Friday, December 10, 2004

Liberal Elitists

DailyKos diariest Dog of the South tries to sort out the apparent contempt of us liberal elites in Philadelphia for rural white trash -- and reads it, rightly I think, as contempt for the poor.

The dominant strain of white trash sentiment in the North is good old-fashioned contempt for one's social inferiors. Such contempt is never a big shock in any form it takes; the only odd thing about this white trash sentiment is that it exists among educated liberals, people to whom race-contempt and gender-contempt are unquestionably taboo.

Americans on the left and right alike are bedeviled by an almost neurotic class-obliviousness. We get weepy on both sides of the divide when we ponder the idea that America is great and unique because only here can so many people start with nothing and succeed (an idea which tacitly suggests that anyone who doesn't succeed must be at grave personal fault). But the question isn't, and hasn't been for a long time, whether a talented and industrious individual can succeed here--he or she can succeed, which isn't true in every country by any means--the question is how ordinary people fare. Contemplation of ordinary people, however, leads us into rough intellectual waters which our national mythology is ill-equipped to help us navigate, and so we sometimes find it convenient to grasp at examples of exceptional people's success and pretend that these exceptions constitute rules. A curious result of all this is that many left-leaning types are just as willing as rock-ribbed conservatives to run people down for their poverty (with a standard exemption given for race). This liberal class-blindness, which allows otherwise fair-minded people to deride their economic inferiors as trash, is really not too distinct from the conservative race-blindness that allows some to suggest that everything would be fine in the ghetto if all the black people would quit drinking forties and get off their lazy asses and get a job. Liberals, of course, would rather be struck dead than make such an assertion about conditions in the ghetto. That's because liberal credentials these days are earned one hundred percent from race awareness and zero percent from class awareness.
For those Northerners whom I am accusing of white-trash contempt ... I think it might be an enlightening experience to visit two institutions that exist in every sizable Southern town. First on the agenda would be a trip to a Kmart or Wal*Mart, there to observe poor white shoppers rummaging through racks of eight-dollar shirts and stocking up on economy-pack diapers. Second would be a trip to any public library for a glance at Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Walker Evans and James Agee's Depression-era document on sharecroppers in Alabama. The point of the exercise would be that today's Kmart shoppers and the Depression's white sharecroppers are more or less the same people--just altered a bit by history.

Once, white sharecroppers stood alongside miners and factory workers at the focus of American liberal sympathy. In later years, when civil rights issues moved into social consciousness and an increased prosperity diminished the economic hardships of many rural whites, poor whites were pretty much forgotten in the lefty imagination. This has left poor white people with a serious public image problem. In the old days, there was always the notion of simple, dignified country people--the salt of the earth--to counterbalance the opposing stereotype of ignorant, licentious, dangerous cretins. But poor whites today, who are not as poor as they used to be, and who are often as alienated from the land as middle-class suburbanites, no longer qualify as the salt of the earth in anyone's imagination, and thus are often represented as pure cretins. Yet it is a mammoth act of historical obliviousness to forget that today's Kmart shopper was yesterday's disenfranchised sharecropper. Such obliviousness puts us uncomfortably close to the old plantation owners who were the first people to utter the words poor white trash.


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