November 2 2013
When Did White Trash Become Normal?
Society crumbles when it takes cues from the underclass
When Snooki, whose talents include getting sloppy drunk and throwing up on camera, made Barbara Walters’ “Ten Most Fascinating People” list a few years back, one could only ask: Was Octomom not available?
Last year, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” which features a cornucopia of social ills, was TLC’s highest-rated show, attracting more cable viewers than the Republican National Convention, which had the misfortune to share the time slot with the charmers from Georgia. The show’s matriarch, June Shannon, has four daughters by four men, one of whose names she can’t recall.
White Trash is the new normal — and you don’t have to tune in to reality TV to rub elbows with pathologies that once stayed put in Skunk Hollow. White Trash Normal has invaded every nook and cranny of life, from table manners, to dress, to money management.
Remember when bouncing a check was shameful? Now apparently it’s shameful for banks to charge overdraft fees.
Students of Arnold Toynbee, the English historian, will recognize what is going on here. In a chapter of his “A Study of History” entitled “Schism in the Soul,” Toynbee argued that it is a sign that a society is disintegrating when it takes its cues for manners and customs from the underclass. He describes such societies as being “truant” to their own values.
Toynbee is the guide to what we see all around us today.
We modern philistines tell ourselves that rejecting the customs and conventions of a stuffy, old elite will release creativity and bring about a renaissance. Nothing could be further from the truth. According to Toynbee, self-expression replaces creativity when disintegrating societies look downward.
Aspiration is replaced by complacency. Shame vanishes. Any criticism becomes “haters gonna hate,” or the White Trash motto: “It don’t make no difference.”
White Trash signifiers have changed of course — the foreclosed McMansion with the mosquito-infested swimming pool has replaced the rusting tractor permanently bivouacked on cement blocks in the front yard. But it’s the same general idea.
Obesity, the product of a lack of discipline, sloppy dressing, loud and intimate cellphone chats broadcast to a captive audience and foul language nonchalantly uttered in the ATM line are all forms of this “self-expression.”
Pre-White Trash, physical intimacy was reserved to private places. Now it’s reserved for the subway. You no longer have to live in a one-room shack to learn the facts of life early. Just walk down the toy aisle at Toys “R” Us for a sexpot Bratz Doll.
Children who see daytime television, broadcast in public areas, are inevitably treated to Jerry Springer reruns. How do you explain “Honey, I’m a Ho,” or “Transsexuals Attack” to a tot? Oh, wait, the tot explains it to you.
Tattoos are form of self-expression that have moved from gangs and prisons to the mainstream.
A 30-something scholar with a respected organization in Washington, DC, recently showed up at a fancy dinner in a little black cocktail dress, her shoulders extensively inked. Further sign of the impending apocalypse: She is a tattooed Chi Omega, once the Southern snob-appeal sorority. My young friend wore a “bespoke” tattoo, which means it was designed in consultation with an “artist.” In my mind, it bespoke volumes.
People in all walks of life used to put forth effort not to be taken for White Trash — in contrast to people today, who risk hepatitis to ape the decorative styles of prison gangs.
Not being White Trash wasn’t a matter of money. It was purely behavioral.
When did we decide that elastic waist bands, convict-inspired fashion and swearing on a cellphone were authentic ways to express individuality?
If we read our Toynbee, things may be even worse than we think. In Toynbee’s view, it’s up to the elites to save a civilization. They must become once again vigorously creative (think: great art, not twerking on TV) and worthy of imitation.
But how to get there from here? We could try saving our admiration for what’s really admirable. So let’s quit pretending that there’s anything charming about stripper-themed fashion and financial irresponsibility. All we have to lose is our inner Honey Boo Boo.
Bring back manners, bring back aspiration, bring back responsibility, heck, bring back the man in the gray flannel suit. We miss you.
Charlotte Hays is the author of “When Did White Trash Become the New Normal? A Southern Lady Asks the Impertinent Question” (Regnery Publishing), out this week