So I was pretty moved by Ross Douthat’s observation that the first meaning of Christmas is something like the holiness of ordinary lives. It would bizarrely anachronistic to say Jesus was born into a “white trash” family. But the meaning of being born in a manger—temporary lodging for displaced people on the road—is about no personal life being trash in the eyes of the God who became man to save poor, ordinary people like you and like I (that’s a southern, literary, Christmas reference).
So as much as a most guilt-ridden limo liberal, I was taken back by the allegation that I had called Mr. Robertson of the Duck Dynasty “white trash.” He proudly or defiantly called himself white trash as evidence of his understanding of the black person working in the fields under segregation. The fields, under the thumb of white aristocrats or oligarchs, is where you’d find both blacks and white trash. So “white trash” had intimate knowledge of the ways of black folks with whom they shared so much.
So far, so cool. A white guy calling himself white trash or a redneck is not the same thing as a black person using the infamous n-word to describe himself. The trouble is that Mr. Robertson went on describe his personal views in stereotypically “white trash” ways. In so doing, he confirmed the prejudices of those who want to think of his kind as trash.
It goes without saying that the Robertsons don’t live in trashy ways. They’re rich, personally responsible, take care of their own, and so forth. Now a southern aristocrat would regard a lot of what they do as trashy; they don’t have the (superficial) manners and morals of cultivated gentlemen. But their “trashiness” is clearly an affectation, a way of mocking the pretensions of sophisticates of all kinds. So the right kind of nouveau trashiness would combine a defense of what’s best about the South—which includes guns, fishing, God, family, leisure, nobility, and simple enjoyment—with a rejection of anything that could reasonably regarded as ignorant, racist prejudice. I can’t help but be disappointed that the Duck guys don’t have the class and savvy to align themselves with the postracist appreciation of the noble classiness of ordinary southern lives founded in the Texarkansan Movement of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, TENDER MERCIES, and MUD. It’s probably not too late.
The phrase “white trash” is, in fact, one of the most unattractive features of aristocratic Southern Stoicism. The Stoic, aristocratic (not to mention gay and racist) poet-philosopher William Alexander Percy disparaged “white trash” far more than southern blacks. And we see that same sort of stereotyping in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, where the white trash are really, really trashy—so trashy that nobody minds how cruelly Stoic attorney Atticus Finch deconstructs the pretensions of their way of life in the service of justice for a noble—if simple—black man. And of course the white trash jury was too trashy to keep an innocent black man from being convicted.
Too many Americans from all our country’s regions regard low-church Southern Christianity—imprecisely called fundamentalism—as white-trash religion. Certainly Will Percy did. And lots of our traditionalists join him. But all we Christians should try harder to learn from the fervent and charitable belief of poor, ordinary people in our Christ-haunted South. We should follow the example of maybe the most profound and certainly most deeply Catholic Southerner ever—Flannery O’Connor. Especially, of course, around Christmas.
When a Stoic Walker Percy character says that the behavior celebrated on our talk and reality shows is that of white trash—of people who don’t know how to act because they don’t know who they are—we can’t help but want to agree. (The Duck show actually tries to be an exception to that rule!) White trash, any real Southern Stoic would say, describes a way of living not confined to the impoverished or the South. (Here I refer you to the novels of Tom Wolfe.)
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?