Book: The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America’s Scapegoats
Author: Jim Goad
Type of Book: Non-fiction, Sociology
Why I Consider This Book Odd: Truly, this may not be a wholly odd book. But Goad himself, while not full-bore odd, is in my little odd book, and since I reviewed his book Shit Magnet on this site, I figured I should keep all my Goad reviews together. Also, since I plan to give my two cents on the ANSWER Me! collection over here, and that is a decidedly odd experience, it seems like a good plan to keep my Goad grouped. In other words, my site, my flexible criteria.
Availability: Published in 1998, Simon & Schuster still have it in print. You can get a copy here:
Comments: This is a verbose and highly personal reaction to a book. Don’t send me any e-mails complaining TL;DR. If reading long-form is not your thing, just save yourself some time and hie yourself on over to Twitter and find out what someone ate for breakfast or what they think of the newest electronic whatever, okay?
I read this book a while back and reread it recently. Damnation, did it make me think hard this go around. I initially read it because I walk an uneasy line between two worlds and wanted a take on being white trash that did not demonize it. I got a college education, I seem sort of middle class, but the fact is, deep in my heart, I am still the little white trash girl I was when I was born. My daddy was poor white trash, and mean with it, a Coors-clutching racist who genuinely thought black welfare queens were the reason he could not get ahead in life.
My mama was poor white (though not trash, certainly nuts and willing to put up with a mean, mean man for many, many years), and though we lived in the suburbs of Dallas in a relatively affluent area, I was always acutely aware I was the other. The crappy rental house where I dealt with bad plumbing, crumbling walls, roaches and even on a few occasions, rats, still haunts me to this day and is likely one of the reasons I am a clean freak. My clothes were not up to snuff until I started working and getting my own money to buy them. My hygiene, while not bad, was not as aggressive as my squeaky clean counterparts in elementary school and I recall a nurse calling me dirty one day. Other kids heard it, and she only said things like that to the black kids and the trash kids like me. I bathed twice a day from that comment on, but was still on occasion teased for my greasy haired past. The resonance of being less than middle class is still with me. I had to work hard to appear normalish and developed a knee-jerk, extreme left-wing persona to cover up my trashy roots. I spoke of white privilege as if I had been a recipient of uninterrupted societal largesse from the day I was born and it should be noted that the people who espoused that line of thinking were invariably white age peers who had enjoyed far nicer upbringings than mine.
I cringe when I think about my childhood. I cringe thinking about my father. Being white trash and super-intelligent resulted in someone who became crazy and mean, a loser at the end of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The taint of his shame clung to me like the odor of a rotting soul. I overcompensated. A lot. Pretentious and tiresome. I may cringe when I think about him but I also cringe when I think about who I was until about age 25.
I can also tell you, in my own dogpatch way, that I been white trash and I been middle class. Middle class is better. But you can be both at the same time, and it would appear that I am. (I also note that Obama created a Commission on the Middle Class, or some such shit. Don’t you be fooled, you tenuous middle class. If anyone needs a commission to understand why it’s so hard to be middle class, they’re a moron. As Mr. Oddbook said, if Obama looked to the left, then to the right at every Cabinet meeting, he’d know why being middle class is so damned hard in this country.)
I had just finished rereading The Redneck Manifesto this month when I followed it with a book called Pearl by the author Mary Gordon. I have another site where I review “norm” books and I wrote about it in excruciating depth over there, but the fact is, I was shocked that a Barnard professor and such an acclaimed writer could produce such mind-numbing drek (because, you know, people the critics love never, ever, never turn out crap). Then I followed Pearl with Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan and I loved it. It was not until I thought of Goad’s book again after I reviewed Pearl that I understood some of the reasons for my tastes and distastes.
In Pearl, no one works, or if they do, it is the sort of work that does not bear mentioning in any detail. The characters are rich, highly educated. These are the sorts of people who can afford to send a daughter to Ireland for a year so she can study language without thinking twice about cost. They travel. And when they worry, they worry about how they missed their calling in life, not whether or not they can pay the bills. Pearl, a young girl, decides to starve herself to death over the “will to harm.” She never missed a meal until that point in her life. Nor had she a job, if I remember correctly.
Last Night at the Lobster is a working class novel. Everyone is working. Busting ass. Worrying over tips. Doing hard work for too little money, but for the most part doing it well. The manager of a closing Red Lobster, named Manny, agonizes over who to take with him when the restaurant is closed by the head office and only five people can go to the Olive Garden. He does not want anyone, even his worst employee, to lose his or her job.
Pearl was not written for someone like me, and it was sort of a shock to realize that. Yeah, I got an education and have a veneer of the middle class about me, but the book alienated me. The privileged world of her characters was nothing but a high-minded moral struggle, playing out choices no one without a trust fund would ever have to worry about. I have no idea what Gordon’s background is, but her books are not for the likes of me, a girl who has been a maid, worked retail, waiting on people and literally cleaning up their shit. All the moral dithering. Who has that kind of time in the real world (and yes, as a person who runs two review sites where I pontificate over books, I sort of see the hilarity in that statement)?
Last Night at the Lobster reminded me of the camaraderie I have felt at my scraping-by jobs. People may look at my husband and me and think we are middle class but we are hanging by a thread, like everyone else in the middle class, it seems. As I recently learned, I could go from white collar to blue in a heart beat. I related to the work, to the need to do the job well even when the rewards were so minimal. I understood Manny. I got it.
Pearl was like a lecture on high-brow literary theory. Lobster was like a letter from an old friend.
And I remembered, no matter what, you get raised white trash, you stay that way. And it doesn’t matter how many “good” jobs I have had or how much money my husband makes. My sympathies will always be with people who work and people for whom life has not been a monied cake walk. It took me a long time to understand this, that my world does not break down the way the world does for a rich, white woman. Class means more to me than race, and frankly, the only reason I can say this is because I am, indeed, white. Being poor and Hispanic or black is not something I can discuss nor should I even try because being white has advantages and I have no business speaking for anyone else. No one sane will deny that being white in the USA carries privilege. All I am talking about here is my own life, my own reaction, and how class made me feel inferior and as if I had to hide, lie and act my way into a way of life that promised advancement even though the color of my skin made it seem as if such struggles were not anything I would have to worry about.
There’s a lot to Goad’s book and I hope the historical and social punch in the face it offers does not get lost in my reaction. While there is likely no one on the planet who agrees with everything Goad says, myself included, I agreed with far more of what he had to say this go around than when I first read the book. The book is interestingly researched, with source cites that run from Edward Abbey to Howard Zinn. The first third reads as an alternative history lesson, one that made perfect sense when I read it, but the implications of which probably didn’t stay with me when I initially learned it because extreme leftism embraces a notion of continuous, uninterrupted white privilege that is heresy to deny. The middle third was a look at the contemporary mores of the working class/white trash culture and the last third was a sociological look at how, in America where we all wanna be rich or die trying, no one seems to get the fact that we at the bottom benefit the powers that keep us here each time we snap at each other’s neck.
My husband’s family, the Clarks, came to America as deported criminals from Britain and were indentured “servants” until laws prohibited it. They were seen as such an unsavory lot that the Clarks who came over with money in their pockets added an “e” onto the end of their name to try to get some respect. My family tree is less clear to me except for my mother’s family, a bunch of micks who came over and faced the same NINA bullshit that plagued every Irishman for decades. And I may be a direct descendant of the Dalton gang. I’m certainly an indirect descendant. Neither of our families came to this country with any level of glory and both suffered greatly after coming here. That my family came to Texas at all shows they were either desperate or criminals, possibly both. (Edited years later to add: Turns out I was wrong. I am not related to the Dalton Gang. I’m actually descended from some powerful people but given that 1.6 billion people living today are descended from Charlemagne, perhaps my reluctance to feel special or powerful because of old genetic links is understandable.)
Goad discusses history in a manner that will make anyone who insists there is white privilege foam at the mouth. I recall in junior high my American history teacher, Mrs. Wurst, explaining that indentured servants were people who were simply too impecunious to come to America on their own so they traded five years of being a servant – and what a genteel idea such servitude was, polishing the sir’s shoes and occasionally washing a pot – in exchange for passage. Goad covers what she left out – that years and years could be added onto the servitude contract for the slightest infraction, that female servants were raped and their children held as servants, families separated, white folk dying on their own middle passage.
Mrs. Wurst also taught us kids that black slaves were not treated so bad because as property, they needed to be taken care of because who in their right mind would misuse property, right? Increasingly, all education seems to be is an apology for power and a denial of the wrongs done by those with real power, but I digress. But I was taught indentured servants lived an Upstairs/Downstairs existence and then danced their way into excellent opportunity when their contracts were over and slaves were not really abused all that bad. Neat, huh?
Goad does not discount the very real horror of the slave trade. He doesn’t have to invalidate the experience of others to tell the stories of those whites whose horrible beginnings set them up to become part of the the permanent economic underclass in the United States. But he does explain in detail why the notion that whites have always had it so very good is a misguided idea at best. But this book is not at all just a “who had it worse” competition. Not by a long shot so don’t get the wrong idea, that this is some sort of book the National Vanguard would want on their reading list. Though this book candidly handles race matters, it is mainly a book about class. A book about power and those who don’t have it.
Goad goes a long way in discussing the habits of rednecks and white trash. He does not pull any punches when he explains the sorts of habits that rednecks exhibit that cause the more refined white person to sneer. The hard partying attitude of white trash is thusly summed up:
When you die, your sphincter muscles relax to the point where you empty your bowels. While alive, you instinctively maintain enough anal tension to hold it all in. Redneck leisure is the same way – it releases tension, but it’s careful not to release too much. Most people would lose all stability in their lives if they ever jumped off the carousel. When there’s no way to get off the merry-go-round, you’d better learn to enjoy being dizzy… What seems like self-sabotage may actually be a flexing of the survival instinct. It’s a battle mentality. You’re a weekend warrior. Traumas and hangovers and hospital stitches are there as equalizers. All this spilled blood and broken glass is not as nihilistic as it looks. It’s a subconscious way of maintaining the work vibe. By winding up in jail Saturday morning with a headache and a black eye, you’re actually preparing yourself for work on Monday… You have to be crazy to take orders from a boss. It isn’t natural. So staying fucked up is away of hooking yourself on the work vibe. Keeping yourself agitated and off center. Hair o’ the boss that bit you.
Explaining white trash religion, Goad resonates with me, a Southern Baptist refugee who has little time for religion or those who spout it, yet almost contradictorily, has no problem with sincerity:
In a cultural sandbox saturated with postmodern smugness and hollow irony, I give high grades to anything that is literal-minded and heartfelt. I’m not worried so much about the veracity or falsehood of the beliefs in question; I’m just impressed that they MEAN it, mannnn… I enjoy religion that arises more from a compulsion than an obligation. More from a need for answers than a desire to conform. A religion of extreme emotion and desperate escapism. Religion unashamed of sweat and melodrama. Religion as it should be.
Goad himself has little use for religion or idol worship (like Elvis) or beliefs in UFOs or similar. But he says, without an ounce of Marxism that such a statement might drip with if it came from me:
Religion has always been a sponge mop to absorb class tensions. It’s a safety valve. Without it, class matters would come much more sharply into focus. Those who belittle pork-faced stupid rednecks and their primitive caveman religions should be HAPPY that the trash has been placated with false creeds and phony promises. For if these hard-core believers were ever to focus their gaze earthward, they might realize how badly they’ve been screwed and would turn from reactionary religion to radical politics.
Goad discusses the militia movement as well, but much has happened in the 12 years or so since he wrote this book. 9/11 happened and fear of the Muslims and Islamic terrorist cells have replaced fear of the Posse Comitatus. In fact, some small militias, like the Minutemen, who took border patrol into their own armed hands, have been lauded in the mainstream media. However, I have to be honest and say that my finger is no longer on the pulse of militias. I used to know far more about it than I do now. But Randy Weaver’s wife is a distant memory to many and Tim McVeigh turned out to be a piker compared to what a few organized Muslims could do. All I know is that militia women (and Mormons and extreme Christians) seem to be the only ones left who know how to can food and sew clothes so when I get stumped on some domestic matter and Google it, I find them out there in cyberspace, explaining how to garden and live off it for a year. (Though I may be wrong about the right to bear arms element in all of this. Recent shut downs of gun shows in my stomping grounds have people from plain old Second Amendment believers like me and John Birchers alike pissed off. Who knows. Power is scared to fucking death of people who don’t mind guns and know how to use them. And yes, I know Alex Jones is associated with the link I have above, but I can’t argue with his fear of power. He’s an entertaining loon but he’s interesting and, on occasion, correct.)
But the best part of this book is the latter third, in my opinion, when Goad just fucking breaks it down:
Of COURSE it’s a conspiracy. But it isn’t the Mau Mau or the Klan. Not the Nazis nor the Jews. It isn’t the extreme left or the far right, nor any of the noncommittal nobodies who cower in the middle… It’s POWER, stupid. It’s the tendency of human nature, left to itself, to try to get away with anything it can. The government is the biggest liar because it has the biggest REASON to lie. It’s perfectly understandable. Those with money and influence want to protect it… It’s just the way that money flows.
Goad’s book is challenging. It was a challenge to class and race presumptions when he wrote it and it’s a challenge to them now. It forces people, especially people like me who have largely tried to block out their less than illustrious upbringings and assume an identity that makes them uneasy, to look at the way things really are, to admit that class exists and that the class structure in this country can make life very hard on people at the bottom. There is a segment of the liberal consciousness that refuses to believe this, that believes that people at the bottom who are white are not worthy of the same compassion one shows to people of color. It gets a bit galling when someone far better off than you tells you to check your privilege, and it’s all the more galling when those people benefit from misery even as they put on a front of do-goodery and progressive activism.
Goad discusses this in detail when he writes of the author Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin to bemoan the state of slavery when endangered white workers and children laborers were in her own backyard. She ignored the underclass in the north in favor of the underclass in the south. In 1853 she visited the Duchess of Sutherland in Great Britain, and was praised for her work with the anti-slavery movement in America. In return for their hospitality, she called the Duchess and her family “enlightened.” In 1811, The Sutherlands began displacing Scottish peasants who lived on 800,000 acres of land, taking 794,000 acres for themselves and used the British authorities to run off the peasants who had lived there for generations, sometimes even burning them out. People starved and approximately 15,000 people were made homeless. Yet she cried over the plight of black slaves across the ocean. The great thinkers of her time called her and those like her out:
Karl Marx called the Duchess of Sutherland’s brand of charity “a philanthropy which chooses its objects as far distant from home as possible, and rather on that than on this side of the ocean.” Charles Dickens referred to the British Negro Uplift parlor-game societies as “telescopic charity,” since they focused overseas while ignoring death and starvation within their own shadows.
The modern white liberal is the same way… In their eagerness to help oppressed peoples across the oceans, they leapfrog right over white trash in their own pond. Starving children in India. Starving children in Africa. Starving children everywhere but Appalachia.
Goad’s book is even more challenging when you were once a kid who didn’t have lunch money at times but grew into a woman who found it all too easy to worry more about the hungry elsewhere because it was all a part of the canon of the group you hoped would help you pretend you were never poor white trash.
Extraordinarily topical, Goad quotes Andrew Jackson:
“You bankers are a bunch of vipers and I will rout you out. If the American people ever find out how you operate, there will be a revolution before morning.”
Except after the bailout of all the banks in the last three years, there really hasn’t been a revolution, has there? Nor will there. But bankers have had the American throat against the knife for decades and Americans, apologists for power that we are, have not protested much beyond being pissed off at tax time.
But an important crux of this book is that the real power benefits from blacks and whites hating one another, and perhaps that is the greatest conspiracy of them all, but Goad presents some points that bear thinking about.
If rednecks and blacks were ever to put aside their differences, the only remaining enemy would be the one above them… Very frequently, enemies are merely brothers fighting over the same hand-me-downs.
Several things, however, blunt the possibility of rednecks and blacks getting along. One is the eternally divisive game of “Who Was More Oppressed?”… Ultimately it’s like cancer patients arguing over whose tumors are worse. A deadly, serious topic has been twisted into a cafeteria food-fight over who suffered more.
A second obstacle is the illusion of universal white guilt. I think that most black people in America have every right to be angry. And I think most white people in America have every right not to feel guilty about it… I can’t appreciate someone else’s history if I’m forced to reject and feel ashamed about mine.
For the great part of America that is one paycheck away from picking through garbage cans, it may be wise to consider the strength of organized trash. The “minorities” plus the rednecks equals the majority. It always has. And the power jockeys have always known this, so they’ve historically pitted these groups as adversaries. Imagine a rainbow mound of trash… I have a dream—one day po’ whites and blacks will stand together and be able to say, “It’s a class thing – you wouldn’t understand.”
And finally, the quote that sealed the deal, the part that recognizes that the bulk of the shit rednecks experience comes not from non-whites, but from the upper echelon power structure bent on hurling shit from both sides of the spectrum:
Realizing there was social chaos beneath all the yuppie pretense, there was no way I’d buy the conservative line of bullshit. In targeting the poor, conservatism pointed a finger at those who weren’t to blame. But the liberals eventually lost me, too. They pointed a finger at me and I wasn’t to blame either.
I started losing faith in liberalism when I began noticing that every liberal who accused me of white privilege seemed to come from a more privileged socioeconomic background than I did… If indigenous Amazonian tribes were subjects to acid rain, the liberals were emotionally devastated. But if a trailer park of white trash across town all got cancer because they lived atop a toxic dump, it was a joke.
Increasingly, the world makes no sense to me. Online, people will bandy the words “white trash” and “redneck” around, using “hate speech” in ways they would never, ever in do when speaking of non-whites, as if the child who is called such names understands privilege and will not feel shame even as an adult when they remember those epithets used to describe them. But the same nasty people who say such things are also unwavering in their condescension when their lessers don’t own their lesser status. The kids on Jersey Shore, who now make $10,000 for public appearances at bars, explained they don’t consider Guido to be an epithet to them yet smug liberals don’t buy that kids who make more in three Saturdays drinking beer than I make in a year can decide what words hurt them. It’s almost enough to make you wonder if the keyboard warriors who demand others stop calling Snooki a “guidette” are angry that she’s economically successful and they just need her to feel wounded by racist comments because without race or culture to demean her, how on earth can they feel better than her?
For anyone who knows me in real life, these political opinions of mine may not be evident. I’m very liberal, but I’m quiet on politics for the most part, mainly because I feel sort of beaten down. My husband and I lost our jobs. We had gaps in medical insurance that broke us financially (it was neat when I broke my leg and needed a plate before the COBRA got settled). We almost lost our home. Outwardly, we may look affluent and like we have power but we don’t. No one does anymore except a handful of people at the top.
Nothing in my life is about race. It’s about class. It’s about growing up with a chip on my shoulder and entering middle age full of fear because power can still call me names, it can strip me of my job, and it can tell me to die because I don’t have insurance. At one point, my daddy harkened back in me and I had some distaste for the Indian workers who took my calls when I called my creditors to ask for mercy and I would bristle. Fuckers. Willing to work for a dime so I can’t have a dollar.
And it hit me. The rank stupidity of it all. If someone offers you a job, you take it. People at the bottom have to survive. It’s the people at the top, driving down wages to appease shareholders, exporting jobs to people who need them as much as me but can work cheaper, who are to blame. No matter how well off you are, unless you control industry, banking or politics, you are at the bottom, and when the bottom falls out from under you, those who get the crumbs from the bread that was taken from you are not to blame. Nothing will ever change until we all stop blaming each other for scrabbling for what power will let us have. Though time is changing “developing” nations, the fact is that if one must be born poor, being poor in the USA beats the hell out of being poor in India – that is genuine white privilege and I have it and I am grateful to have it.
Ugh. I don’t even know what I’m getting at anymore. Maybe I just want everyone to stop complaining and to shut the fuck up. Obama, Lou Dobbs, Birthers, Tea Baggers, George Clooney, people who believe in the Twelve Steps, Bono, Rick Warren, every libertarian who ever lived – if everyone would just shut the fuck up the world would be so much better, and of course I don’t include myself in this because I like the sound of my own voice. And keyboard.
But back to Goad. While none of the quotes I present reflect his humor, he peppers the book with darkly hilarious observations. He writes honestly and kindly without an ounce of apology (as should be evident in this review) and speaks about topics that frighten most people who don’t heartily identify with one side of the political spectrum or the other. In fact, I worry a bit what some may think of me, liking this book so much, but given some of the crap I read and love, liking a book that makes sense on many levels should not worry me.