Subgenre: history, ethnicity, politics
Format: trade paperback
Source: Copy provided by the college as part of Dean's Reading Group
If I have to describe this book in a nutshell, it would be this: the nation that became the United States has an atrocious history of basically exploiting anyone weaker and/or different for profit and gain. The irony is that very often, the racism and exploitation take turns. White people in the U.S. came from a variety of places, and many were not always seen as "white." The definition of "white" has also changed over time as one immigrant group who was previously seen as not white would settle in, integrate, become white, then act like racist assholes to the next group of immigrants. Rinse and repeat. The other big issue of course is wealth. Those who have it are more than happy to exploit those who do not. The term "white trash" mainly comes from poor whites who were literally dumped by the British in American shores to get rid of them in the old nation and put them to work exploiting the new lands. It is a term that has evolved and stayed. The book presents more details, but that is basically it in a nutshell. The exploitation and bigotry chain has not changed much from the early times of the colonies to the nation the United States is today. Kind of depressing when you really think about it.
It is not an easy book to read. For one, it is a heavy book in terms of theory and detail. In fact, much of the earlier part of the book dealing with the early history is fairly dry and repetitive, and I was tempted to drop the book a couple of times because it did have some seriously boring parts. However, once you get past that, it starts getting a little interesting. Isenberg in addition can be a bit preachy, which I bet was an extra reason the Dean's Reading Group found it appealing; they tend to like books that preach to the choir. The thing is this is a book that more people not in the choir need to be reading.
Overall, I liked the book despite it being a depressing read at times. As I said, I think more people need to be reading it. It did give me a lot to think about, and I made note of various passages to ponder and remember. Furthermore, the author provides extensive chapter notes documenting everything, and this provides material for readers wanting to learn more. Having said all that, this is the book that finally burned me out and made me declare my politics, social justice, activist materials moratorium. So take it for what its worth. The paperback edition I read does add a new preface to the book reflecting the 2016 elections and their aftermath.
3 out of 5.
Why you really need to pay attention to history. Donald Trump was not a trailblazer nor an innovator nor anything new in politics. If anything, he is just tired old recycled material from previous people, even down to his MAGA slogan:
"American democracy's quirky past haunted the Trump campaign. He was not the first cranky businessman to run for high office, even in recent memory. Ross Perot was, capturing 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992. Nor was Trump the first millionaire mogul with Hollywood ties to seek the presidency. That was William Randolph Hearst, a century ago. And he certainly can't claim to the first outsider who promised to clean up Washington and embody the hopes and dreams (and fears) of the common man. That honor belongs to Andrew Jackson. As critically, he was not the first politician to question the pedigree of a sitting president either. James Vardaman did that in spades, when he insulted President Theodore Roosevelt. Trump's rhetorical appeal to the "silent majority" was stolen from Richard Nixon. Sarah Palin paved the way for him as an earlier version of a Republican reality TV populist. Trump's favorite slogan, 'Make America Great Again,' was of course, Ronald Reagan's first" (xv).
The argument of this book:
"The argument of this book is that America's class history is a more complicated story than we've previously considered. The past informs the present. Presidential candidates are not masters of their own destiny; rather, they are often a patchwork of rhetorical scripts, familiar gestures, political styles inherited from their predecessors, and whatever else they happen to borrow from the grab bag of popular culture" (xv).
More on the book's purpose:
"Lest the reader misconstrue the book's purpose, I want to make the point unambiguously: by reevaluating the American historical experience in class terms, I expose what is too often ignored about American identity. But I am not just pointing out what we've gotten wrong about the past; I also want to make it possible to better appreciate the gnawing contradictions still present in modern American society" (2).
Exploitation was built in early in colonial America, for example:
"The leaders of Jamestown had borrowed directly from the Roman model of slavery: abandoned children and debtors were made slaves. When indentured adults sold their anticipated labor in return for passage to America, they instantly became debtors, which made their orphaned children a collateral asset" (27).
Heck, even William Goodell Frost, president of Berea College in the 1890s, gets a mention here, and it is not exactly flattering. I will let the readers judge this one, but I will note this is often a topic of conversation on campus in some classes that look at the history of the college. I will just say Frost had his less than brilliant moments:
"In the 1890s, third-generation abolitionist William Goodell Frost, president of the integrated Berea College of Kentucky, redefined his mountain neighbors: 'The 'poor white' is actually degraded; the mountain white is a person not yet graded up.' The latter had preserved a unique lineage for centuries, and in this important way had not lost the battle for survival of the fittest. Frost saw the mountaineer as a modern-day Saxon, with the 'flavor of Chaucer' in his speech, and a clear 'Saxon temper.' He was, the college president wrote, 'our contemporary ancestor!'" (187).
- The book is heavily focused on the U.S. South.
- If you live in poverty, and all around are poor, you don't really think about class. There is no comparison point.
- Even among poor people, however, there are class distinctions. So they often point fingers at each other (instead of at the real enemy).
- The perception of lazy, a myth really about poor whites as well as for people of color.
- Education as a bootstrap, a way to get out. But often education is shamed by poor people. Those who "get out" seen as rising above their station.
- Those who get out often feel guilty about getting out. Do you still want to be part of where you come from, even invisibly? Or do you do/be the person you have become?
- Side joke: do some of these folks need a "white trash therapy group"?
- Question: is it a matter of having certain advantage at a certain time?
- Challenge: think about that narrative about education being a tool to get out.
- For Berea College, Rev. John G. Fee even had this notion.
- The book is certainly not the narrative many saw and currently see in schools.
- Appalachia education narrative is literally education equals getting out and not coming back.
- Term: "silicon holler." Work by telecommuting, but as long as you have good Internet (something we do not always have here by the way).
- Note: you need all types of people. It is not just about mind workers.
- A far future challenge: when people do not have to work (automation, drones, etc.).
- Irony may be a need to go back to the land. Grow your own food. Go back to basic skills of home economics (canning, child care, making things, etc.)