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.”
In February of 2001, Charles Murray wrote a piece for the American Enterprise Institute, which touched upon similar themes, titled, “Prole Models.” (I found it searching under Toynbee’s “Schism in the Soul” phrase in Google):
That American life has coarsened over the past several decades is not much argued, but the nature of the beast is still in question. Gertrude Himmelfarb sees it as a struggle between competing elites, in which the left originated a counterculture that the right failed to hold back. Daniel Patrick Moynihan has given us the phrase “defining deviancy down,” to describe a process in which we change the meaning of moral to fit what we are doing anyway. I wish to add a third voice to the mix, that of the late historian Arnold Toynbee, who would find our recent history no mystery at all: We are witnessing the proletarianization of the dominant minority.
The language and thought are drawn from a chapter of “A Study of History,” entitled “Schism in the Soul,” in which Toynbee discusses the disintegration of civilizations. He observes that one of the consistent symptoms of disintegration is that the elites–Toynbee’s “dominant minority”–begin to imitate those at the bottom of society. His argument goes like this:
The growth phase of a civilization is led by a creative minority with a strong, self-confident sense of style, virtue and purpose. The uncreative majority follows along through mimesis, “a mechanical and superficial imitation of the great and inspired originals.” In a disintegrating civilization, the creative minority has degenerated into elites that are no longer confident, no longer setting the example. Among other reactions are a “lapse into truancy” (a rejection, in effect, of the obligations of citizenship), and a “surrender to a sense of promiscuity” (vulgarizations of manners, the arts, and language) that “are apt to appear first in the ranks of the proletariat and to spread from there to the ranks of the dominant minority, which usually succumbs to the sickness of `proletarianization.’”
That sounds very much like what has been happening in the U.S. Truancy and promiscuity, in Toynbee’s sense, are not new in America. But until a few decades ago they were publicly despised and largely confined to the bottom layer of Toynbee’s proletariat — the group we used to call “low-class” or “trash,” and which we now call the underclass. Today, those behaviors have been transmuted into a code that the elites sometimes imitate, sometimes placate, and fear to challenge. Meanwhile, they no longer have a code of their own in which they have confidence.
A small example will illustrate the broader phenomenon. In 1960, four-letter words were still unknown in public discourse. Among the elites, they were used sparingly even in private. Free use of vulgar language among adults was declasse. Now switch to the fall of 2000 and a Sports Illustrated article about the Oakland Raiders, in which the author conveys the reason for the new coach’s success by quoting the apercu of one of Oakland’s star players: “He don’t take no s — , and he knows his s — .”
One significant aspect of the editorial choice to publish the quote is that the editors of Sports Illustrated, a glossy, upscale magazine, had no reason to think they would offend their readership. Everyone does it–as indeed everyone does. Another significant aspect is that the editors could leave the grammar untouched without worrying that they would be accused of condescension toward the player who was the identified source of the quote.
And finally, regarding today’s even cruder world of professional sports, Phyllis Chesler looks at Donald Sterling’s racist meltdown and wonders when the NBA will clean up the rest of its act: “Down With NBA Racism! Sexism—Who Cares?”