Here are a few follow-up links and some of my leftover thoughts on Kevin Williamson’s piece on the white working class.
Firstly, the historical minutiae Jedi Knight Jeet Heer on how KW’s work represents a reversion to the National Review mean, sort to speak:
However, Williamson’s argument that the white working class “failed themselves” makes more sense if we place it in National Review’s intellectual lineage. The magazine was founded as the organ of a distinctively aristocratic conservatism, one that in the early days never concealed its scorn for ordinary people. In recent decades, that aristocratic conservatism has sometimes been obscured by a populist mask, but under the pressure of Trumpism, National Review is showing its true face.
Heer accurately provides the context for a publication that has long disdained the plebes on their team, even when their political and ideological interests are perfectly aligned. For what it’s worth I’d just add that this isn’t always reserved to conservatives—see nearly every argument this campaign season on millennial supporters of Bernie Sanders, urban liberal disdain of rural working class, or the long-standing ‘voting against their best interests’ rhetoric.
Secondly, remember that one of KW’s gripes (and, inexplicably, Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drum) is that poor folks just can’t motivate themselves to move themselves to areas with greater job opportunities. David Dayen addresses that here:
In each piece, the moral component is foregrounded: The working class refuses to move when things get tough because of either learned helplessness—“a conspiracy to give up,” Drum says—or because they cower in the face of difficult circumstances. (See David French’s condemnation of “how little effort most parents and their teen children made to improve their lives.”) Nobody in the pundit class, it seems, has attempted to actually understand how this country treats its poor—because while the suggestion to “go get a U-Haul” sounds simple, it’s an impossible task for somebody with no savings.
Having read arguments like this before I almost always instinctually react with “do these people even know how much a cross-country move costs?” Yet Dayen’s retort is simple: basically, people without the means to move don’t move. Few families on the bottom rung have the typical savings required to throw down several thousand dollars to uproot themselves. In many cases, as well, it would be for the ultimate prospect of finding the same dead-end stagnating wage job coastal pundits are deriding them for not displacing themselves to pursue. Yet KW and others often go beyond even those absurd expectations. What they’re also typically demanding is that folks uproot themselves from hometowns, extended families, and whatever meager network of support that exists to pursue aforementioned inadequate jobs.
Speaking of KW, I’d be remiss without also including his blog response to the whole matter:
The culture of the white underclass in America is horrifying. It’s brutal. And its products are obvious. To understand this plainly and to write about it plainly is not callous, despite Dreher’s insistence to the contrary.
That’s part of what I hear in KDW’s essay, that attitude. Having trouble reaching your bootstraps because you were born with arms too short, or you threw your back out permanently? Sucks to be you.
I have argued at some length that our attitude should be precisely the opposite, that, contra Professor Krugman’s cartoon version, we can and should help not only the “deserving poor” but also the undeserving, those who have made mistakes and bad choices that have led them to addiction, poverty, and dysfunction. As I have written before: A conception of “mercy” that includes only the “deserving” is not worthy of a Christian ethic, in that assisting only those who merit our assistance is merely forgoing to perform an injustice, which isn’t mercy at all. Authentic mercy is the cup that overflows. We can help a man while saying, “Yeah, you screwed up pretty badly, buddy.” In fact, we really do need to say that — that, too, is a necessary form of assistance.
This is the inevitable reaction that has to be written, right? What critics get wrong is that I care, I really do care. And that my visceral distaste for communities decimated by decades of getting the economic shaft is coming from a place of familiarity and extreme compassion. It’s the identitarian defense. But an appeal to relevant authenticity only takes you so far, and only really answers one question; what’s in my heart? That works for some of the commentary on KW’s piece but it evades the broader argument about what is wrong with these communities in-particular.
Plainly, are the woes of the underclass culture or material circumstance? KW grounds his perspective in the former, and that some misplaced sense of nostalgic empathy is preventing us from letting those places die. I and others, rather, see it altogether differently in that the latter is the most relevant context. It’s an old argument. I’m not able to find it now but I remember seeing a tweet from Michael Brendan Dougherty (for whom KW mentions) that critics are really missing this point about personal agency. For my part I don’t dispute that folks have choices—indeed, I’ve written about interplay of agency under these circumstances—but that those decisions don’t exist in a vacuum. Agency exists but, crucially, for most of us it’s reactive. We’re playing a game where the rules are written to our disadvantage and then being blamed for the varying ways in which we lose.