Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

PLUMBING THE DEPTHS OF TRASHINESS WHAT MADE IT SO RAMPANT? THEORIES INCLUDE BACKLASH, INADEQUACY AND ILLEGITIMACY Series: White Trash SECOND OF TWO PARTS

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

PLUMBING THE DEPTHS OF TRASHINESS WHAT MADE IT SO RAMPANT? THEORIES INCLUDE BACKLASH, INADEQUACY AND ILLEGITIMACY Series: White Trash SECOND OF TWO PARTS

Article excerpt

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 theory of a backlash against the excess of the 1980s.

"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 Butt-head." "All through the '80s 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 Mary Matalin, host of the "Equal Time" talk show on CNBC. "It goes from the top down. Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald and all of (editor) Max Perkins' 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 present symptom of our social decline, says conservative 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 s-?' then dropping out becomes an option. And that alternative culture is the black underclass.

Of the "wigger," a popular neologism, 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."

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

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