‘When I was growing up in the Deep South, people in all walks of life put forth tremendous effort not to be regarded as White Trash,” Charlotte Hays writes in her new book, When Did White Trash Become the New Normal. This is in contrast, she says, “to people today who risk hepatitis to ape the decorative styles of social deviants.” Her people weren’t snobs, but were aware of “choice and effort, with wearing presentable attire, getting your children to Sunday school, paying your bills in a timely fashion, and putting matrimony chronologically in front of motherhood — in other words, acknowledging that there were standards and that the hard work required to meet them was worth the trouble.” Always entertaining and insightful, Hays confronts our embrace of the unedifying. She discusses When Did White Trash Become the New Normal? with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: How is it that “being a gentleman, or a lady” could be “the most important thing we can achieve”?
CHARLOTTE HAYS: We’ve reached a sorry point in the decline of civilization because we don’t even know what the words lady and gentleman mean. If Jack the Ripper were active today, we’d be hearing some ninny on TV talking about “the gentleman who murders prostitutes.” Gentleman used this way means a male person, and not what it used to mean — a male person who strives for standards of decency and civility and to meet his financial and family responsibilities. I end the book on a trip to Petersburg, Va., which is where my grandfather lived as a boy. He was born during Reconstruction, and I grew up in his house. He was a profound influence in shaping my stuffy values. I was walking down Sycamore Street, when I saw what I thought was a tombstone in a front yard. When I went to investigate who’d buried somebody in the front yard — wouldn’t put that past a crazy southerner, by the way — the tombstone was really a marker. It marked a sacred spot that I’d heard about all my life — it was where my grandfather’s beloved school had stood. The school had been founded by a Confederate soldier named William Gordon McCabe. The marker had McCabe’s famous motto (I already knew it!): “You may not all be scholars, but you can all be gentlemen.” Can you imagine how long a counselor would last at Sidwell Friends or some comparably fashionable school today if he said, “You don’t all need to get top college credentials, but you do need to be decent people”? Not long. If we are ever to slay the beast of White Trash Normal, we must recapture the sensibility that says being a gentleman — or, by extension, a lady — is the most important thing we can achieve. Here’s the good news: It’s something anybody can do.
LOPEZ: How is “white trash” not simply derogatory? Why is it essential to confront?
HAYS: Well, it’s not very nice to call somebody White Trash. I thought of that often while writing the book and maybe was bothered by it, but decided that just using the derogatory term was the best way to talk about something very bad that is affecting us all. I hate to go all Arnold Toynbee on you, especially when I hope I’ve written a funny book. But I have to bring him up. In a famous chapter entitled “Schism in the Soul” in his A Study of History, Toynbee wrote that when a society takes its cues for manners and customs from the underclass, it is a sign that that society is disintegrating. Toynbee calls such societies “truant” to their own values. I hate to talk about class because we have a man in the White House who talks about it in a way that tears us apart. But what Toynbee wrote is important in recognizing what is going on around us. Except that we don’t stop at taking values and customs from an underclass — we go whole hog and take customs not just from an underclass but from the criminal and deviant class.
Take the tattoo craze. Tattoos used to be associated with inmates and gangs. When I was growing up, occasionally there would be a rumor to the effect that somebody’s father had had one too many and gotten a tattoo in the military. But such rumors were unverifiable. Tattoos were not respectable. I quote a BBC interview in which somebody says, “Tattooing used to be the preserve of people who were too lazy to work and too scared to steal.” Well, now it’s the preserve of one’s friends and relatives. I went to a party in Richmond and was stunned to see a relative — an otherwise very attractive and exemplary young man — with an inked jungle on each arm. He also wore a rakish bandana. I didn’t know whether to think Jean Lafitte the pirate or maximum security.