Books

Who Are You Calling 'White Trash'?

Image from Nancy Isenberg.com

White Trash serves as an opening statement on the long ignored presence of class within a country that prides itself on freedom and equality for all.


White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

Publisher: Viking
Length: 446 pages
Author: Nancy Isenberg
Price: $28.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-06
Amazon

Given the hot button issue that is racial relations within the United States, there has been little to no outward discussion regarding the marginalization of the poorer, white class of citizens that make up a significant portion of the population (save for some excellent coverage of white poverty in America by the British owned paper, The Guardian). Having adopted something of a backwards -- at least in terms of perception -- approach to modern society in the glorification of a "backwoods" / "redneck" / "white trash" lifestyle, this segment of the population goes largely undiscussed in terms of representing an expansive lineage of continued class structure within a supposedly free, classless society. No one wants to be the one to point out that what contemporary white trash -- for lack of a better term -- individuals see as a point of pride and/or heritage is based in the subjugation of a people on the part of the ruling class.

Since the first Europeans made their way across the Atlantic in hopes of establishing a new, freer society, what is now America has largely proven to be little more than European society in miniature. At least in terms of class structure, something which, until Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, has largely gone unspoken and undocumented. While race has always been a clear, often violent delineation of social stature, class hierarchy within each has continued largely unabated for over 400 years. In this time, the poor have been continually marginalized, kept in a state of perpetual decline, and even faced with the prospect of eugenics, all designed to keep a firmly established, unspoken class structure in place.

With much of today’s reality television culture based around the exploits of these formerly marginalized citizens, Isenberg takes an unflinching look at the history of class within the United States. While there exist unsettling parallels throughout the narrative -- one could easily and disquietingly see in James Vardaman and even Andrew Jackson what contemporary conservatives see in Donald Trump -- much of the focus is placed on the perception of the class of poor whites than the poor whites themselves. Much of this, especially in the earliest accounts, is the result of there being no existing documentation of the lives they lived reported on from the inside. Instead, history, as always, is painted by those in a position of power and therefore these lower ranks are largely brushed to the side, derided as being, “an ill-defined class half-way between white and black”.

It isn’t until the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century that these people begin to exist as fully realized individuals and not stock characters as perceived by the upper classes. As they begin to take shape, they also begin to lose Isenberg’s sympathy to a certain degree. Indeed, she references James Agee as wondering how he could write about poor whites as an educated individual without making them seem pitiful or disgusting, a trap Isenberg finds herself falling into years later. It’s a fine line that often suffers from an outsider’s perspective that comes off as more anthropological than sociological.

As she begins her survey, she presents her subjects as the unfortunate victims of circumstance, born into the lowest level of British society and, in an attempt to rid the country’s streets of vagabonds, were shipped off to the colonies in America where they occupied largely the same role, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle of oppression and repression. But as time passes and those identified alternately as “clay-eaters”, “rednecks” and “po’ white trash”, are subject to harsher scrutiny.

It’s here that the narrative then fully begins to shift and those upon which pity was previously bestowed become the problem rather than the byproduct of a larger societal issue. Instead, these individuals, primarily in the 20th and 21st centuries, see their social retardation as not something to be scorned or broken free of, but rather a heritage to be celebrated and embraced. Yet by doing so these examples of modern day white trash miss the point entirely. When discussing Reconstruction and the storied South post-Civil War, Isenberg points out that the Confederate heritage that these modern rednecks purport to celebrate while taking to task the wealthy and liberal elite is based in a system by which the elite managed to stifle the growth of the lower and poor classes.

This whole system saw the true southern rednecks existing in a class somewhere between the black slaves and the white middle class. To celebrate this heritage as one in which the underdog took on the wealthier elite would seem to miss the point entirely as, according to Isenberg, it was the wealthier elite who fought to keep the so-called underdog down with no hope of social elevation or advancement.

In this, the modern incarnations of those defined as being white trash are seen as the imbeciles and societal dregs they were long claimed to be. It’s hard to reconcile this elitist view with the more sympathetic tone afforded similar individuals from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. If the basic argument of the unspoken class system within the United States is to be believed, modern white trash are no more responsible for their position than their ancestors, each the result of centuries of solidified and stratified class distinctions from which there is little hope of escape.

Ultimately, White Trash suffers from a tonal inconsistency. What starts off as a thoughtful historical exploration eventually devolves into contemporary social commentary struck through with a certain level of disgust and disappointment. But given the sensitive and long overlooked nature of the subject matter into which she dives head first, Isenberg cannot be faulted for letting a few of her prejudices slip into the narrative. As Agee indicated, it can be damn near impossible to present a truly sympathetic or genuine portrait of an experience and existence beyond that which we ourselves have ever or will ever know.

It’s a contentious subject that deserves a larger academic discussion. With any luck, Isenberg’s White Trash will serve as the opening arguments from which a broader discussion arises.

7

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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