘left behind’ with the wreckage.

In this election, for the first time, millennials were the largest generation, outnumbering babyboomers. And millennials, to the extent that they voted, supported Clinton by a margin of 54 to 46%. Those aged 45 and over, however, preferred Trump by a margin of 53 to 44%. Generational change has brought with it changes in demographic composition as well as in attitudes toward race and sex. One of the functions of Trump as father figure in this election was to devour the more multiracial, socially liberal young and their threat to the values, interests and property of older, whiter and more affluent voters.

There was, for a brief moment, the possibility that a social-democratic campaign, launched to the surprise of veteran cynics of all wings from within one of the main capitalist parties, could galvanize and enthuse the left-moving young, linking debt-ridden students and racially oppressed young people to the neglected in the rustbelts, as well as the working-class mainstays of the Democratic vote. Bernie Sanders, in his own way every bit the ‘anti-political’ politician that Trump is, outpolled Trump and other Republican candidates far more convincingly than Clinton. There was no guarantee that he would have won, but this was by far the best, the only plausible chance to counter the electrifying effect that Trump’s potential fascism was having on the Republican base. The resilient and disgusted Democratic establishment, coupled with the inherited weaknesses and poor class-rootedness of the Left, ensured that it was passed up. Newly leaked emails actually show that the Democrat machine actively bolstered the hardest-right bigots of the Republicans, in what they called the ‘Pied Piper Strategy’ to pull the party right, leaving the Democrats that mythicized center ground. To repeat: the Democrats cynically and deliberately enabled racist, nativist, misogynist, homophobic thuggery out of political calculation.

For the collapsing of the order of the center – the order that birthed Trump, the system of which he is not pathology but symptom, we shed no tears. But our worst enemies are building in its rubble faster and more effectively than we are. In 2017, we can expect major fascist advances – a Le Pen presidency in France for example. This is an epochal shift, and threat.

The American Supreme Court is lost to liberals, and Roe versus Wade is likely to be overturned. Some of Trump’s policies he will not, cannot enact: he can’t make Mexico pay for any wall he might build, and he can’t ban Muslims from entering the US. But this is cold comfort: unconstrained, with Republican majorities in both houses (and even the Republican ‘moderates’ who thought he had no chance now feeling permitted or obligated to follow his alt-right direction), he can approximate and jury-rig similar measures, and usher in a program of delirious, murderous reaction. Which is to say nothing of the concomitant cultural shift, the emboldening of resentment, spite, and social sadism. And, of course, the promised bonuses for newly privileged sectors of capital, above all energy, construction, and those associated with the military-industrial complex.

Yet Trump’s victory is fragile. He won because Clinton lost. He won with fewer votes than Romney. And he lost the popular vote by a slight margin. The form of politics he represents has been on a long-term slide, and his presidency is a one-off chance to halt it. While the Democratic establishment now predictably lays down its arms, urging us to give the new president ‘a chance,’ we support the protests of the justly disgusted and frightened. The platitudes about uniting, to which the political class are addicted, aren’t likely to be heeded by those against whom such uniting is taking place, and shouldn’t be by us.

The Left must remain hard not only in its aggressive, militant solidarity with migrants, and with the black activists insisting that the police be held to account, against whom an onslaught is to be expected. We must work vigorously in united fronts without succumbing to the forthcoming wave of sentimentality about Obama – the mechanisms of drone death, whistleblower-attack, and trenchant state surveillance now in the hands of a bloviating monster are Obama’s. In response to the liberals with whom we will march, who insist that ‘love trumps hate,’ we must argue instead for more hate in the right direction.

More than one commentator, and not only of the far Left or right, has discerned in this moment a slide toward a new civil war. This is only half-correct. One of the few positive things one can say about Trump’s victory that it clarifies the fact that the war was here already.”

Class in America

In White Trash: the 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America (2016), Nancy Isenberg, traces our country’s history of class identity back to British notions of poverty and colonial policies dedicated to getting rid of the poor. She then follows the historical line through to the present. “A preoccupation with penalizing poor whites,” she says, “reveals an uneasy tension between what Americans are taught to think the country promises – the dream of upward mobility – and the less appealing truth that class barriers almost invariably make that dream unobtainable. Of course, the intersection of race and class remains an undeniable part of the overall story…

Since rationalizing economic inequality has always been part of the national credo, poor whites have had to be classified as a distinct breed…Every era in the continent’s vaunted developmental story had its own taxonomy of waste people and its own means of distancing its version of white trash from the mainstream ideal. Long before they were today’s ‘trailer trash’ and ‘rednecks,’ they were called ‘lubbers,’ ‘rubbish,’ ‘clay-eaters,’ and ‘crackers.’

Our country’s history is based on myths, Isenberg acknowledges, starting with the New England Puritans’ shining “city on a hill,” despite the fact that they had a rigid class hierarchy and based their wealth on stolen Indian land, Indian and black slavery, and the exploitation of poor whites, especially children. Such misrepresentations have “left subsequent generations with a hollow symbol of progress on the march and the belief in American exceptionalism: the idea that we are unique and different, and the absence of class is one of our hallmarks. Nowhere else, we are meant to understand, was personal freedom so treasured. The very act of migration claims to equalize the people involved, molding them into a homogeneous, effectively classless society. Stories of unity tamp down our discontents and mask even our most palpable divisions. And when these divisions are class based, as they almost always are, a pronounced form of amnesia sets in. Americans don’t like to talk about class. It’s not supposed to be important in our history; it’s not who we are.”

The Virginia colony, with its tobacco-based economy, also brought wealth to only a few. Indentured servants, who, if they survived their years of servitude, could rarely obtain land, were replaced by African slaves, whose numbers grew to over 600,000 by the end of the 18th century. “Slavery was a logical outgrowth of the colonial class system. It emerged from three interrelated phenomena: harsh labor conditions, the treatment of indentures as commodities, and, most of all, the deliberate choice to breed children so that they could become an exploitable pool of workers. 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. The so-called wasteland of colonial America might have had the makings of a new Canaan. Instead, waste people fertilized the soil with their labor while finding it impossible to harvest any social mobility.”

Our founding fathers talked a good democratic game, but as Isenberg documents, actually represented – and protected – elite interests. The ideas of the “renowned English Enlightenment thinker John Locke” were the basis of much of their thinking. He was the author of the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669), “which granted that ‘every Freeman in Carolina shall have ABSOLUTE POWER AND AUTHORITY over his Negro Slaves.’ This wasn’t surprising: Locke was a founding member of the Royal African Company, which secured a monopoly over the British slave trade.” He was also its third-largest stockholder.

Isenberg describes how South Carolina became another bastion of class privilege, heavily based on slavery, while North Carolina was more of a refuge for poor whites, smugglers, and pirates, and Georgia, at least at first, a home for free white labor. Locke even invented a new social class, “leet-men,” for South Carolina by means of which poor whites could sell themselves and their descendants into serfdom. Fortunately, it didn’t take hold for very long.

“The original charter of Carolina would eventually be divided three ways when Georgia was parceled out of the original territory in 1732. This last southern colony was the most unusual of Britain’s offspring. An ex-military man, James Oglethorpe, was its guiding force, and he saw the venture as a unique opportunity to reconstruct class relations. It was a charitable endeavor, one meant to reform debtors and rescue poor men by refusing to permit slavery and discouraging reliance on indentured servants. Unique among the American settlements, Georgia wasn’t motivated by a desire for profit…Its purpose was twofold: to carve out a middle ground between the extremes of wealth that took hold in the Carolinas, and to serve as a barrier against the Spanish in Florida. Conservative land policies limited individual settlers to a maximum of 500 acres, thus discouraging the growth of a large-scale plantation economy and slave-based oligarchy. Poor settlers coming from England, Scotland, and other parts of Europe were granted fifty acres of land, free of charge, plus a home and a garden…It turned out that the colonists best suited to the Georgia experiment weren’t English, but Swiss, German, French Huguenot, and Scottish Highlander, all of whom seemed prepared for lives of hardship, arriving as whole communities of farming families. Many English settlers were unwilling to work hard, because they lacked a background in farming.” Oglethorpe’s experiment only lasted about ten years in its original form, and in 1750 slavery was made legal in the colony. “A planter elite quickly formed, principally among transplants from the West Indies and South Carolina.”

Isenberg next describes how Benjamin Franklin, arriving in Philadelphia with only the clothes on his back, became a member of the elite class with its prejudices against “lesser” men. “As early as 1730, Franklin was complaining about ‘vagrants and idle persons’ entering the colony…He felt the English were too charitable, an opinion he based on observing German settlers in his own colony, who worked with greater diligence because they came from a country that offered its poor little in the way of relief. He contended that the only solution to poverty was some kind of coercive system to make the indigent work…

In expressing discomfort with unrestrained social mobility, Franklin was a man of his time. For most Americans of the 18th century, it was thought to be impossible for a servant to shed his lowly origins…There were also fears that the meaner sort were treading too close on the heels of those above them. Franklin… fantasized that the continent would flatten out classes, but this was contingent upon keeping poor people in perpetual motion…Franklin hoped that the forces of nature would carry the day, that the demands of survival on the frontier would weed out the slothful, and that the better breeders would supplant the waste people…

Thomas Paine saw commerce as the balm that smoothed over class differences, [but] warned that if the leadership class didn’t seize hold of the [Revolutionary War] narrative, the broad appeal to political independence would be supplanted by an incendiary call for social leveling. ‘Common sense’ meant preserving the basic structure of the class order, and preventing the whole from descending into a mob mentality and eventual anarchy…

Franklin and Paine used Pennsylvania as their model, while Jefferson saw America’s future and the contours of its class system through the prism of Virginia. Eighteenth-century Virginia was both an agrarian and a hierarchical society. By 1770, fewer than 10% of white Virginians laid claim to over half the land in the colony, and a small upper echelon of large planters each owned slaves in the hundreds. More than half of white men owned no land at all, working as tenants or hired laborers, or contracted as servants. Land, slaves, and tobacco remained the major sources of wealth in Jefferson’s world, but the majority of white men did not own slaves.” Jefferson’s ideal yeoman farmer hardly existed in this picture; nor did he fit it himself, being the owner of a large, slave-run plantation…

The war years had taken their toll, and a postwar depression created widespread suffering. States had acquired hefty debts, which caused legislatures to increase taxes to levels far higher, sometimes three to four times higher, than before the war. Most of these tax dollars ended up in the hands of speculators in state government securities that had been sold to cover war expenses. Many soldiers were forced to sell their scrip and land bounties to speculators at a fracture of the value. Wealth was being transferred upward, from the tattered pockets of poor farmers and soldiers to the bulging purses of a nouveau riche of wartime speculators and creditors – a new class of ‘moneyed men.’”

In 1786 Shays’ Rebellion broke out across western Massachusetts. Captain Daniel Shays, who’d served in the Continental Army, had acquired over 200 acres of land, only to see half of his holdings lost during the postwar depression. His supporters closed down courts that were auctioning off farms and homes, and formed an ad hoc army that attempted to take over the armory in Springfield. Similar protests took place as far south as Virginia.

“Whereas Franklin, Paine, and Jefferson envisioned Americans as a commercial people suited to a grand continent, 19th century writers conceived a different frontier character. This new generation of social commentators paid particular attention to a peculiar class of people living in the thickly forested Northwest Territory (Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin), along the marshy shores of the Mississippi, and amid the mountainous terrain and sandy barrens of the southern backcountry (western Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, plus the new states of Kentucky and Tennessee, and northern Alabama), and later the Florida, Arkansas, and Missouri Territories. In his most favorable cast as backwoodsman, the new American hero was a homespun philosopher, an independent spirit, and a strong and courageous man who shunned fame and wealth. Turn him over, however, and he became the white savage, a ruthless brawler living in a dingy log cabin, with yelping dogs at his heels, a haggard wife, and a mongrel brood of children. Both crackers and squatters – two terms that became shorthand for landless migrants – stayed just one step ahead of the ‘real’ farmers, Jefferson’s idealized, commercially oriented cultivators. They lived off the grid, rarely attended a school or joined a church,” stayed poor and landless, and were constantly moving on. Federal laws for purchasing land were weighted in favor of wealthy speculators. With no clear path to land and riches, the landless west of the Appalachians were more likely to pull up stakes and move elsewhere than they were to stay in one place and try to work their way upward. By the 1830s and 1840s, the squatter was a symbol of partisan politics, celebrated as the iconic common man who came to epitomize Jacksonian democracy.

“As a representative of America’s cracker country, Jackson unquestionably added a new class dimension to the meaning of democracy. But the message of Jackson’s presidency wasn’t about equality so much as a new style of aggressive expansion,” epitomized in Jackson’s victories over the Creek nation in the swamps of Alabama in 1813-14 and the British in New Orleans in 1815, his unauthorized invasion of Spanish Florida in 1818, and, as president, his support of the forced removal of the Cherokees from the southeastern states despite the opinion of the Supreme Court. “Taking and clearing the land, using violent means if necessary, and acting without legal authority, Jackson was arguably the political heir of the cracker and squatter…Jackson’s aggressive style and his frequent resorting to duels and street fights seemed to fit what one Frenchman with Jacksonian sympathies described as the westerner’s ‘rude instinct of masculine liberty.’ The real men of America were Jacksonian, the hearty native sons of Tennessee and Kentucky. They fought the wars. They opened up the frontier through their sacrifice and hardship. They fathered the next generation of courageous settlers.”

The Civil War “dramatically reconfigured the democratic language of class identity. The lowly squatter remained the focus of attention, but he was now, singularly, a creature of the slave states. The southern poor weren’t just lazy vagrants now; they were a diseased breed, the degenerate spawn of a ‘notorious race.’ Northerners, especially those who joined the Free Soil Party (1848) and its successor, the Republican Party (1854), declared that poor whites demonstrated the debilitating effects of slavery on free labor…Turning the free-labor debate on its head, proslavery southerners contended that the greatest failing of the North was its dependence on a lower-class stratum of menial white workers. Ten years before he became president of the Confederacy, Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi observed that two labor systems coexisted in the United States. In the South, the line between classes was drawn on the basis of ‘color,’ while in the North the boundary had been marked ‘by property, between the rich and poor.’ Davis insisted that ‘no white man, in a slaveholding community, was the menial servant of anyone.’ Like many other proslavery advocates, Davis was convinced that slavery had elevated poor whites by ensuring their superiority over blacks. He was wrong: in the antebellum period, class hierarchy was more extreme than it ever had been.”

James Henry Hammond, South Carolina’s leading proslavery intellectual, coined the term “mudsill” to describe the essential inferiority of the North’s socioeconomic system. He portrayed the mudsill Union army as “a foul collection of urban roughs, prairie dirt farmers, greasy mechanics, unwashed immigrants, and by 1862, with the enlistment of Afro-American Union troops, insolent free blacks. If all societies had their mudsills, Hammond argued, the South had made the right choice in keeping Africa-descended slaves in this lowly station. The North had committed a worse offense: it had debased its own kind. It was only a matter of time, Hammond warned, before the poor northern mudsills orchestrated a class revolution, destroying what was left of the Union. The South was fighting against degenerate mudsills and everything they stood for: class mixing, race mixing, and the redistribution of wealth.

Southern whites lagged behind northerners in literacy rates by at least a six-to-one margin, but prominent southern men defended the disparity in educational opportunity. Chancellor William Harper of South Carolina concluded in his 1837 Memoir on Slavery, ‘It is better that a part should be fully and highly educated and the rest utterly ignorant.’ Inequality in education was preferable to the system in the northern states, in which ‘imperfect, superficial, half-education should be universal.’

North and South each saw class as the enemy’s pivotal weakness and a source of military and political vulnerability, and both sides were partially right. 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, hitting the poor hardest…Neither northern mudsills nor southern trash gained much when reduced to cannon fodder.”

Isenberg notes that the Freedmen’s Bureau, part of postwar Reconstruction in the South, helped as many poor whites as blacks. She then describes how Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” idea was used to justify racial and class discrimination, as well as the eugenics movement, which apparently was as strong in this country as in Nazi Germany.

“In 1932, three years after the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression, Warner Brothers released ‘I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,’ the story of a World War I veteran” who ends up on a southern chain gang. James Allen, the film’s hero, “a patriotic, ambitious, and suddenly jobless northerner, becomes, in turn, a tramp, a convict, and a fugitive, his fate sealed when he goes south. The story served as a confirmation of the New Deal’s conclusion that the southern economy was tragically out of step with the American dream. Will Alexander, the Tennessean who headed the New Deal Farm Security Administration, argued that southern tenancy robbed men of any chance to become self-reliant. For Alexander, the problem was stark and simple: success could only be achieved when the prejudice against white trash was overcome.

Dependency had long defined the South. Since the 1870s, impoverished sharecroppers and convict laborers, white as well as black, had clung to the bottom rung of the social order. Both black and white convicts were referred to as ‘niggers,’ and harsh sentences were common for minor offenses among this class. Robert Burns, the New Jersey man whose memoir inspired the Hollywood film, faced six to ten years at hard labor for a robbery that netted him $5.80. The South’s transportation infrastructure and expanded industrial base was built on the backs of chain gangs. States raked in tremendous revenues by leasing prisoners to private businesses. Historically, the majority of these laborers were black, but during the Depression more poor whites found themselves swept up in the system.” Read Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (2008) by Douglas Blackmon for more on this system.

“The Bonus Army tragedy that played out in Washington in the spring and summer of 1932 also displayed America at its lowest ebb. Some 20,000 unemployed veterans of World War I and their hurting families set up a shantytown across the river from Capitol Hill and demanded their bonus pay. ‘We were heroes in 1917, but we’re bums now,’ said their spokesman in a plea before the House. When the House-passed Pateman Bill to issue the bonuses failed in the Senate, President Herbert Hoover called out the army to disperse the temporary campers with bayonets, tear gas, and tanks. ‘The most powerful government in the world shooting its starving veterans out of worthless huts,’ was how John Henry Bartlett, former governor of New Hampshire, described the event in his eyewitness account…

Margaret Bourke-White used her camera to express the new critical outlook. Working for Life magazine, she shot a line of somber black men and women waiting for relief. They stood before a garish billboard that featured a ruddy-cheeked, smiling family of four driving down the road in a nice car. By the time this provocative photograph appeared in 1937, most Americans had already come to accept the uncomfortable truth about their national situation: equal opportunity was a grand illusion.”

Dorothea Lange’s An American Exodus (1939) focused on migrants from the middle American Dust Bowl, as did John Steinbeck’s bestselling novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and the 1941 film based on it. Professor Howard Odum’s study, Southern Regions of the United States, showed that “the South had surrendered 97 million acres to erosion (an area larger than the two Carolinas and Georgia); had squandered the chances of millions of people by tolerating poverty and illiteracy; and had ignored human potential by refusing to provide technological training, or even basic services, to its people. The overwhelming power of Odum’s data undercut what Odum himself called Gone with the Wind nostalgia: the collective self-image elite southerners had cultivated…Still, fear of unleashing genuine class upheaval – which even the liberal elite were loath to do – led significant numbers to blame the poor for their own failure…

Tennessean James Agee, in his powerfully drawn, enduringly evocative Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), attempted to toss the source of the white trash fetish back onto the middle class. The unusual book included the still life–style photographs of Walker Evans and addressed what Odum’s slow-to-change cohort refused to do: interrogate how an interpreter imposed his values on the subject. Agee opened the book by wondering out loud how a Harvard-educated, middle-class man like himself could write about poor whites without turning them into objects of pity or disgust. How could he ‘pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of “honest journalism”?’ Was it possible to convey the ‘cruel radiance of what is’? Agee experimented with different strategies, offering detailed descriptions of material objects: shoes, overalls, and the sparse arrangement of furnishings in a cropper’s home. He also interspersed what he imagined were the unspoken thoughts of the poor tenant with the uncensored insults he’d heard from the landlord. In this strangely introspective, deeply disturbing narrative, the author tries to force readers to look beyond conventional ways of seeing the poor. Instead of blaming them, he asks his audience to acknowledge their own complicity. The poor are not dull or slow-witted, he insists; they’ve merely internalized a kind of ‘anesthesia,’ which numbs them against the ‘shame and insult of discomforts, insecurities, and inferiorities.’ The southern middle class deserves the greater portion of shame, Agee felt, especially those who excused their indifference by saying, ‘They’re used to it.’”

In A Southerner Discovers the South (1938) Jonathan Daniels “attacked the southern idea that generation after generation of manual laborers should accept their exploitation as natural. At Cannon Mills, in North Carolina, he saw cyclone fences that turned mills into virtual prisons. Daniels offered varied portraits of poor whites, defending ‘restlessness’ and refusing to call it shiftlessness. He liked what he saw in Norris, Tennessee, a planned TVA town. It wasn’t the photoelectric cell lighting and heating of the big school building that impressed him so much as the ‘collision of children’ inside the school – the ‘hill children of the big, poor families’ alongside the children of engineers. If only this was America, he thought. He praised the TVA for discovering that ordinary southern whites were receptive to training if given a fair chance… ‘Maybe one Reb can still beat ten Yankees,” Daniels wrote, but that’s ‘irrelevant.’ Rebel pride had blinded all classes. ‘The tyrants and the plutocrats and the poor all need teaching. One of them no more than the others.’”

Isenberg shows how Lyndon Johnson fits into the “white trash” picture, then notes that during the ‘60s, “TV network executives discovered the hick sitcom…‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ which had the feel of the thirties, not the sixties, was a nostalgic rewrite of the Great Depression, featuring a town of misfits,” being straightened out by Sheriff Andy. The rest of the cast, including gullible gas station attendant Gomer Pyle, his cousin Goober, and Ernest T. Bass, “a screeching mountaineer who went on wild rampages,” were southern stereotypes. Similarly, on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” Granny and her Clampett kin were newly wealthy, but in their ignorance of modernity could only be the objects of mocking audience laughter. “Their signature laugh track aside, sixties comedies weren’t purely escapist fare. They tapped into a larger anxiety about the mass migration of poor whites heading north and creating hillbilly ghettos in cities like Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, and Cincinnati…Elvis Presley’s social identity was close to the story line of ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ The son of a white sharecropper, suddenly catapulted into wealth and fame, he purchased Graceland, a mansion outside of Memphis, where he lived with his parents. For his beloved mother he bought a pink Cadillac, and to make the house truly a home she could appreciate, he built her a chicken coop in the backyard.”

Isenberg next shows how suburban tract towns like Levittown were segregated by race and class, as well as privileged over trailer parks. She then reminds us how stereotypes of poor southern whites were “highlighted” during the 1960s civil rights struggles. Following are her views on how Jimmy Carter fits into the “redneck” picture. When “Carter was forced to endure a screening of ‘Deliverance’ in Atlanta in 1972, he remained wary of its promoters’ claim that the film was good for the state. James Dickey [author of the novel on which the film was based] and Jimmy Carter were two Georgians with absolutely nothing in common. Carter was a Baptist and had a teetotaler wife, while Dickey was an alcoholic and egomaniac. Haunted by insecurity after a pampered and effeminate youth, he reinvented himself as the child of hillbillies. His novel, published in 1970, was a tortured exploration of lost manhood, an attempt to recover his ‘inner hillbilly.’” It’s a “psychosexual thriller” about four men on a canoe trip in Appalachia, one of whom is raped by a mountain man. “The dandified city folk aren’t merely given their comeuppance; they’re forced to rediscover their primal instincts. Dickey saw this as a good thing, and his hero ends up a stronger man. In one interview, the novelist admitted that the lure of the backcountry was to him the possibility of one’s becoming a ‘counter-monster,’ behaving as men did who lived in remote parts, ‘doing whatever you felt compelled to do to survive.’ In the novel and film alike, the city men commit two murders, conceal the death of Drew, one of their traveling companions, and make a pact never to reveal what happened on their trip. Drew had to die, because he was the only one of the four Atlanta businessmen who showed any compassion for rural people, reaching out to the idiot-savant teenager after their banjo-and-guitar duet. The film’s message was clear: sympathy was a sign of weakness city boys had to overcome.” The “freedom to be a boor, out in the open and without regrets,” was also highlighted in “Smokey and the Bandit,” the the second highest grossing film of 1977 (most of its popularity was in the South and Midwest) and the TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard,” launched in 1979.

“In 1980, Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, a man who understood precious little about southern culture, but knew all he needed to about image making. Reagan could play the Irishman when he visited Ballyporeen, County Tipperary; and he could wear a cowboy hat and ride a horse, as he did in one of his best-known films, ‘Santa Fe Trail.’ The ‘acting president’ had a skill few politicians possessed in that he was trained to deliver moving lines, look good for the camera, and project the desired tone and emotion. He came to office rejecting everything Carter stood for: the rural South, the common man, and the image of the down-home American in bare feet and jeans. Reagan looked fantastic in a tuxedo. A rumor made the rounds in 1980 that Nancy Reagan was telling her friends that the Carters had turned the White House into a ‘pigsty.’ In her eyes, they were white trash, and every trace of them had to be erased.”

Isenberg next documents “the biggest public scandal of 1987,” the fall of Reverend Jim Bakker and his wife Tammy Faye, who built a televangelist empire out of the Charlotte, North Carolina, PTL (“Praise the Lord/Pass the Love”) Television Network, though they were from Michigan and Minnesota respectively. “One can directly trace the unholy line from the out-of-control Bakkers to the gawking at rural Georgian white trashdom in TLC’s ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.’ Both the preacher’s perversions and the underage beauty contestant’s shenanigans tapped into the public’s attachment to the tawdry behavior of the American underclass…

Redneck, cracker, and hillbilly were simultaneously presented as an ethnic identity, a racial epithet, and a workingman’s badge of honor. A North Carolina journalist neatly summed up the identity confusion: ‘If you think you’re a redneck, you think you’re hardworking, fun-loving and independent. If you don’t think you’re a redneck, you think they’re loud, obnoxious, bigoted and shallow.’ Along with the article was a pop quiz featuring questions about NASCAR, food, and TV’s ‘Hee Haw,’ with right answers distinguishing the ‘real Bubbas from the wanna-bes.’”

Isenberg shows how Bill Clinton parlayed being “a bit of a Bubba” into common-man popularity. She notes that black author Toni Morrison even called him “the first black president,” as evidenced by his “upbringing in a poor, single-parent household, his working-class ways, his saxophone playing and love for junk food,” and his treatment as a criminal (Morrison felt) during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Isenberg concludes her book on a resounding political note: “A corps of pundits exists whose fear of the lower classes has led them to assert that the unbred perverse – white as well as black – are crippling and corrupting American society. They deny that the nation’s economic structure has a causal relationship with the social phenomena they highlight. They deny history. If they didn’t, they’d recognize that the most powerful engines of the U.S. economy –slave-owning planters and land speculators in the past, and banks, tax policy, corporate giants, and compassionless politicians and angry voters today – bear considerable responsibility for the lasting effects on the working poor generally. The sad fact is, if we have no class analysis, we’ll 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.’

American democracy has never accorded all the people a meaningful voice. The masses have been given symbols instead, and they’re often empty ones. Nation-states traditionally rely on the fiction that a head of state can represent the body of the people and stand in as their proxy; in the American version, the president must appeal broadly to shared values that mask the existence of deep class divisions. Even when this strategy works, unity comes at the price of perpetuating ideological deception. Instead of a thoroughgoing democracy, Americans have settled for democratic stagecraft: high-sounding rhetoric and political leaders dressing down at barbecues in order to come across as ordinary people. But presidents and other national politicians are anything but ordinary people after they’re elected. Disguising that fact  distorts the class nature of state power.

Government assistance is said to undermine the American dream. Wait. Undermine whose American dream?

Even when it’s denied, politicians engage in class issues. The Civil War was a struggle to shore up both a racial and a class hierarchy. The Confederacy was afraid poor whites would be drawn in by Union appeals and vote to end slavery, which was principally in the wealthy planters’ self-interest. Today as well we have a large unbalanced electorate that’s regularly convinced to vote against its collective self-interest.

Job opportunities for all – the myth of full employment – is just that, a myth. The economy can’t provide employment for everyone, a fact that’s little acknowledged. In the 16th century, the English had their ‘reserve army of the poor’ who were drummed into the military. Modern America’s reserve army of the poor are also drummed into the worst jobs, the worst-paid positions, and provide the labor force that works in coal mines, cleans toilets and barn stalls, picks and plucks in fields as migrant laborers, or slaughters animals. Waste people remain the ‘mudsills’ who fill out the bottom layer of the labor pool on which society’s wealth rests. And poor whites are still taught to hate, but not to hate those who are keeping them in line.

Statistical measurement has shown convincingly that the best predictor of success is the class status of one’s forebears. Ironically, given the American Revolutionaries’ hatred for Old World aristocracies, Americans transfer wealth today in the fashion of those older societies, while modern European nations provide considerably more social services to their populations.

White trash is a central, disturbing thread in our national narrative. The very existence of such people – both in their visibility and invisibility – is proof that American society obsesses over the mutable labels we give to the neighbors we wish not to notice. ‘They’re not who we are.’ But they are who we are and have been a fundamental part of our history, whether we like it or not.”

 

A novel about the sexual abuse of children in a religious community

Here’s another book review for you. As always with my reviews, if you hate spoilers, read no further until you’ve gotten ahold of “Hush” by Eishes Chayil (Judy Brown) and read it for yourself — or decided not to read it.

Judy Brown first published “Hush” under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil (“Woman of Valor”) because of her novel’s subject: the near impossibility of discussing — and, thus, trying to heal from — child sexual abuse in her ultraorthodox Jewish community. Like her second book, “This Is Not A Love Story,” “Hush” is semi-autobiographical, very expressively written, and told from the point of view of a child, then teenager, then young woman. Gittel, age 9, saw her best friend Devory being sexually abused by her older brother. Devory acts out her pain and desperation, since her parents and teachers refuse to listen to her, and finally hangs herself with a jump rope in Gittel’s bathroom. Gittel feels terrible pain and guilt over this, and can receive no help for it until, as a young married woman, she breaks with tradition by naming her first child after her friend and demanding that the issue of child sexual abuse be addressed by the community.

In the novel’s afterword Brown writes, “We didn’t need the outside world. We had our own…We built walls, and built them high. The walls would keep the gentiles and their terrifying world far away. The walls would protect us and shelter us — and as we built them higher, thicker, wider, we forgot to look inside. We forgot that the greatest enemies always grow from within…This is a story I wrote about life in the ultra-Orthodox Chassidic world — about our joy, about our warmth, and about our deep denial of anything that didn’t follow tradition, law, or our deeply ingrained delusions. It’s a story told through the eyes of children, those who need to learn to understand how and why it happened to them, and those who need to find a way to survive it. This is for all the children — past and present — who still suffer. I have used a fictitious name, Yushive, for the main sect in Hush, because I refuse to point a finger at one group, when the crime was [is] endemic to all.”

Indeed, the sexual abuse of children occurs in almost all human groups, especially, it seems those that for religious reasons impose unnatural strictures on sexuality. Unfortunately, these are also societies in which the discussion of such a problem tends to be taboo.