White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

 I clearly remember taking US History class in high school, and I actually started reading the textbook I bought from a classmate over the summer.  As far as I remember, America was colonized by Europeans who had been religiously persecuted and English adventurers seeking fortune in the New World.  This was partially true.  The history books mentioned that as a prelude to the War of 1812, the US had protested the British tactic of impressing Americans, which meant, they kidnapped Americans and forced them to serve as free labor on British Naval ships.  What they failed to mention is that this was a longstanding British tactic not just for getting sailors but for populating the New World.  The British would simply find vagabonds or orphans on the streets of England, kidnap them, and then export them to America as servants.  Today, we think of servants as Latino maids who get paid to clean houses, but back then, a servant was not paid.  Sometimes they gained freedom after many years of service.  They also used indentured servants, somewhat voluntary people who agreed to go to America in exchange for the travel expense, room, board and free labor.  America was also populated by criminals much like Australia. 

 Early America was in need of farmers, but it seems most of the early settlers were not English farmers but rather townsfolk who had no clue about farming and either made their living in urban craft trades or by stealing and begging.  Essentially, they were poorly equipped to survive in the new world, and many perished.  The book notes that America had to rely on German and Swiss migrants who were real farmers and knew how to work the land.  Many English, instead, escaped servitude and eked out a living in the wilderness often resorting to banditry and theft to get by (later moonshining and today making and selling illegal drugs).  In other words, early America was populated by scoundrels, scum, fugitives, criminals, street urchin, and orphans.  Invariably, they established their own unique culture.  Now, here is where I need to be fair to them.  Whenever you discover a culture that is averse to working hard, it does not indicate any hereditary deficiency as much as some oppression and forced labor.  When you have been enslaved, you never develop a healthy work ethic.  You work hard often out of fear of punishment, so once that fear of punishment goes away when you are liberated, you have no desire to work anymore.  An oppressor culture will always argue that the oppressed culture is lazy and criminal, and this somehow justifies their cruel treatment of them, but it’s the opposite way around.  Their cruel treatment caused them to lose their work ethic and resort to illegal activities instead to get by.

 It is actually shocking how these English slackers virtually became their own separate species in the American wilderness, how people described them as rail-thin, their hair white as cotton, their skin yellowed, their kids with distended bellies, and diseases from malnourishment causing blisters on their faces and missing lips, noses, and ears.  You can almost imagine creating a horror movie about a group of unwitting settlers running across them.  Of course, much of this could be attributed to persecution, but at the same time, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that many of them did suffer.  On the other hand, if you threw any group of people out in the wilderness to survive on their own, you would eventually get natural selection.  The hardiest, most ingenious and hardworking of them, would procreate more, acquire more resources, and eventually thrive over the weaker.  Our culture is so inundated with negative stereotypes of the poor, rural white, that it is hard to imagine any redeeming attributes about them, but fact of the matter is, many of them wind up in big cities doing very well.  Many are industrious and ingenious.  If anything, perhaps this book feeds into negative stereotypes about them by uncovering that their origins are so unflattering, fugitives, criminals, scoundrels, and servants. 

 Aggravating things for the poor whites was slavery in the South.  How would you feel if you were working in the field next to a slave?  Certainly, you might think you’re better off, because you get a meager salary, but slavery made poor whites feel entitled and one class greater than another more oppressed lot.  At the same time, Southern slave owners had little incentive to employ poor whites when they had slaves who worked for free.  They could also breed the slaves to increase their wealth.  The American North realized that slavery would harm the nation and create a larger group of lazy poor whites, so they banned it outside of the South.  History textbooks would have you think they banned it purely for moral reasons.  In fact, textbooks would have you believe that poor whites gladly joined the Confederate Army to fight the North when in fact, many were drafted and became draft dodgers.  Many realized it was a rich man’s war, the slave-owners’ war. 

 Where the book succeeds most is in uncovering the unfortunate fact that in 1776, America did not gain independence from classism.  Just as Alexander Hamilton wanted to replace the oppressive British federal government with an oppressive, powerful American federal government, many Americans still wanted an aristocracy.  Many proposed making George Washington their new king.  Many still believed in an elite, ruling class, and it is beyond any doubt that this attitude remains today.  I would argue that social mobility is easier in America than any other nation on Earth, but I would also argue that America is not as egalitarian as it is portrayed, that there still remains considerable discrimination against blacks, foreigners, Latinos, dark-skinned people, and rural white Americans.  While East Asians and Indians can quickly climb the socio-economic ladder by mastering science and technology, many invariably hit the glass ceiling, and let’s not forget the continued discrimination against women. 

 One of the big things that is overlooked in textbooks is the fact that once poor people gained the right to vote, the elite started to divide them and use propaganda and scapegoating to gain their votes and support.  After the Civil War, Southern politicians gained the support of the poor whites by portraying their opponents as black rights supporters and vowing to keep blacks down.  The same thing is happening today with Trump trying to gain poor white votes by using Mexicans and Muslims as scapegoats.  It is one of those unfortunate things about democracy which makes you temporarily wonder if it would be better if the elites just decided who to run the country, and perhaps there would be more harmony between the rest of us.  Of course, this is probably what they would argue makes sense too.  As bad as an ill-informed, brainwashed voting public is, it is still a better hope than purely a caucus of elite deciding who runs the country.  At least when they give us the illusion of choice, and we overwhelmingly choose someone they don’t like, we can watch them squirm and steal votes to ensure their candidates get to the top.

 The book also covers Eugenics, which became a big craze in the beginning of the 20th century along with an American love affair with fitness and sports.  Many athletic activities became popular in the beginning of the 20th century including roller derby, velodrome bicycle racing, endurance sports, team sports, calisthenics, and the Olympics.  It seems everyone took survival of the fittest literally.  Of course, what they all failed to realize is that humans, as a race, were probably the physically weakest of all intelligent primates and survived because we were both smarter and more cooperative, more compassionate caring for our weak, elderly, sick, and crippled. 

 What you never read in a textbook is the atrocities committed by government beyond the mass genocide and relocation of Native Americans.  You never hear about the mass sterilization programs across the country, including that of white women accused of being inferior or feebleminded and prisoners.  You never hear about the infecting of prisoners and mental patients with STD’s.  We were like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union light.  The reason you never hear about this is because of the agenda at the time of the state planning and creating a society of superior beings in their minds while systematically attempting to cleanse society of the weak, feeble, mentally ill, and criminal.  To this day, we have the highest incarceration rate in the world.  At the same time, they tried to sell everyone on the idea that government is good, government can fix all our social ills, and government can only achieve this with supreme power and funding.  It was perhaps the greatest scam perpetrated on a human population that still lingers to this day.  It is called  social engineering. 

 You know what’s funny as I read this book.  I was raised to study hard, to believe in social mobility, and to be totally submissive and obedient.  Fortunately, I rebelled against this, but I suffered for it.  When I graduated college with an Economics degree, I had no marketable skill and spent a few years dirt poor with temp jobs.  When I was growing up, I believed that I lived in a socially equal society with huge opportunities, so I think it made me complacent.  Had I any idea that this was all false, that I lived in a classist society where the bottom were sterilized, incarcerated, and experimented upon, I might have studied harder in school and acquired a more marketable skill in college.  When you realize how poorly the poor are treated and how easy it is to become poor, it actually makes you scared to be poor.  Kids today want to be rock stars, reality TV stars, singers, actors, writers, and artists, but if they had any idea how horribly they would be treated as poor starving artists, they might reconsider.  Perhaps this is one big reason immigrants work harder.  There was no big lie told to them in school.  They all knew first hand that the poor in their countries are discriminated against and punished, so they all knew that studying and hard work were guarantees against all this horrible abuse and suffering.  I would argue that if the average American kid read this book, they would immediately jump in their textbooks and happily profess obedience to the system.  This book kind of convinces me that the elite are powerful beyond my imagination and always have been, and their total control of the system today including our news media makes them unimaginably omnipotent.  What was before a cocky antipathy toward the crooked system is now perhaps fear, real, pure fear of a system that could easily decide that I am the enemy and in need of correction, control, or containment.

 At the end, the book goes on rambling.  It does that a lot, but it goes on rambling now about modern pop culture and its representation of white trash both good, like Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley and bad, Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty.  It misses a few like Larry the Cable Guy, Jeff Foxworthy, Kid Rock, and all the guests on Jerry Springer. 

 At the end, the moral of the story is that the elite want to distract and divide the masses, or else, the masses would rise up and replace them.  Throughout history, the best way to achieve this is to always have somebody to look down upon.  So there is always a group of people who have been targeted for ridicule, discrimination, and scapegoating.  They have included Jews, gypsies, the Irish, blacks, white trash, Italian immigrants, and today, Mexican immigrants and Muslims.  So long as the masses can look down upon one class of people and go, thank god I’m not like them, they are content.  So long as they can take out all their frustrations of poverty and inequality on some weaker group, they’re content.  Even the most highly educated urban white people deprived of looking down upon blacks, like to look down upon their hillbilly cousins.  Why don’t we just stop looking down upon anyone and start looking up to the assholes who lord over us and make all our lives miserable?


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