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

by Nancy Isenberg

Hardcover, 2016

Status

Available

Publication

New York, New York : Viking, [2016]

Description

"A history of the class system in America from the colonial era to the present illuminates the crucial legacy of the underprivileged white demographic, citing the pivotal contributions of lower-class white workers in wartime, social policy, and the rise of the Republican Party,"--NoveList.

User reviews

LibraryThing member deusvitae
Another book of which the subtitle is more accurate than the title. This book is not really about "white trash"; it's about "the 400 year untold history of class in America."

If one is looking for or waiting for a book really getting into the story of "white trash," and the experience of poor white people in America, one will be disappointed in this book; J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy" will be more profitable to this end. Rarely are representatives of the "white trash" communities heard in this book; it's mostly about how other people viewed such people.

But for its stated purpose the book is certainly effective. I, for one, did not need to be convinced about the role of class and particularly class consciousness in American history, but recognize that "the Dream," the "idea" of America, is that it is somehow a classless society, as if those who advance always and primarily do so because of skill and merit, and those who do not advance are just lazy or undisciplined.

The author does not seek to offer a Marxist/Communist critique; if any discussion of class in America is automatically assumed to lead to Marxism such shows the awful state of the discussion about class in America. What the author does well is to show that there are at least two classes in America: where "you" are, and the people "beneath" you in social capital and standing.

Depending where a person is on the economic spectrum, they may have confidence in the virtue of some of the people who are less economically advantaged than themselves: how some among the wealthy may view, say, the middle class, or how members of the middle class view the "working poor." Yet, as the author demonstrates well, all such people come together and maintain a consistent narrative about how they view those on the very bottom rung: "rubbish" in the 17th century, "white trash" today.

The narrative is sadly consistent throughout American history: from its founding as colonies, America was to be a place where at least some of Britain's "trash population" would be dumped. This population has been marginalized for as long as it has existed, considered swamp people, squatters, mudsills, scalawags, white trash, trailer trash, etc. From the beginning they have been pushed to the margins, chastised for their breeding, uncouth living standards, and deviant culture. When they fail they are blamed entirely, generally in terms of bad breeding or bad environment. It has always been fashionable to find ways to "get rid" of such people, from cannon fodder to candidates for forced sterilization. The author traces this from the idea of the American colonies in the sixteenth century through the development of those colonies, the writings of Franklin and Jefferson, the frontier experience, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the early 20th century, the middle 20th century, and the white trash phenomenon since. She explores the few times when notable men have come out of the "white trash" community (Jackson, Lincoln, Johnson, Carter, Clinton), and how they were treated in "civilized" culture on account of it.

The book is light on application; one feels that chapters end abruptly, and it is only in the epilogue that the author's full purposes are accentuated. The point is to open the reader's eyes to the long-standing and thoroughly culturally acceptable condescension and disgust toward "white trash," how it has rendered invisible a large swath of the American population invisible, and has denied them full "American-ness." The goal, ostensibly, is to get the rest of us to be a bit more sympathetic toward their plight, but to what end?

This book provides a good complementary read to J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy," and vice versa. Both books show well the failures of government and American culture in general to help the marginalized poor white community; Vance speaks well to the internal challenges of that community, while Isenberg does well at showing the systemic, long-term attitude issues of culture in general toward them. Hopefully considering such things may lead to discussions of how these communities can be worked with in a healthier and more productive way.Another book of which the subtitle is more accurate than the title. This book is not really about "white trash"; it's about "the 400 year untold history of class in America."

If one is looking for or waiting for a book really getting into the story of "white trash," and the experience of poor white people in America, one will be disappointed in this book; J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy" will be more profitable to this end. Rarely are representatives of the "white trash" communities heard in this book; it's mostly about how other people viewed such people.

But for its stated purpose the book is certainly effective. I, for one, did not need to be convinced about the role of class and particularly class consciousness in American history, but recognize that "the Dream," the "idea" of America, is that it is somehow a classless society, as if those who advance always and primarily do so because of skill and merit, and those who do not advance are just lazy or undisciplined.

The author does not seek to offer a Marxist/Communist critique; if any discussion of class in America is automatically assumed to lead to Marxism such shows the awful state of the discussion about class in America. What the author does well is to show that there are at least two classes in America: where "you" are, and the people "beneath" you in social capital and standing.

Depending where a person is on the economic spectrum, they may have confidence in the virtue of some of the people who are less economically advantaged than themselves: how some among the wealthy may view, say, the middle class, or how members of the middle class view the "working poor." Yet, as the author demonstrates well, all such people come together and maintain a consistent narrative about how they view those on the very bottom rung: "rubbish" in the 17th century, "white trash" today.

The narrative is sadly consistent throughout American history: from its founding as colonies, America was to be a place where at least some of Britain's "trash population" would be dumped. This population has been marginalized for as long as it has existed, considered swamp people, squatters, mudsills, scalawags, white trash, trailer trash, etc. From the beginning they have been pushed to the margins, chastised for their breeding, uncouth living standards, and deviant culture. When they fail they are blamed entirely, generally in terms of bad breeding or bad environment. It has always been fashionable to find ways to "get rid" of such people, from cannon fodder to candidates for forced sterilization. The author traces this from the idea of the American colonies in the sixteenth century through the development of those colonies, the writings of Franklin and Jefferson, the frontier experience, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the early 20th century, the middle 20th century, and the white trash phenomenon since. She explores the few times when notable men have come out of the "white trash" community (Jackson, Lincoln, Johnson, Carter, Clinton), and how they were treated in "civilized" culture on account of it.

The book is light on application; one feels that chapters end abruptly, and it is only in the epilogue that the author's full purposes are accentuated. The point is to open the reader's eyes to the long-standing and thoroughly culturally acceptable condescension and disgust toward "white trash," how it has rendered invisible a large swath of the American population invisible, and has denied them full "American-ness." The goal, ostensibly, is to get the rest of us to be a bit more sympathetic toward their plight, but to what end?

This book provides a good complementary read to J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy," and vice versa. Both books show well the failures of government and American culture in general to help the marginalized poor white community; Vance speaks well to the internal challenges of that community, while Isenberg does well at showing the systemic, long-term attitude issues of culture in general toward them. Hopefully considering such things may lead to discussions of how these communities can be worked with in a healthier and more productive way.
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LibraryThing member featherbear
Started but barely got anywhere reading someone else’s copy when out of town. Didn’t seem to be good enough to own – turned out this was probably correct – checked out from the downtown library. With a return date, good incentive to finish – too many unfinished titles lying around. Start off 2018 turn over a new leaf maybe -- & finished in a couple of days!

Con: the coverage of the late 20th – to present (2015 in this case) reads more like a blog mash-up. Banal academic processing of pop culture. Odd she overlooked Arthur Penn’s film Bonnie & Clyde, a more sympathetic and complex take on depression WT/hillbillies rather than a sitting target like To Kill a Mockingbird. Isenberg sometimes appears to be affected by anachronistic gotcha presentism when interpreting American intellectual and cultural history, a little reminiscent of social media & blogs. Her intended audience sometimes appears to be naïve undergraduate students; many of the “untold” “aha” moments are probably not all that surprising to older adult liberals. The Debbie Downer style of demythologizing strikes me as Young Adult history although she is by no means an antifa zealot.
Suspect Isenberg would be in the Bernie Sanders progressive camp. Sanders views the American idea through the prism of class, but his movement has been unable to incorporate identity-politics into his vision and most people of color didn’t get on board. What’s frustrating about Isenberg’s analysis and maybe progressivism in general is that it stages the bottom dwellers against the 1 percent, at least rhetorically, but ignores or avoids the dialectical contradictions of the class or classes in-between. By forcing white trash into the box of class, she consciously excludes the alternate formulation of white trash as a state of mind that runs through all classes that choose to identify as white. Do those who are excluded from this gated ethnic community care (or bother to analyze) whether the racist trash comes from the bottom of the class hierarchy, or the struggling middle class, or the 10 or 1 percent, when they are on the receiving end of the garbage?

Pro. Interesting stuff through the early 20th century. I’m as ignorant as any Young Adult (I’m 68 at this writing) on many of these things. Clearly the early English settlement of North America can be seen as a means of dealing with an exploding population, leading to a burgeoning lower class that did not have a place in a growing economy. Given the times, it doesn’t seem all that surprising that the options would be financial speculation and indentured slavery. Isenberg does not provide a political or economic alternative to a largely feudal political and economic system trying to cope with overpopulation during a plague hiatus. She does not address to my satisfaction the cultural differences between the New England and Virginia settlers in seeing or not seeing the need for labor and planning in a new and potentially lethal environment, creating different white labor behavioral cultures in the South and New England and resulting in different perceptions of African and Native American slavery. Does she underplay the impact of religion?
She devotes a chapter to Ben Franklin’s ideology of the self-made man. It is an unsympathetic portrait of the New England petit-bourgeois. Characteristic of the type is a disdain for the bottom of the white hierarchy, introducing the concept of breeding that recurs in the early 20th century fascination with eugenics and Social Darwinism. She makes much of this, downplaying his championship of education, his strong interest in the international scene, and the broad middle of the social hierarchy. The ill-use of the self-made man trope nowadays perhaps causes Isenberg to be a little presentistic in viewing Franklin, undervaluing the positive aspects I’ve listed. In particular, Franklin’s internationalist interests – hard to separate from a broad liberal education -- could well have made a white trash hero like Lyndon Johnson a stronger and more successful president.

The case against slavery or slavery by other means recurs throughout Isenberg’s intellectual history. She focuses on the administration and ideas of James Oglethorpe in the early years of the Georgia settlement, and the better-known Thomas Jefferson. Both attack slavery from the inside and for the benefit of the Anglo-Saxon whites as a whole, not primarily for any strong sense of moral rectitude with regard to the enslaved ethnic groups. Their concern is how slavery demoralizes the work ethic of lower class whites, the main population of the white settlers in North America. In some ways Jefferson’s situation is most interesting since his fellow plantation owners probably see that demoralization as a positive for ensuring that the lower and middle classes don’t try to rise above their stations, and, as Isenberg repeatedly points out, as a means of controlling ethnic slaves and using the white masses to spearhead the ethnic cleansing, best personified at the highest level by Andrew Jackson and his populist presidency of the little (white) guy. Despite being a plantation and slave owner, Jefferson envisioned a pastoral future of small white freeholder farms; a progressive back to the land ideologue, perfectly capturing the contradictions of that recurring American dream. Against the wishes of the white settlers of Georgia, Oglethorpe largely resisted slavery because he believed they were more likely to become capable freeholders without the crutch of slavery, and because small slaveholders would eventually be bought out for the benefit of speculators, who would consolidate their slaveholdings into large plantation properties and would of course give the small landholders the boot. If there are any partial heroes in Isenberg’s history, they are not benign idealists like Jefferson, but unsung and stubborn government bureaucrats like Oglethorpe and later Rexford Tugwell during the New Deal days who were capable of seeing the big picture.

In any case, the Southern power structure did not embrace the visions of either Oglethorpe or Jefferson and in fact thoroughly carried out what those prophets in the wilderness warned would happen: manipulating the white lower class while holding it in contempt, consolidating slave holdings in single crop agriculture (with consequent environmental devastation), and deluding itself with fantasies of imperialist slaveholder power that finally led the Northern industrial war machine to devastate (naturally) the white lower classes. The silver lining was that the top of the Confederate pecking order still managed to undermine Reconstruction by controlling the polls and continuing to exploit the white lower class by encouraging anti-Reconstruction violence and blaming all the nastiness on white trash. Their political stranglehold was strengthened by Social Darwinism and the acceptance of eugenics as the conventional wisdom in the early 20th century. Despite the New Deal’s rescue of the South from the environmental disaster of its one-crop economy via the TVA, the Southern power hierarchy wasn’t really dislodged. The strongest political challenge since the New Deal was launched through the passage of civil rights and voting legislation masterminded by Lyndon Johnson, the white trash master of the senate. Johnson is important for Isenberg’s thesis since he demonstrates the potential of the bottom of the white hierarchy. However, she has to acknowledge that from the class perspective he was really not at the very lowest end of the hierarchy that she seems to consider white trash proper, but part of the amorphous middle area she generally elides from analysis. And she never addresses the insularity of the lower levels of the American hierarchy that disdain the international perspective of the top tier. Relatively ignorant of foreign policy, Johnson was in a weakened leadership position. Unable to navigate confidently through the jungle of military and diplomatic advice, he lost the opportunity to avoid prolonging the war in Vietnam.
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LibraryThing member neddludd
I would hope that this book is destined to become one of those must reads for anyone interested in U.S. history and culture. The work debunks cherished myths and reveals how a rigid class structure has been a part of the American scene since the first pre-colonial settlements. It was imported from England, where the New World was viewed as a place to expel Britain's underclass (who were viewed almost as an immoral different species than "normal" individuals who owned property and "contributed" to society). In America, the lowest of the low performed several functions: for example, it was squatters who first expanded the frontier and created a buffer between domesticated lands in the east and the savage interior. Manifest Destiny provided a justification for this class to continue further and further west, which then set the stage for never-ending land speculation (and a consistent favoring of the wealthy and connected who picked up huge acreage and unceremoniously banished the poor.) Throughout history, the poor have been loathed and in the early 20th-century there was widespread use of eugenics which sought to reduce the poor by sterilizing white-trash women. For the lowest of the low there has never been upward mobility. And the sense of this being an inclusive democracy is a baldfaced lie in the sense of countless exclusionary strategies that denied the vote for the poor, for blacks, for immigrants, for women. A book that rivals Howard Zinn's debunking American history survey in its courageous telling of truth to power.… (more)
LibraryThing member rivkat
Isenberg argues for the relevance of class in the US’s supposedly classless society, and certainly shows that white people aren’t generally satisfied with excluding nonwhites but also wish to make distinctions between good and bad types of white people. However, the work suffers from a failure to fully define what she means by “class.” Sometimes it appears to be economic; but then sometimes it’s about culture, since even the rough backwoods types who make tons of money stay culturally devalued. I did leave the book thinking that Andrew Jackson, the first “white trash” president, has a lot of similarities with Donald Trump—uninterested in learning; quick to anger; petty; and willing to kill a lot of people who didn’t look like him.… (more)
LibraryThing member Kellswitch
This is a challenging book to review, I learned so much reading it and it roused so many feelings in me and I found what it says about humans in general and America in particular depressing as hell. I did not finish this book feeling positive about our species and our future, and I suspect that had I finished reading it before the election in 2016 I suspect I wouldn't have been as caught off guard by the end result.

This book challenged me, educated me and made me think way outside my comfort zone. It wasn't a fun read but it was fascinating and important and is a must read.
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LibraryThing member startwithgivens
I'm just frustrated with this book. I thought it was good, and then I thought it was bad, and then I thought for sure it was going to end on a high note and the author lost me. I think what bothered me the most, was that while trying to be objective I think the author also defends people that I disagree with. I also didn't feel like this book was about financial or social class necessarily, as much as it was about the opinions that are harbored for or against someone with a certain geographical background. The reason for my two star review was that I do not feel like I would ever recommend this book. While this book is undoubtedly ground breaking, and I don't discount that it should be hailed, it was not my cup of tea.… (more)
LibraryThing member AnneMichaud
"White Trash" offers a fascinating new lens on American class history. The author presents a sort of Howard Zinn ("A People's History of the United States") reinterpretation, upending the tropes we learned in history class. I very much appreciated her analysis. The material on the eugenics movement in America was stunning to me. Nancy Isenberg drew a connecting line from colonial days, with the lower-class cast-off indentured servants sent from England, through to Elvis Presley and Bill Clinton. I still believe there is more work to do in understanding these various threads of the "American spirit," as Isenberg calls it. The reading is slow at points. All in all, though, a good addition to our understanding of the origins of class in America.… (more)
LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
This book chronicles the treatment the poor in the US since its inception. It seems our "classless" society is no better than most others in its desire to exploit, dehumanize and continually encapsulate those at the bottom of the financial spectrum.
LibraryThing member ritaer
Far from being a land of opportunity for all Isenberg portrays America first as a dumping ground for the superfluous population of England: the vagrant poor who had been driven from their subsistence farming into the roads and cities and lives of crime. Shipped to America as indentured servants or convicts these people settled on the poorest land and mostly failed as farmers. Wherever they ended up they were labeled as refuse, human rubbish, trash, clay eaters, hill billies and rednecks. Blamed for there poverty and even for the diseases, such as hookworm, that exacerbated it they remained at the bottom of the social latter. However the rise of identity politics led to some degree of self identification as redneck and an attempt to reconceptualize the class as working class real Americans. Interesting and instructive.… (more)
LibraryThing member annbury
A good book; it took quite a while to read it, and the early chapters are somewhat boring. If the author had led with her epilogue, that might have been better. The book becomes a fast read when the subject matter turns to the modern times and authors and movies and everything else. The problem is that Slavery was responsible for all of the country's growth before the civil war, and a good bit of its problems today. How is one expected to react to Trump except that he says what Republicans only dog whistle: he got the primary voters to approve him (he won everywhere) by appealing to their worst instincts, which are still alive in this nation. He is anti-black, and anti-woman, and anti-immigrant and the people who vote for him are the same. The reason that the author spends more time than may seem warranted on the South and its history is its unique relationship to Slavery, and its contribution to the myth about this country. It will never go away. I am appalled and regard this as a must read book. I think that she would have made a strong case anyway about our class differences if she stayed on the 21st and 20th century.… (more)
LibraryThing member dickmanikowski
Fascinating depiction of the role that class has played in American history, from the earliest Colonial times. Unfortunately, I didn't apply myself well enough to finish this library book during its three week loan period. I should have suspected that another patron's hold would prevent me from renewing it, since I'd been on a long hold list before having my turn with it.… (more)
LibraryThing member Pretear
The basic thesis here is this: There is no such thing as a classless society in America and pretending that one exists is harmful to everyone. The provocative subject matter, "white trash," is certainly interesting and the author is thorough, but it got a bit boring in the middle.
LibraryThing member TheLoisLevel
Not really a study of class in America unless the southeast is America. The author is overly fixated on the effects of slavery and mostly ignores other causes.
LibraryThing member MichaelC.Oliveira
Wonderful history of the term and people defined as "white trash," while did not always agree with the author, the work as a whole was well-researched and presented in a cogent manner. A great break from my YA book binge.
LibraryThing member gayla.bassham
There is a lot of interesting material here, but not as much analysis as I'd hoped, and what is there is fairly shallow. That's a consequence of trying to cover 400 years in 320 pages, I think -- it would have been a stronger book if she'd focused on the twentieth century. The strongest sections of the book cover the New Deal; she also has interesting things to say about Elvis, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter. (Alas, the pages she devotes to the saga of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker don't offer much that is new.)

I do harbor a secret hope that she will update the book with a chapter that covers this demographic's embrace of "billionaire" Donald Trump.
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LibraryThing member mldavis2
Author Isenberg has done an exhaustive study of the origins of lower-class, poverty and the effects on American history. The notes at the back of the book are nearly one-fourth of the book itself. This is a bit slow going in the early pages of history but it finishes nicely.
LibraryThing member Illiniguy71
This claims to be the story of America's white underclass from the time in the sixteenth century when Richard Hakluyt first imagined sending England's poor to colonize America to the present. For people who have lived a sheltered upper-class existence or have been cosseted all their lives in an exclusive suburb, the fact that America has a lot of poor whites and that for them "equality of opportunity" is a cruel myth may be revealing. For many of us, however, the author only states the obvious.
This is more a cultural than an economic history although Isenberg, herself, realizes income is the most central issue in analyzing this class.
To my mind, Isenberg gives too much attention to such early figures as Franklin, Jefferson, and Jackson, and not enough to the present. She also concentrates too much of her attention to the South. Major portions of the rural Midwest today have been turned into a wasteland by the meth epidemic which, in turn, is largely a function of no meaningful employment opportunities. Why concentrate on writers about the South of the 1930s and 1940s when there are such writers as Bobbie Ann Mason today?
This book has received a lot of media attention because it is on such an important and hidden or ignored topic. But what it delivers fails to live up to the hype.
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LibraryThing member MrDickie
Have you ever wondered about whether the history you learned in school is really about what happened? Do you believe that this country wasn't built on a Class System? Reading this, very well documented book, will answer those questions. You'll learn about the long history of lying by our leaders going all the way back to the Founding Fathers. This was another book I learned about when the author was interviewed on CPAN Books. It was worth waiting for my name to bubble to the top of the county library waiting list.… (more)
LibraryThing member akblanchard
Nancy Isenberg's White Trash is an ambitious survey of over 400 years of elite opinion on America's permanent white, mostly Southern underclass, the people pejoratively referred to as "white trash". The text draws upon a wide range of sources, from the writings of the Founding Fathers to modern reality TV shows. The poor, it turns out, have been with us since the early colonial period, and the people on bottom rung of the white socioeconomic ladder has always been dehumanized as expendable "rubbish". Isenberg's other point is that in the United States, a class system is alive and well, as much as Americans generally pretend that this is not the case.

Isenberg's history is filled with politicians, novelists, eugenicists, and others delivering their thoughts about the white underclass. She cites well known figures with "hillbilly" roots such as Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton. But only once does she let a genuine poor white man speak for himself, and that is just briefly in the epilogue. More attention to the real people behind the labels might have made this book a more compelling read.
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LibraryThing member TerriS
This nonfiction book on the history of Class in America was Very interesting! It was a little like reading ("listening to" in my case) a history book. But I'll say I sure learned a lot! And it was a lot different than what I learned in school! It was a little long, but worth it in the end. If you are interested in history, I would highly recommend this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member mojomomma
A fascinating look at how divided our so-called democratic society is and how it got that way. The role of the under-educated white citizens, particularly in the southern states, and how their ancestors operated in a slave-owning society was particularly interesting. Lots of current events with the election segue right into this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member marshapetry
loved it. excellent book, excellent narrator. A fun and absorbing read. I never knew that white trash went back so far in history, just under different names.

If you like cultural history and learning about how our ancestors lived and how they treated others - or perhaps were treated by others - you will love this book. Highly recommend.… (more)
LibraryThing member encephalical
I learned a lot of new history, especially in the first part which covers the colonial era through Andrew Jackson. This could also be read as a history of science, as science was often used to rationalize class and race distinctions. Interesting, also, to compare the early chapters to An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, which comes at colonial era class issues from the opposite side. The third part covering the 1970s onwards seems rushed. I was surprised that somehow Jeff Foxworthy wasn't mentioned during the discussion on the rehabilitation of "redneck" in the 1990s.… (more)
LibraryThing member Narshkite
A 3.5 for me. Fascinating history well researched. I learned a great deal, admired the compelling connections made by the author, and knew I would not nave made the connections myself. But ....its a bit of an organizational mess. some matters are covered in painful detail and others glossed over without being connected to the central thesis. This muddies the message. Some of these unmade points are clarified in the epilogue, but it is too little too late. Overall a very worthwhile and engaging read though imperfect.… (more)
LibraryThing member SydneySpaniel
This book had some good points and could be a first rate study on class in America, but it totally misses the interplay between the populists movements of the late 19th and early 20th century and their impact on American politics and view of class issues. If you want to find out about class tension throughout America, this is not the book for you. The book is not about class in America, only Southern White Trash. And the author goes out of her way to demonstrate that all conservatives are in reality a manifestation of Southern White Trash. I had a hard time getting past the numerous anachronistic issues (for instance, blaming an 19th century writers theory on misguided trickle down economics pg 162) and obvious political bias (page 277 - the only way people can get out of poverty is through government intervention, page 316 - people such as Trump, George W. Bush, and Paris Hilton are only known because of Nepotism..."Even some men of recognized competence in national politics are products of nepotism: Albert Gore Jr., Rand Paul, Andrew Cuomo, and numerous Kennedys" implying eveyone else is not competent). I wanted to follow some of her reasoning by reading footnotes and found out that the footnote had nothing to do with the point she was making page 140 footnote 12) I think i would have received a failing grade if I handed this in for one of my history papers.… (more)

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