December 6 2013
Are we vicious right-wingers finally “abandoning [our] NASCAR-fetishing Palinisque faux-populism” in favor of a “more overt style of class warfare?”
Michelle Goldberg, who has just moved from the Daily Beast to the Nation, thinks so. I am afraid I am the culprit who has convinced her that this is the case.
Goldberg lobs her class warfare charge in a review of my new book (When Did White Trash Become the New Normal?) that bears this felicitous headline: “Right-Wing Author Abandons Cultural Populism, Decries ‘White Trash.’”
Well, yes, I am a right-wing author. She got that much right. And I’ll admit it: it’s a small thrill to be attacked in the Nation, that stalwart of lefty orthodoxy. As for the class warrior bit, could this be projection? The Nation isn’t known for promoting mutual respect and affection between the haves and have nots.
Ms. Goldberg’s accusation doesn’t make a lot of sense: the right’s supposed NASCAR-fetishing faux populism is covert class warfare, while endorsing good manners for everybody--rich and poor alike--amounts to overt class warfare?
Accusing me of putting forward “ugly, vulgar ideas…without shame,”she calls my “nasty little book” a “broadside against the moral and aesthetic failures of the lower orders.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. It is not a broadside against poor people. It’s no accident that my book opens with an anecdote about a tattooed Chi Omega (a social sorority that is considered topnotch in the south) at a fancy benefit dinner. When Did White Trash Become the New Normal” is a broadside against anybody who behaves in a trashy fashion. Yep, I’m for standards.
Goldberg misunderstands my target. She writes about what she calls my "flip dehumanization of struggling people." But I am not criticizing struggling people—I am criticizing people who are not struggling. If somebody is struggling for a better life, using honorable means, then ipso facto (as we elitists say) they are not trash.
Although the book is about behavior as opposed to class (always an interesting topic--just not really the subject of this book), I am critical of a society that takes its cues for customs and manners from the underclass (or, as Ms. Goldberg endearingly calls them, the “lower orders”). This is generally destructive.
Arnold Toynbee beat me to the punch on this theme, but Professor T. apparently hasn’t made much headway at the Nation.
In a famous chapter of his A Study of History entitled “Schism in the Soul,” Toynbee argued that it is a sign that a society is decaying when it looks to the underclass for clues regarding morals, customs, and manners. Such societies, according to Toynbee, are “truant” to their values.
I hope I have written a funny book, but, if there is a serious idea--and there is—it is that our society is becoming increasingly truant to our own values.
A United States that is not truant to our historic values would look at the Obama campaign’s “Life of Julia” infomercial--which approvingly portrayed the life of a woman who lives cradle to grave on public handouts--and be moved to say to real-life Julias, "You can do better." Do I believe that Julia should get married (she is a mother) and get off welfare? I do, and, if that makes me uncaring or a class warrior, so be it.
Ms. Goldberg seems to think that that conservatives who believe that people can do well if they have the right (read bourgeois) values harbor “a bit of overt disgust towards those unpretentious millions” that we knew back in our tobacco-chawing days. It boils down to this in Ms. Goldberg’s view: we must acknowledge that our system is failing people, not that people are failing the system. If we can’t admit that people need handouts, according to her view, we “dehumanize” people.
“[Hays] even mocks the idea that full-time work alone should be enough to escape poverty. The colonists at Jamestown and Plymouth, she writes, ‘knew you had to work full time—and then some—and maybe still do a little starving,’” Goldberg writes. She’s right, if she states my thesis harshly. Do I believe that working extra hard is still the only meaningful escape route from poverty? It’s the only escape for most people. If you don’t believe me ask a third-generation Julia.
I’ll give Ms. Goldberg this: it is much more difficult to establish and preserve a middle class way of life in the Age of Obama. Jobs are harder to come by and struggling to get ahead is much less valued. (I don’t think we’ve yet begun to plumb the depths of nastiness in the president’s you-didn’t-build-that utterance, an attack on the very notion of individual exertion and achievement, and the consequences that his policies based on this presumption have had in terms of destroying opportunity, the most precious stepping stone in any society .)
Whether she is being serious or not I don’t know, but Goldberg says my book is a signal that conservatives are now becoming more elitist and will thus be less critical of “snotty” college professors. Don’t count on it. She has moved me to contemplate a book on lefty scribblers and college professors. Working title: When Did Stupid Become the New Normal?