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White Hot Trash!

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"The form of trash is attractive," writer Dorothy Allison says, "but the content is not. Americans are into form without content. True trash doesn't care what happens, because we don't believe our good behavior will get us anywhere. So we're dangerous—we don't necessarily care for your life."

Tabloid-TV exposure can lobotomize the shame of white-trash behavior, but it can't entirely create that behavior in the first place. So where did our rampant trashiness spring from? Liberals and slackers subscribe to the backlash-against-eighties-excess theory. "With The Cosby Show they were all doctors and lawyers going off to Princeton and walking around the house with $1,000 outfits," says Mike Judge, creator and voice of MTV's Beavis and Bull-head. "All through the eighties I thought there were way too many good-looking people on TV—you just start feeling inadequate. I thought it would be cool to have something on TV where you don't have to be ashamed that you live in a dumpy house and wear dumpy clothes and watch too much TV.Along with Married . . . With Children and The Simpsons there's a power-to-the-lower-income-white-people trend."

Then there is the abdication-of-leadership theory, especially favored by Republicans (despite their party's near-stranglehold on the White House). Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, once said that "with two generations of prosperity white trash looks like gentry." Perhaps the reverse also obtains: With two generations of inertial guidance, gentry looks like white trash. "This form of [trashy] behavior is much more prevalent among the bohemians and the hippies, the upper-income groups in the Hamptons," says Equal Time's Mary Matalin. "It goes from the top down. Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald and all Max Perkins's writers were total slugs—they all beat their wives and drank like fish and slept around."

The conservative view is acute, though hyperbolic. When we abandoned teaching the core values of Western civilization, Allan Bloom argues in The Closing of the American Mind, we lost our common mores: "Civilization has seemingly led us around full circle, back to the state of nature. . . ." As Ashley Judd muses in the 1993 movie Ruby in Paradise, "Why slave your life out when you can just take? Are there any real reasons for living right, anyway?"

The presenting symptom of our social decline, believes scholar Charles Murray, is white illegitimacy. He unscrolls a dismal statistical litany: In 1991, 22 percent of white births were illegitimate; 69 percent of those single white mothers had family incomes under $20,000; and 82 percent of them had a high-school education or less.

An additional stress is rising divorce rates: Of white children born in 1980, only 30 percent will live with both parents through the age of 18; those born in 1950 had an 81 percent chance. Families under the poverty line are twice as likely as other families to undergo parental separations, and various studies show that single-parent children are two to three times as likely to have emotional and behavioral problems.

"If the dominant culture deems you a misfit if you drop out, then you plug away," Murray says. "If there is an alternative culture that says, 'Who needs that shit?,' then dropping out becomes an option. And that alternative culture is the black underclass." Of the popular neologism wigger, Murray notes, "It refers to white kids who mimic black dress, walk, or attitudes. But what they're really imitating is black-underclass attitudes toward achievement. When a large number of males grow up without fathers, then they emulate the local heroes—the drug dealers, who get lots of women, have money, and take no crap."

This argument—that black-underclass problems resonate in the white underclass—has had a fierce political valence since at least 1965 (the year of Moynihan's controversial report to President Johnson, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," which prefigured Murray). Liberals take obscure comfort from the suggestion, often made by Jesse Jackson and scholar Andrew Hacker, that all races share despair: They find talking about the white underclass a pressure-release valve from coded discussions of the black underclass.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are horrified. "Unless these exploding social pathologies are reversed," William J. Bennett warns in Nostradamian tones about drug use, violent crime, and illegitimacy in his best-selling The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, "they will lead to the decline and perhaps even the fall of the American republic."

Parents, especially fathers, are supposed to prevent us—if not the putatively fragile republic—from falling prey to our impulses. To stop us from acting like children. Kimberly Mays, who last year won a court ruling allowing her to sever ties with her biological parents and remain with her adopted father, this year switched back to her original parents, Ernest and Regina Twigg. The reason, according to one of Kimberly's friends, was her adoptive father Robert Mays's hard line: "She hated him because he wouldn't let her stay out late with her boyfriend."


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  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Aug 22, 1994 issue of New York
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