‘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.
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?
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.
The White Trash ethic used to be summed up by the tractor or dead car permanently on cement blocks in the front yard. The White Trash Normal equivalent is the foreclosed McMansion with the mosquito-infested swimming pool in the back yard. They are the same general idea: sloppiness, laziness, and self-indulgence. Both sum up the old White Trash credo: “It don’t make no difference.” There are some things that, apparently, just require too much effort today: giving your children a last name, holding down a job, and managing your finances or your health. C’mon, we don’t really need Mrs. Obama to tell us what to eat, do we?
LOPEZ: It doesn’t have to do with race or class, does it?
HAYS: Absolutely not! I realize I’ve just mentioned Arnold Toynbee, who talked about what it means when a society looks to the underclass for directives on manners and mores. But this book is not about class or status or money. It is about the way we behave. It is about how we vulgarize manners and customs at our peril. I remember, when I was growing up, there were children who came into town for school from way out in the sticks. They wore pressed clothes and minded their language and manners. They were not White Trash. On the other hand, the boy we all knew who sassed teachers, used dirty words, and had failed so many grades that he was known as the only boy at E. E. Bass Junior High who had a draft-board problem, was White Trash. He did manage to avoid Vietnam but, sadly, died in a knife fight in prison. I am willing to bet he was heavily tattooed. That’s White Trash. Being White Trash — just to make it clear — has absolutely nothing to do with money or what school somebody attended or having the right job. It has everything to do with behavior — and values.
LOPEZ: What do you mean when you say that “being trashy is not political: it’s personal”?
HAYS: Being trashy is not about your politics — it’s about what you do, how you behave. I’m afraid that such White Trash indicators as sloppy dress, vulgar language, and talking loud on the cell phone know no political boundaries. Whether to be White Trash is a matter of whether you will exert yourself to do the right thing. Conservatives can do White Trash things. They can become just as unhinged from our culture as the left. Example: U.K. prime minister David Cameron was on Letterman and he couldn’t quite translate the words Magna Carta into English. Now, I ask you: Which is worse? An Old Etonian who flubs the seminal document of Western liberty? Or a prime minister who goes on Letterman? Very trashy all around.
LOPEZ: When you call “self-esteem” “vanity,” that certainly changes things. Why does it matter so much?
HAYS: Well, the essence of being a lady or gentleman — and ladylike and gentlemanly codes of behavior are our only shields against White Trash Normal — is not being too puffed-up to value others. We now teach vanity as a virtue — only we call it self-esteem. Self-esteem has morphed into something even more virulent: a sense of entitlement. Young people today are off the charts when it comes to a sense of self-regard. A psychologist did a study in 1982 that found that they scored frighteningly high on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory evaluation. What do you expect, though, when young people are taught not to have humility but to realize how fabulous they are?
LOPEZ: What is respectability and why is it important?
HAYS: It’s become customary to mock “respectability” as a bourgeois value — and it is bourgeois, and thus essential for civil society. We can’t live with each other in a society if we don’t try to be respectable. I have a list of White Trash milestones in the book. If you look at them, you’ll see the crumbling of respectability. An American Family — the first reality show, on PBS no less! — featured the Loud family spilling their innermost secrets. This was 1973. Ten million viewers watched Lance Loud, the son, come out of the closet as gay. How tame that now seems! TV Guide hailed the moment when Pat Loud threw her husband of 21 years, out of the house as one of the “Top 100 Television Moments.” Princess Diana followed suit and provided the world with too much information in her 1995 Martin Bashir interview. Why should the Loud family have all the fun? We went from the first Tampax ad in a national newspaper in 1936 to Bob Dole’s E.D. This is the coarsening of society. So now do you see why respectability is imperative if our society is to continue?
LOPEZ: How does “being civilized” make other people “feel welcome and valued”?
HAYS: Kindness to others is the essence of being civilized. I talk a lot about manners in the book, but unkindness worries me more than picking up the wrong fork ever could. The worst incident of unkindness I’ve seen when dining out — still remembered after all these years — took place in a New Orleans restaurant when I was in my twenties. I was dining with a band of fellow socialists (yes, we all have our checkered pasts). The Commies didn’t much like some dish or other and insisted that the poor cook come from the kitchen and explain what he’d done wrong. I still remember a wretched older man, cowering in the face of blistering criticism from much younger jerks. So much for solidarity with the people. Like my Commie friends, many people today are spoiled and expect to be catered to. They may think this confers status; by the lights of an older America, it’s trashy behavior. It is so much more dignified to put others at ease and to value them.
LOPEZ: Doesn’t sex ed just make sense? The kids have to learn from somewhere, preferably not porn. And what does it have to do with poetry?
HAYS: It makes no sense whatsoever. Sex education may well be the trashiest innovation in human history. Introduced into the public schools in the late 1960s, sex ed has always struck me as kinkiness for kids, but many people wax high-minded about the vital importance of teaching young children how to put condoms on bananas. When I was in high-school poetry classes, I honestly wondered why phallic symbols pointed . . . oh, well, never mind. The premise of sex ed, as far as I can tell, is that kids are going to be “sexually active” anyway, and so they urgently need to develop their banana-wrapping skills. Wouldn’t it be better if they were taught — by parents and clergy — to be responsible for their actions? There’s no nice way to say this: Sex ed teaches kids how to behave like trash.
LOPEZ: Is “illegitimacy chic” really a thing? What does it say about us?
HAYS: Yes, illegitimacy chic is a real thing. We’ve gone from illegitimacy shame to illegitimacy chic. We’ve gone from the shotgun wedding to the wedding at which the bride’s gown doesn’t quite hide the bride’s baby bump.
LOPEZ: Why are you still talking about Murphy Brown — and Ozzie and Harriet?
HAYS: I swore that I would not mention Ozzie and Harriet when I set out to write this book. It was the one thing I promised myself I would not do. I always want to say to liberals, who seem obsessed with the wholesome Nelson family, “It was a TV show, for heaven’s sake.” But I ended up writing about Ozzie and Harriet. Ozzie and Harriet were the entertainment industry’s reigning presentation of marriage at one time. The Nelsons dealt with such issues as whether to transform a bedroom of one of the sons — who had grown up and left home — into a den, not how to be accepting if Tiffany, six, suddenly realizes she is trapped in a female body. The reason Ozzie and Harriet have such resonance is that most American families were pretty much like them. Kooky southern families such as mine, Midwestern or Californian families — we could all recognize ourselves in the Nelsons. Murphy Brown represented the crack-up of the family with which most people could identify. It was a White Trash milestone when Dan Quayle criticized Murphy Brown’s family arrangement — she was pregnant and wouldn’t reveal who the father was — and everybody got mad at Dan Quayle. So, yes, Americans once thought it was normal to be like Ozzie and Harriet instead of Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne.
LOPEZ: Kanye West has proposed to the mother of his son, North. Does this matter to civilization?
HAYS: If you can’t call the behavior of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian shameful, then you truly have lost your moral compass. A society that doesn’t condemn the behavior of Kanye West isn’t going any place good. Kanye West and Kim Kardashian matter because they are richer, more famous versions of other couples we see all around us. Remember when the brides in newspaper wedding announcements weren’t either already pregnant or at least living with their intendeds? Kanye West and Kim Kardashian are this trend writ large. Unless we are judgmental about them, others will follow.
LOPEZ: Isn’t it time to get over Lena Dunham’s Obama reelection ad?
HAYS: No. When Lena Dunham looked into the camera and said to first-time, female voters, “Your first time shouldn’t be with just anybody,” it was a low point in the history of American politics. It was also unintelligent. We must never forget this vulgarity. Politics is rough and tumble, and this isn’t the first time sexiness has entered into the political culture. But this is a far cry from Frank Sinatra’s singing “That Old Jack Magic.” Of Dunham, I say, as the Huguenots are wont to say in a different context, “We must never forget.”
LOPEZ: What do you have against Princess Diana?
HAYS: Plenty. She was incredibly beautiful, and Princes William and Harry turned out great (yes, Harry is a bit of a scamp) — for which she deserves credit. But she was a pioneer in letting it all hang out. She told us details about her marriage. It is interesting that it was her death in 1997 that caused the British public to let their formerly stiff upper lips to go all wobbly. They wallowed in bathos, demanding that Queen Elizabeth abandon centuries of royal protocol and humble herself before the ghost of a woman who had turned the British royal family into a soap opera.
LOPEZ: Does our interest in Kate Middleton give you hope?
HAYS: The Duchess of Cambridge is just great. She and Prince William do give me hope. Sure, she’s beautifully dressed, but more than that she seems willing to prepare herself to be Queen of England. There was a wonderful moment in the carriage, after the royal wedding, when you could see her taking subtle directions from Prince William. They also appear, as was the case with his great-grandparents, George VI and Queen Elizabeth, to have found a way to have real lives within a complicated structure. And here’s the best thing about it: they don’t tell us too much. No T.M.I. from the Cambridges!
LOPEZ: White Trash appears bipartisan in your book — how much blame do Ronald Reagan and divorce law in California deserve?
HAYS: President Reagan was by all accounts a lovely man. But as governor of California, he in 1969 signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law. It seemed so civilized at the time. The divorce rate was 9.2 percent in 1960; now it is around 50 percent. Maybe no-fault divorce wasn’t so enlightened. The family is the civilizing unit of society. How can you threaten to send your children from the table without dessert if you have no table and no family dinner?
LOPEZ: How does violence against women start “when the guy doesn’t know to stand and offer a woman his seat”?
HAYS: Whereas we once had chivalry, at least as an ideal, we now have the Violence Against Women Act, which is based on the supposition that men are brutes. Instead of decency, we are told to rely on restraining orders that don’t work. The act comes from a mindset that says men can’t be tamed. The law, not the family, becomes the vehicle for dealing. Believe me, I’m all for throwing the book at a man who harms a woman. Whenever there was a story about a woman killing a husband in my childhood — and there seem to have been quite a few — my grandfather would shake his head and murmur, “Poor dear, he probably had it coming.” So I grew up believing that women were deserving of the utmost respect (including intellectually).
It was this gentlemanly mindset that saved many women from drowning when the Titanic sank. Men really did give their lives to save women and children. Statistics bear that out. A century, however, caused a sea change and when the Costa Concordia sank in 2012, men elbowed their way past grandmothers, children, and pregnant women to save their own sorry skins. Not only do such men not stand for ladies on the Metro bus, they won’t give them a place in the lifeboat. Being a gentleman often required sacrifice.
LOPEZ: How does knowing Psalm 23 help anyone?
HAYS: You’re thinking of the passage in the book where I attend the graveside funeral of a friend’s elderly aunt. The rector asked us to recite Psalm 23. It was quite moving to observe all the older people, including my mother and my own aunt, who knew it by heart. How much longer will it be possible to ask a congregation to say Psalm 23 without a printed text? It used to be that people automatically knew prayers and psalms because of regular church attendance. One mustn’t think of regular church attendance merely as a way to keep White Trash manners at bay. But it helps.
I have a chapter on religion in the book — “White Trash Buddhists.” It’s not anti-Buddhist — it’s anti-pseudo Buddhists. And you see a lot of those now. I think some of them are just trying to “play truant” to the values of an older American civilization. With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy, I am going to go out on a limb and say that if you don’t know by heart at least one verse of an Isaac Watts hymn, you just might be . . . White Trash.
LOPEZ: “The essence of trashiness is behaving as if the world revolves around you; being civilized is making other people feel welcome and valued.” You sound like Pope Francis! Do you think he’s not into “White Trash Normal”?
HAYS: Pope Francis is definitely not into White Trash Normal. He practices Christian humility — do we dare to call it a spiritual form of noblesse oblige? — and that is the very opposite of White Trash behavior. Privilege coupled with bad manners is the essence of White Trash Normal. If anybody is not guilty of either, it is the new Holy Father. Pope Francis, in a position to exercise all sorts of privileges, does just the opposite. He is so aware of other people. I mean, for heavens sake, he writes letters and phones up people, strangers who need comfort. He personifies the code of the gentleman (though, strictly speaking, clerics are outside the code of chivalry and thus perhaps the word “gentleman” cannot be strictly applied to a pope).
LOPEZ: What’s your goal for the book and have you sent a copy to Snooki?
HAYS: Well, the goal of my book is to beg people not to behave like Snooki! Perhaps I should send her a copy — if anyone needs to learn not to behave like Snooki, it’s Snooki. I’ll send Honey Boo Boo a copy, too.
LOPEZ: Did you enjoy writing When Did White Trash Become the New Normal? or was it all too depressing?
HAYS: I co-wrote (with my old friend Gayden Metcalfe) Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral, my first book, with the greatest of ease — it was about a small enclave in the country that still upholds traditional manners. Just zipped through the work! But White Trash was a bit of a struggle — it’s the bookend to Being Dead, but harder to write. I hope it’s funny, though. I mean, really, don’t “tramp stamps” herald the end of civilization?
LOPEZ: How can parents save us from this New Normal? Can this Normal actually be undone?
HAYS: Well, they can start by not buying those sexy Bratz dolls for their little girls. Slutz would be a better moniker for these vixen dolls. They look like they are going to be run in on a morals charge any minute! And we thought growing up in a one-room shack in Skunk Hollow made young women mature too early! The old version of the “Magnificat” — the hymn attributed to the Virgin Mary, a very good Mother, I’m told — talks about conceit as “the imagination of their hearts.” I suppose just having a realistic sense of who we are, not a puffed up, proud, false sense, is the beginning.
But I’m afraid saving us may take support from another quarter: academia. That’s tougher. These people make nice livings telling us what a crummy civilization we have inherited. If we are told that we are heirs to people who raped and pillaged their way across a continent, we aren’t going to look to them for guidance. We would be more likely to take our cultural cues from the men and women who created this great country if we weren’t told untruths about their achievements. I will say this: If we don’t cure our White Trash ways, we as a society are going down. As the famous cartoon character Pogo liked to observe, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of NRO.