26 August 2016

"White Trash" Part 2

Go here to read Part 1 of my comments on Nancy Isenberg's book, "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America."

Agreeing with the author's conclusions that class has been and still is a deeply embedded part of American society invites the question of what, if anything, should be done. Post-Enlightenment scholar as she is, Isenberg clearly and passionately believes that much should be done by the federal government to break down the barriers of class to achieve greater and sustainable social equality in America. Although not a policy wonk, Isenberg hints at some ideas involving both wealth redistribution through inheritance taxes and limiting parental powers.

But what if social equality is not a worthy goal? What if class hierarchy is not only the way it is but for all practical purposes the only way society can be organized? Isenberg doesn't argue for the good of social equality but merely assumes it, as does virtually everyone in American politics, Left or Right. Left- and Right-wing means of achieving equality are different (the Left pushing for top-down structural reforms and the Right telling folks on the bottom to get their butts in gear) but whether Classical Liberal or contemporary Progressive, everyone pays at least lip service to social equality.

Traditional conservatives (as historically understood, not as the term is currently deployed) would not agree. From Aristotle to early modern times in the West, hierarchical social arrangements were not only standard fare but believed to accord with human nature and divine revelation. In "White Trash" Isenberg seems shocked that the Puritans had indentured servants and enforced sumptuary laws under which persons could be fined for dressing above their class. She would not have been surprised were she familiar with the Westminster Larger Catechism of 1647 (embodying the best of English Puritan and Scottish Presbyterian theological analysis). Check Questions and Answers 123-132 here for application of the Fifth Commandment ("Honor your father and your mother.") to social relationships among superiors, equals, and inferiors.

Were Americans today to acknowledge openly that contemporary society is class-based, as Isenberg urges, however, matters would be no better than living in denial. After all, could the elites and middle class be persuaded of their duties to those below prescribed by the catechism?
Q. 129. What is required of superiors towards their inferiors?
A. It is required of superiors, according to that power they receive from God, and that relation wherein they stand, to love, pray for, and bless their inferiors; to instruct, counsel, and admonish them; countenancing, and rewarding such as do well and discountenancing, reproving, and chastising such as do ill; protecting, and providing for them all things necessary for soul and body; and by grave, wise, holy, and exemplary carriage, to procure glory to God, honour to themselves, and so to preserve that authority which God hath put upon them.
Convincing Americans corrupted by years of pursuit of wealth maximization and the sad reality of an ever-diminishing number of duty-creating relationships that they--individually and collectively--have moral duties to "white trash" is inconceivable. Hope of repristinating a bygone past by paleo-cons and folks on the Alt-Right are misplaced. History may not have a "side" but reversing the revolutionary effects of modernity isn't in the offing. But so also vain are the hopes of Progressives of good will like Nancy Isenberg.

Even to hope either for a rising tide to float all boats or for raising the lower class by intense governmental social intervention is misguided. The poor will be with us always. While waiting for the regeneration of all things we can, of course, work to ameliorate current conditions. Sin effects the desire for and the performance of the individual duties noted by the Westminster Divines. Sin also effects the very structures in which contemporary life is framed including the class structure we regularly ignore.

Even so, I'll let Isenberg have the final word:
White trash is a central, if disturbing, thread in our national narrative. The very existence of such people--both in their visibility and invisibility--is proof that American society obsesses over the mutable labels we give to the neighbors we wish not to notice. "They are not who we are." But they are who we and have been a fundamental part of our history, whether we like it or not.

No comments:

Post a Comment