‘White Trash’ Aren’t


A couple of months ago, as the [Canadian] election campaign was getting started, I got a flyer in the mail, one of these mail-outs that MPs get to make at taxpayer expense.

 

This one (from a Tory) got my attention. It had a picture of a man in his twenties, bearded and with unkempt hair. He was slouched on a couch, legs splayed apart, in an undershirt and with a beer in his hand. Punctuating the picture was a single word: Jail?

 

The rest of the ‘message’ was on the other side: "Why should thugs, drug dealers and sexual offenders serve their sentences at home watching TV, playing video games, and surfing ‘websites’ on the internet?" It turned out this was about the Tories wanting "to end house arrest for serious offenses."

 

The couch-surfing slacker, it seems, was one of these thugs, living the life of Riley when he should be behind bars, and just in case anybody missed the message, a picture of a jail door was meant to hammer it home.

 

As a straight policy issue, this was pure demagogy. Mandatory minimum sentences (i.e. jail time) are already pretty much the norm for serious offenses. What’s worse, such sentences are an abomination that fill jails but do nothing to reduce crime, as U.S. experience has shown.

 

But this wasn’t about facts but about cadging votes through fear-mongering. To complete the message, there was the requisite picture of Stephen Harper with his Alfred E. Newman smile assuring us that he’s "on the right track on crime."

 

I was about to dump this political junk mail in the recycle bin, but I kept thinking about that man on the cover. What made him so identifiably a "thug" deserving to be locked up? He didn’t look like a Mafia hit man or a Hell’s Angel, he wasn’t brandishing any weapons, partaking of any controlled substances or drooling over kiddie porn. He was, in fact, a normal-looking guy doing a normal-looking thing – lounging on his couch having a beer.

 

There are millions of guys just like him across the country. The only identifiable thing about them is, to use a quaint old phrase, that they’re from the ‘lower classes.’

 

It was then that I realized that what I was looking at was actually a piece of hate mail. It wasn’t directed at the usual suspects – racial, religious or ethnic minorities. Indeed, using a black or native face would have been counterproductive since it would have raised hackles about racism. Instead there was an implicit appeal to a prejudice that hardly ever gets noticed but is remarkably widespread – class contempt.

 

Why, after all, should it be a working class guy who typifies a jailbird? It isn’t as if the upper classes don’t have their share of lawbreakers. Indeed, these days it seems as if a Wall Street career isn’t complete without a criminal record.

 

And there are a lot more of these upper class types who are getting away with crimes without doing any time, thanks to high-priced legal help that lower class types, like our man on the couch, could never afford.

 

It would have been a lot more honest, then, to use a picture of some Armani-clad grandee sipping a single malt on a plush leather sofa as the ‘face’ of unpunished crime. But no Stephen Harper smile would ever grace such a message.

 

If class contempt were only a prejudice of right-wing yahoos, that would be one thing. But this is one prejudice that liberals seem to embrace as well.

 

Take a term like "white trash," which is as plain a serving of class contempt as one can get, with a side order of racism. You would think this would be out of bounds, especially on the left, but this is probably the only social/racial slur that people still have little, if any, compunction about using.

 

In September CBC.ca columnist Heather Mallick, a leftie and a feminist, used the term in a piece about Sarah Palin. Pondering why John McCain chose Palin as his running-mate, Mallick opined: "She added nothing to the ticket that the Republicans didn’t already have sewn up, the white trash vote, the demographic that sullies America’s name inside and outside its borders yet has such a curious appeal for the right."

 

Palin certainly deserves all the scorn she’s gotten: she’s as scuzzy a politician as there is – demagogic, ignorant, vindictive – you name it. But here it isn’t just Palin but a whole "demographic" that’s on the receiving end. These lowlifes, says Mallick, are "rural, loud, proudly unlettered (like Bush himself), suspicious of the urban, frankly disbelieving of the foreign, and a fan of the American cliché of authenticity."

 

In other words, they are backward. But they are also poor and working class, which Bush and Palin aren’t. "White trash" are as much the victims of right-wing demagogy as the rest of us.

 

You could argue that they deserve what they get, since they seem to fall for this demagogy so often. But "white trash" don’t have a monopoly on gullibility (or backwardness). The literate and multicultural citizens of Toronto elected Mel Lastman mayor, not once but twice.

 

California, a ‘blue-state’ bastion of progressiveness, is run by a Republican governor whose only virtues are his muscles. And that apex of urban culture, New York City, has a mayor who rules by the divine right of his billions.

 

(Mallick, it should be said, got deluged by a hate mail campaign from Palin supporters stirred up by Fox News. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but that doesn’t make her use of "white trash" any more defensible.)

 

The image of working class people has sunk very low. It was not always so: there was a time when Joe Hill, Tom Joad and Norma Rae – "white trash" all – were iconic figures.

 

That isn’t just a bygone era: there are living examples of that kind of heroism today, in the ever-swelling ranks of the working poor. But to see them for what they are, you have to dig through the ‘trash’ of class contempt.

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