Kevin D. Williamson responds to his critics, including me. He points out that he comes from the world he criticizes so harshly:
It is, in fact, about half of the original piece, the other half being autobiographical material on my own experience with that world and its pathologies.
I think Dreher’s argument is in the end sentimental: We have moribund, economically stagnant communities whose social and economic problems are not going to be changed by any public policy, and Burkean-Kirkian arguments about affection for local particularities, true now as they always have been, do not address those problems, either. 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.
I think this is a mostly fair criticism, one that I probably brought on myself by writing at such length about the issue in yesterday’s post. I tend to work out what I think as I write, so my essays are at times less the product of someone setting out what he already thinks and more the instance of somebody working his way around to a conclusion.
There’s less distance than it seems between KDW’s position and my own. My own essay amounts to trying to think through the problems of the declining white working class by seeing it through the eyes of my late father, who grew up in rural poverty and was culturally working class even though he had a university degree (and had he gone to work at the mill, like his friends, instead of to college and then into the civil service, he would have made a lot more money). My father had a ruthlessly moralistic — I would say realistic — eye for moral failure among people, especially the poor and working classes. When you live in a rural parish (county) in the Deep South, you see it all the time. All the time. As I said the other day, he held people who would not work, and who lived morally dissolute lives, in contempt — especially if they had children who suffered because of it. He grew up in the Great Depression with his father gone most of his early childhood, on the road making what money he could to send home to support the family. He knew firsthand how much stress children had to deal with when things weren’t solid at home. He hero-worshiped his mother for keeping the family together during that trial, but the truth is he, as a little boy, along with his older brother, had to work hard to achieve the same end.
And they did it. They weren’t the only ones, either. Having come through something as crushing as the Great Depression left my father with a diamond-hard work ethic, and a corresponding disdain for people who complained about how hard they had it, and how that somehow justified feeling sorry for themselves.
I think there would be no daylight between my dad’s views and KDW’s views on the dissolute poor (white, black, or whatever). I saw my dad fighting mad once when, in the 1970s, in his job as the parish health inspector, he went out to the elementary school, and checked in on one of the bathrooms. The urinal was one long trough built into the floor. Little boys would take two steps up onto a raised platform, and pee against the wall, along which a constant stream of water ran, into the trough. When my dad walked in, a little black boy, a kindergartner, was squatted atop the platform with his bare butt hanging out over the trough. He was trying to defecate.
This poor child — and he was almost certainly materially very poor — did not know how to use the toilet. Chances are he came from a home that still used an outhouse. My dad, who grew up using an outhouse, pitied that poor little boy, and helped him. But he raged with contempt for the five janitors — also black — who were sitting nearby, and who saw the kid, but wouldn’t get out of the chair to help him. Either they thought the boy was funny, or they just didn’t care. Rarely did I ever see my father so angry as he was recounting that story to my mother. What enraged him was the indifference with which those adults regarded that little boy’s ignorance.
When KDW identifies “the culture of the white underclass in America” as “brutal” and “horrifying,” I am certain that he’s right. My objection to his original essay was that he seemed to take the worst elements for the whole. In the Washington Post piece about the white working class Trump backer in Canton, there was nothing brutal or horrifying in that man’s life, at least not that we saw in the story. He was struggling to raise his kids alone, and believed, rightly or wrongly, that Trump was going to deliver him and America from misery. But there’s a world of difference between that guy and the poor white trash that Williamson condemns. My sense of his piece is that it was too sweeping in its condemnation of Trump voters (which, by the way, was the genesis of the KDW essay, which remains behind paywall and inaccessible to those who aren’t NR subscribers, or willing to pay a quarter to read it). What I tried to do in my own response was to discern the difference between the no-account rabble and honest working-class people who have fallen on hard times, and can’t seem to get a leg up no matter what they do.
KDW is 100 percent right, though, to say that it is not merciful to talk around the problems, to euphemize them, or to politely pretend they don’t exist because it makes us uncomfortable to talk about them. When I was living in north Texas, and now that I’m back in Louisiana, I had friends who were teaching in public schools where most of the kids were impoverished, and racial minorities. My friends were (are) white, and often they were (are) liberal, so they visibly struggled to talk, even privately, about the things they saw and dealt with every day in the classroom, because they didn’t want to come across as racist. But these things were horrible. These things broke children. These things amounted to a massive failure of culture, and there was no way that school could fix these things.
Even in my own parish, which has one of the best public school systems in the entire state, things are tough for some. In The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, I wrote about helping my sister, then starting her teaching career, grade papers. I told her I couldn’t believe these 6th graders were having so much trouble with such easy questions. She told me that I needed to understand the background of these kids. She pointed to one paper and said that that little boy — a white kid, if it matters — was a mess because a year or two earlier, his mother had dropped him off on his grandparents’ doorstep on Christmas Day, and disappeared. He was struggling so hard just to keep it together in the aftermath of his abandonment, and his grandparents were trying hard too to figure out how to raise him. Ruthie told me that just coming to school intact in the morning was an achievement for that poor kid, who had been so badly failed by his mother and father.
This is why I get so angry at my fellow conservatives who blame bad schools and incompetent teachers for the poor educational results among the impoverished. Children are not empty receptacles into which we can insert knowledge. If they live in homes filled with noise, chaos, violence, and contempt, it doesn’t matter what race they are, they are going to be very lucky to make it. This morning, a reader who comments under the name “Richard Parker” left this on a different thread:
“She would say that, by the time that children got to the public schools, it was already too late for them. They had already become dysfunctional.”
I did some enrichment work for a chartered inner-city school that did everything Right! Dedicated staff, attractive physical plant, strong principal, emphasis on academics, enrichment programs.
It didn’t seem to matter. Every night these kids walked home to their neighborhood and their families and their mass culture. And every school morning they arrived as ‘blank slates’ as if the previous school day had not happened. Nothing seemed to ‘stick’.
Maybe this school helped a few kids escape from this neighborhood. But it is likely that a select few kids would escape anyway due to personal and/or family qualities.
I don’t have the answer.
The truth is, we can’t even talk plainly about this stuff. I got an e-mail yesterday from a white reader who said she’s solidly in the middle class, but has members of her extended family who are mired in self-inflicted misery. She has no patience with other middle-class people who tell her that she has no right to criticize because she doesn’t know what it’s like to be poor. She writes:
Invariably, none of these people are actually struggling with it in their own families, trying to figure out how the hell you save your ten year old cousin from what looks like certain doom, knowing that it didn’t have to be this way. Those of us who actually care about these folks as human beings, rather than a social science abstraction, know that it’s way more complicated than just opening up a good paying job and some social programs. There’s no social program that’s going to make my cousins show up for work every day, or take their kids to school on time. Or keep them from brawling–with each other, even, once with a knife. What good is a high-paying job they can’t keep?
Here was the part of Kevin D. Williamson’s latest remarks that got to me:
When I think about my own upbringing, one of the thoughts that comes to me most often is: “Why didn’t someone say something?”
Think about that for a second. We don’t know the details of what KDW grew up with, but think right now about poor, dysfunctional people in your own community. Would you “say something”? What would you say? To whom would you say it?
Presumably you would say something if you had cause to believe a child was being abused — physically, sexually, or emotionally. But if a child was being neglected in ways that didn’t rise to the level of the criminal, but which nevertheless had a huge effect on the child’s well being, and ability to thrive, would you say anything? Be honest.
Again: what would you say, and to whom would you say it? Over the years, and as recently as this past weekend, I talked to teachers who have told me that they have nobody in their students’ homes to work with as partners in education. They reach out to talk to the caregiver — you can’t even say “parents” anymore — and find at best someone who is overwhelmed or otherwise useless, and at worse somebody who gets resentful, hostile, and even violent.
Here’s the thing: it’s not just the poor and the working class anymore. I’m told by teachers and others that it’s the middle class now too. The attitude that if anything is wrong, it’s Somebody Else’s Fault, is becoming general. Nobody wants to hear criticism of any sort. Nobody wants to recognize authority, or to assert authority in a meaningful way.
This is what it means to live in therapeutic culture, in which maintaining a sense of well being is the absolute telos of our common and individual life. This is what it means when the values of the marketplace (e.g., “The customers is always right”) have infected our normative institutions, and inform the way families and individuals see themselves. This is what it means when our churches (insofar as people still attend them) treat their purpose as offering people comfort and uplift, not solid moral norms and preaching repentance when we fall short. This is what it means when we the people expect our institutions — our schools, our churches, and so forth — to cater to our own felt emotional needs.
The middle class can forestall the reckoning because we have money and resources to avoid the consequences; the poor and the working classes do not. But a reckoning is coming. The Gods of the Copybook Headings are irrepressible:
With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.
… As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
The truly insidious thing about the welfare state isn’t that it has robbed people of their agency — it hasn’t — but that its excesses and naïveté have created a glide path of dependency. It’s made vice easier and virtue more challenging. But to state that truth doesn’t mean that vice isn’t still vice. It’s wrong to try to milk the disability system. It’s wrong to drink to excess. It’s wrong to give up on finding a job. It’s wrong to fracture families. If we can’t speak these truths, we’re lost. If we can’t call on our fellow citizens to live with greater determination and purpose, we’re lost. If we can’t live with determination and purpose ourselves, we’re lost. But the spirit of the age — and the temptation of every age — is to play the victim and to use that victim status to justify all manner of wrongful acts.
This is true. It’s a truth that does not obviate the truth that we have a serious structural economic problem in this country, one that our leaders have not addressed, because it’s hard. Nevertheless, it remains true. Nobody wants to be told “no” — and nobody wants to tell themselves no. A school administrator told me the other day that the school wanted to bring in an outside expert to talk to the parents about the problem of online pornography and their children. Parents resisted, insisting that their children didn’t even know what that was. My jaw fell open when the administrator told me that. But then I thought that it’s of a piece with the other things I’m hearing and seeing from all over. People want to live in their fantasyland, where it’s only the Other People doing bad things.
If you aren’t troubled by KDW’s question — “Why didn’t someone say something?” — then you aren’t thinking about it hard enough. If I saw a situation (again, non-criminal) in which children were suffering and the parents, or parent, appeared neglectful, there’s not the slightest chance that I would say a thing to them. For one, I might be afraid of the reaction. People get really aggressive these days. For another, I would lack the confidence to reach out to them. It’s not that I would doubt the correctness of my position, but because I too have been steeped in the culture of non-judgmentalness. Oh, I’ll judge in private, but in public, I’ll keep it to myself, because knowing that our culture no longer shares common standards, I will conclude that it would be a waste of time to take a stand, because we do not live in a culture in which people are willing to hear anything that sounds like criticism, and besides, nobody would have my back (by which I mean that the force of community standards is, by now, negligible).
What does this private judgment mean? Well, in effect, it means withdrawal to behind defensible boundaries, to within communities where there remains robust moral standards held in common. This is what the ongoing fragmentation of American society means. I see no reason to think it will be arrested any time soon. As KDW and David French point out, we can’t even talk about these things openly, with confidence.
Let’s be honest: there are very, very few of us who would “say something” about kids being raised as Kevin D. Williamson was (assuming that he was not being criminally neglected; he hasn’t specified the conditions of his childhood). But of equal significance, very few of us would “say something” to other middle class parents about the way they raise their children, or the way their children’s behavior is making it harder for all of us to raise morally upright kids. Nobody wants to judge (publicly, anyway), and certainly nobody wants to be judged.
So we continue to drift apart, unmoored from authority, and unable to perceive how lost we are. If we do not draw some clear moral lines, in community, and submit to them, and defend them, we are going to lose them entirely. We drift towards moral anarchy in the public square, and we conceal from ourselves what is happening, either not talking about it or euphemizing it as “diversity” or some other Orwellian term meant to conceal truth.
How can we ever hope to defeat the enemy if we cannot even name the enemy, or confront our own collaboration with it? Yes, people who are unemployed or underemployed have big problems, but as my reader wrote, handing them a good job is not going to make them show up to work on time, or marry, or stay married, or raise disciplined children. Plus, there are plenty of people who have good jobs now, and to all appearances solid middle-class lives, but who are quietly, behind the facade of respectability, falling apart. We know people like that. Maybe we ourselves are people like that. We don’t even know who out there is willing to help us because maybe they see what’s happening, maybe they see that we’re drowning, but they’re afraid to say something because our culture of self-centeredness understandably leads them to fear that if they extend a hand, they will draw back a nub.
“You can’t help people who won’t help themselves,” my late father used to say. He meant that if you reach out to help people who have no interest in bettering themselves, you’re wasting your time. Some people live in a pigpen, and call it paradise. And there’s nothing to be done for them. Some people live in what looks like paradise, but it’s really a pigpen. Nothing to be done for them either. When a culture can no longer distinguish between pigpens and paradise, and condemns those who do so “judgmental,” it is well and truly lost.
I hope that this work I’m doing now on defining the Benedict Option offers real help and real hope in the face of fear and dissolution. As Father Cassian said, speaking of the Ben Op community in San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy, “Christians who don’t do something like that aren’t going to make it through what’s coming.”
We don’t need politicians. We need prophets. We don’t need reform. We need repentance.
UPDATE: Reader Chris Rawlings:
I’m not sure about the economic debate. I grew up white and poor with a single mother. I’m sure that I was witness to a lot of the neurosis that Williamson saw growing up, and I’m also pretty sure that it had a lasting, wounding effect on me, too. At the same time, I also excelled enough academically to attend a great undergraduate school and then go on to law school. I’ve seen both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, and I still can’t tell you which is more or less edifying, because they both are wracked with a profound moral and spiritual sickness that no U-haul will solve.
I am absolutely certain that whatever material prosperity a U-haul gets you, it will be strictly limited to material prosperity. And that’s because the moral neuralgia of the white working class—though undeniable—is hardly more ultimately grotesque than that which afflicts all other sectors of society. One of the great temptations to the conservative mind is to supplant bourgeois values for Christian ones, as though living in posh subdivisions fueled by organic quinoa cereal and arugula are self-evidently more well-ordered and decent than the haphazard communities of the working poor, fueled by pain pills and government assistance.
Let me offer this: the prosperity of my law school colleagues made moral degradation much easier for them. It insulated them to an extent from real consequences (daddy will take care of it), it widened the possibilities for moral failure (the working poor will never have the opportunity to blow thousands on liquor and prostitutes in Thailand), and it allowed them to cover debauchery in a veneer of prestige and accomplishment (“Oh, so you’re an attorney?”). Prosperity is to nihilism what gasoline is to fire, I’ve found. And so I’m not entirely sure why we’re still privileging prosperity as an ontologically “higher” mode of living.
So, yes, college-educated whites do marry more, divorce less, and have fewer children out of wedlock. That’s great. But it is merely an intersection of Christian morality with the values of David Brooks’ Bobos, with contemporary bourgeois cultural practice. The broad societal tendency to make bourgeois values normative—liberals extolling ecological ethics and conservatives emphasizing stability—should at least make every Christian question the root and meaning of the values we broadly accept.
As it happens, I’m personally following Williamson’s path to prosperity, I’m not actually sure it has made me better or happier. And I am very much aware of the fact that without an integral commitment to my Catholic faith, travelling that path probably would have been a moral disaster for me. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, but the “way out” of the vicissitudes of my childhood was Jesus Christ and not a law degree.