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Talking White Trash

December 27, AD2013

 

People of a certain age ought to remember the routine that made comedian Jeff Foxworthy a household name. And I’ll give just one example: “If you mow your yard, and you find three cars and a couch, you might be a redneck.”

What Foxworthy was describing, though, wasn’t really a redneck. No, there’s another name for the ignorant, slovenly boors Foxworthy’s jokes painted in such garish colors: white trash. We could go less race-specific and use the term I heard growing up — trailer trash. Either name makes the egalitarian-minded liberal shudder; and yet, while progressives are good at talking populist, when the crunch comes they can be as elitist as any Porcellian among the Boston Brahmin.

The term white trash has been popping up here and there since the infamous Phil Robertson GQ interview; understandably, since Robertson used it to describe himself and the people he came from (post-WWII, pre-Vietnam rural Louisiana). Peter Lawler, in the blog “Postmodern Conservative” on First Things, remarks:

The phrase “white trash” is, in fact, one of the most unattractive features of aristocratic Southern Stoicism. The Stoic, aristocratic (not to mention gay and racist) poet-philosopher William Alexander Percy disparaged “white trash” far more than southern blacks. And we see that same sort of stereotyping in To Kill a Mockingbird, where the white trash are really, really trashy — so trashy that nobody minds how cruelly Stoic attorney Atticus Finch deconstructs the pretensions of their way of life in the service of justice for a noble — if simple — black man.  And of course the white trash jury was too trashy to keep an innocent black man from being convicted. …

When a Stoic Walker Percy character says that the behavior celebrated on our talk and reality shows is that of white trash — of people who don’t know how to act because they don’t know who they are — we can’t help but want to agree. … White trash, any real Southern Stoic would say, describes a way of living not confined to the impoverished or the South. (Here I refer you to the novels of Tom Wolfe.)

Southern matron Charlotte Hays, author of When Did White Trash Become the New Normal? A Southern Lady Asks the Impertinent Question, does agree. For Hays, the trashy mentality is rooted in cultural illiteracy: “If you don’t know who Adam and Eve were, you probably don’t have reasoned arguments as to whether Adam and Steve should get married.” In her rollicking post for The Federalist, “White Trash Religion in a Nutshell: Proud, Ignorant and Messy”, she cites Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion (a book I simply have to read soon): “America’s problem is not too much religion, or too little of it.  It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities in its wake.” And then she embroiders on it:

You thought the Rapture crowd would believe anything? Wrong. Neo–White Trash religion takes gullibility to a new height. White Trash religion embraces not only pseudo-Christianities but pseudo-scholarship with a simple faith that is almost touching. … The older WASP had some appreciation of this history, but his grandchildren — likely named Apple, Bodhi, and Thor — don’t. They were not fortified against such foolishness by the simple expedient of being sent to Sunday school every Sunday. Not sending your children to Sunday school is worse for posterity than having a dead tractor in the front yard.

Just so. Terry Mattingly of GetReligion points us to an article in CNN’s BeliefBlog, “Does Phil Robertson get the Bible wrong?”, touted as the “best, fairest article on Christians and homosexuality you’ll ever read”, as a prime example of poor journalism and worse scholarship. The article tells us that 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is “so complicated” that “a lot of people misread this text”, that “the Bible doesn’t mean what Phil Robertson thinks it means” … but exactly what it does mean, and why it means that rather than the literal interpretation of 2,000 years’ worth of saints and scholars, didn’t get printed. Oh, a psychologist tells us that “the vice list” which appears several times in Scripture is “likely based on rumors that Paul heard about Corinth” … as if St. Paul had never been there himself. The connection between premiss and conclusion is obvious only to imaginations more fertile than mine.

But that’s the kind of article people will point to as “proof” that controverts traditional Christian moral doctrine. How do I know? Well, last week I took apart a scripturally illiterate meme that begins with the words, “Jesus was a radical non-violent revolutionary ….” Where did I get the meme? From a friend of mine who’s a lesbian and self-described pagan, who posted it in her Facebook status with the notation, “So if anyone’s being persecuted, it’s not the so-called Christians.”  The author of the meme? Comedian John Fugelsang. To effectively question authority, you must first know who is an authority and what authority is.

This cultural illiteracy is not limited to believers. Atheist blogger Tim O’Neill recently wrote in a book review about the “staggering level of historical illiteracy” he encounters on atheist discussion boards. “I like to console myself that many of the people on such boards have come to their atheism via the study of science and so, even if they are quite learned in things like geology and biology, usually have a grasp of history stunted at about high school level. I generally do this because the alternative is to admit that the average person’s grasp of history and how history is studied is so utterly feeble as to be totally depressing.”

What is ignorance? Ignorance is when you don’t know enough to know that you don’t know enough.

According to Hays, who cites psychologist Jean Twenge’s Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable than Ever Before, the number of college students scoring high on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory increased 30% in the twenty-four years between 1982 and 2006, to about 65%. If it’s not quite true to say that the 25 – 45 set today is proud to be culturally ignorant, you could say that they don’t think less of themselves for it: “I don’t know that s**t! Keep it real!” They believe they know enough to make their minds up … and aren’t you supposed to think for yourself, anyway?

You think that’s bad enough, consider this: they have votes, and those votes are worth the same as yours and mine.

So it’s no surprise that our culture has become trashy; many of us have been saying that for years. Which is why it’s amusing that the left, which has given us ugly art, foul-mouthed comedians, twerking pop singers, half-naked feminists and half a hundred philosophical absurdities, should suddenly develop a delicacy second only to Scarlett O’Hara and clutch its collective pearls when a real man of the people, who doesn’t swear and gave up drinking, quotes the Bible.

Apparently not all trash is created equal.

© 2013 Tony Layne.  All rights reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Born in Albuquerque, N. Mex., and raised in Omaha, Nebr., Anthony S. Layne served briefly in the U.S. Marine Corps, and attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha as a sociology major while holding a variety of jobs. Tony was a "C-and-E Catholic" until, while defending the Faith during the scandals of 2002, he discovered the beauty of Catholic orthodoxy. He currently lives in Denton, Texas, works in the home-mortgage industry in Dallas, participates in his parish's Knights of Columbus council, and bowls poorly on Sunday nights. Along with Catholic Stand, he also contributes to New Evangelization Monthly and occasionally writes for his own blogs, Outside the Asylum and The Impractical Catholic.

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  • Jean Pergande

    Excellent piece.

  • Guy McClung

    Based on the stated criteria, there could be all kinds of garbage out there, but the various “thought police” and “militants” would attack and many “_______trash” terms would be called “hate crimes” ,resigned to the dung heap of political correctness and coaches who used them would be fired and journalists who even quoted their use would be demoted.. Imagine “_____________”trash – fill in your favorite color or group that is or that feels persecuted. And you know what would then happen to that term – it would be banned. There is a toughness and a pride about White Trash folks – an In-Your-Face strength, a You-Want-a-Piece-of-me? power that does not whine, does not cower, that does not refuse to debate and discuss, that does not back down, and which speaks truth without fear. George III’s minions viewed every revolutionary as “white trash,”. Perhaps a White Trash Attitude could rejuvenate America and provide a beneficial cathartic emperor-has-no-clothes public statement for our country today.

    • If I were to go for an “attitude”, I would go more for “redneck”. I had to cut out the paragraph where I made the distinction between “redneck” and “white trash”: laborers, mechanics and farmers, necks made red from long days working in the sun. “Redneck” is a lot more general than “trash”; it’s not confined to the country or to the South. In our cultural mythology, the redneck is an uncomplicated person who works hard, prays hard and enjoys the simpler things in life. He won’t ever get rich — in fact, jobs entailing physical labor are usually bloody good ways to stay shirttail for the bulk of your life — but being poor doesn’t make him “trashy”, nor does his humble station in life make him easily pushed around. The redneck isn’t sophisticated; but then, “sophistication” is related to “sophistry”, worldly pseudo-wisdom born of license, self-indulgence and despair. By contrast, “trash”, in its purest meaning, is simply countercultural without being productive.