Poverty As Culture
Over the weekend, several readers sent me this piece from America magazine by the Jesuit priest Paddy Gilger , in which he suggests that the Benedict Option might well be based not on Christian principles, but on white middle class ones. I think he’s wrong, but I appreciate the critique. I’ll respond now.
Before I get into it, I want to take issue with the headline that the editor put on the essay:
“White”. There is nothing in my blog post or in Father Gilger’s response to it that mentions race. [UPDATE: I was wrong about this; see update below. — RD] But see, this is how so many on the left work: they are just certain that even if you are careful not to bring race into it (because this is not a matter of race, but rather culture), that deep down you really mean “race,” because you are a racist. This is what the awful Sarah Jones wrote in The New Republic the other day. It is perfectly fair to critique the class elements in my claims, but you will not find race there because I don’t talk about race. I live in a mixed-race neighborhood now. I would much rather live in a stable middle-class neighborhood that was predominantly black, Latino, Asian, or any non-white minority than filled with white people who were violent, racist, and chaotic (of which there are plenty in my part of the world). Again: this is about culture.
Here’s how it begins:
Again and again in his effort to defend the strategic withdrawal that characterizes the Benedict Option, Rod Dreher has emphasized one word: strategic. Yes, there is an element of withdrawal from the surrounding culture, he says, but this withdrawal is strategic. It is not a selfish flight from a sinking ship, he argues, but a withdrawal for re-engagement. Benedict Option communities are supposed to withdraw only so that they can be the kind of communities that produce Christian persons capable of evangelization.
But Dreher’s recent comments about President Trump’s use of the word “shithole” underline the suspicion that many have felt about this strategy: Is it really just strategic? Who gets included? Is its exclusive nature really based on Christian principles rather than, say, white middle-class principles? Although initially condemnatory of Trump’s choice of words, Dreher confessed to second thoughts about his original negative reaction, saying that “the whole thing is more morally challenging than I initially thought.” He attempted to explain this growing ambiguity by way of analogy with housing for the poor, writing:
If word got out that the government was planning to build a housing project for the poor in your neighborhood, how would you feel about it? Be honest with yourself. Nobody would consider this good news. You wouldn’t consider it good news because you don’t want the destructive culture of the poor imported into your neighborhood. Drive over to the poor part of town, and see what a shithole it is. Do you want the people who turned their neighborhood a shithole to bring the shithole to your street? No, you don’t. Be honest, you don’t.
Do I? Would I be able to consider this good news? Maybe not. But here is the thing: The extent to which I do not want housing for the poor in my own neighborhood is the extent to which I am failing to be a Christian. This must be admitted. It must be confessed.
Well, no, it doesn’t have to be admitted or confessed, because I don’t believe that it is always and everywhere a sin. Before I get into that, let me say that my remarks on shitholes have little to do with the Benedict Option per se. There is no reason why one who believes in the Benedict Option has to adopt my views on housing projects in one’s neighborhood. I can easily imagine people who agree with my Ben Op thesis considering me quite wrong on this one. And that’s fine. The Ben Op is (in large part) about building strong, disciplined Christian community. If you believe that can and should be done by welcoming a housing project in your neighborhood, I may disagree with you, but I don’t consider you to be violating the “rules” of the Benedict Option, which I’ve said has to be experimental.
What I do need to confess is that I have failed to love God with my full heart, and I have failed to love my neighbor as myself. I fail in these ways every day. The “shithole” paragraph I wrote might be an example of this, but I am not convinced of it.
Anyway, let’s read more of Fr. Gilger’s critique:
We need to confess, confront and be converted from our own reluctance to share in the lives of the poor and to share our own life with them. The difficulty in doing so is one of the reasons why Jesuit formation builds in significant time living and working with people in poverty. That has taken a number of shapes in my own life. I spent years walking the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. I lived and worked for three other years with the Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation—located in one of the poorest counties in our country. And just last summer I traveled with the Jesuit Refugee Service to the border between Sudan and South Sudan to live and work with the refugees of the incessant war there.
Each of these experiences was hard. I remember how afraid I used to feel that the rusted elevator doors in the Cabrini buildings would not open and I would be trapped there. I remember the boarded up houses and the wild packs of stray dogs and the bitter cold of the winter on Pine Ridge. And I remember the endless sea of gray United Nations tarps under which the thousands and thousands of South Sudanese refugees—the very refugees that President Trump included on his attempted travel ban one year ago—ate and slept and drank.
I remember how out of place I have felt in these places. I remember that it has taken me years to learn the meaning of the words “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the Kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20). And I remember that, though learning to recognize the beauty and grace of these communities has been a gift to me, it does not alleviate the cost and burden of poverty for those who live with them. It is instead a call to work for justice.
It’s impossible not to admire the commitment of a priest who lives among and serves the poor like this. But he is a priest, an unmarried man who does not have to raise children. I don’t mean that in an ad hominem sense. I’m simply saying that a mother and father who are responsible for bringing up children will understandably not want their kids to grow up in a neighborhood that is violent, chaotic, and dysfunctional. Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up on the rough streets of West Baltimore, where he was bullied. Now that he’s rich and famous, and has a wife and a child, do you think he lives in West Baltimore? Of course not! Why should he? It is a normal thing to prefer living in a safe neighborhood to one that isn’t.
Back in 2005, we bought a house in a gentrifying neighborhood. Our next-door neighbors were an older working-class Latino couple who had been there since the 1980s. They would tell us stories about how bad things were back then, when the neighborhood was drug-infested and violent. You couldn’t go sit on your front porch at night, they said, because you had to fear stray bullets. Those were good people who were great neighbors. And they were the kind of people man of us would regard as poor.
Here’s the thing: if that older couple moved into your neighborhood, your neighborhood would get better. You’d gain two great neighbors, a retired man and a woman who would be good friends and make the neighborhood stronger. The only thing they lacked was money. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, they felt trapped by their relative poverty in a neighborhood that was violent and druggy. They had to raise their son in that neighborhood, and it did not go well. They were relatively poor people living among other relatively poor people, and they hated the culture around them, for very good reason.
Here’s the thing: how do you welcome immigrants who have the character of that couple, without welcoming the kind of people who drove them out? Is there a system we could put in place that would do this? Trump’s crude remark was offensive in part because he seemed to assume that all people from poor, dysfunctional countries like Haiti were undesirable as immigrants. That is not true. But it is also foolish to ignore that with great poverty comes a lot of undesirable cultural habits.
We found out that the house we bought had, a decade earlier, been a hangout for junkies. The man who bought the house and fixed it up found needles on the ground, and all sorts of things like that. A lot of people we knew thought we were moving into the ghetto, but we knew that the neighborhood was on the upswing. Besides, we didn’t have a lot of money to spend on housing. We took a chance, and even though we could sometimes hear gunshots in the near distance at night, we were pleased that we lived there. But I tell you, listening to our neighbors tell stories about the old days in the neighborhood helped me to understand why homeowners get so panicky about signs of decline. We didn’t have much money at all back then, and what we had we had sunk into this little house. If suddenly the neighborhood started turning bad, we would have had to find a buyer for the house and uproot ourselves. And if we couldn’t find a buyer, then we would have been trapped, as our Latino neighbors had been during the drug violence years there.
That was the first house we ever owned. Home ownership really forces you to think about these issues in different ways.
Around that time, we had a friend in Dallas, an idealistic liberal (more on him later) who took a job teaching middle school in a public school that served poor people in the ghetto. After a year or two, he decided that when he and his wife had kids, he was going to move heaven and earth to keep them from going to school in the kind of place where he taught. It was entirely about culture. He said having to deal with the violence and the sexual aggressiveness (e.g., he had to break up a scrum one day in the back of his classroom when an eighth-grade girl pulled up her shirt and invited the boys in the classroom to autograph her breasts with a Sharpie) that was a constant part of life in his school was wearing him down. One reason he kept going was to be a support to the minority of kids in the classroom who were studious and well-behaved, and who wanted to get an education. These kids were at the mercy of the mob.
My friend said the main problem with the kids in his school is that the family had badly broken down in their homes, and community structures of moral support and discipline were non-existent. He said that immigrant families that were still intact were weaker than he imagined, in terms of forming their kids’ character, because both parents typically had to work very long hours just to make ends meet, and their kids were therefore formed by the culture around them.
I got the impression from my friend that if he could have airlifted the good kids from his classroom and placed them and their families into a neighborhood elsewhere in the city where the community would have supported the values they were trying to live out (study, work, self-discipline, good manners, etc.), he would have done so. And who can blame him? It’s not the case that middle-class neighborhoods are Gardens of Eden. Wherever you have human beings, you have sin. The point is that those neighborhoods would have been better for flourishing than the neighborhoods where those poor kids lived, because of the order in those neighborhoods. And the external order in the neighborhoods is a manifestation of the relative internal order of those who live there.
Now, the Gospel is clear that order — living by the rules — will not save you. Yesterday in liturgy, Orthodox Christians heard read Luke 18: 10-14
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’
And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Anybody who thinks leading a respectable middle-class life, following all the rules, is the same thing as holiness must be convicted by this Gospel passage. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. However, it is perverse to read this as Our Lord’s refutation of the importance of living a life of ordered virtue. After all, he told the woman at the well to go and sin no more. Mercy and justice balance each other. Christ showed her the mercy of forgiveness, but he told her to rightly order her life.
And don’t forget St. Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians:
But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.
Peter Maurin, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement, famously defined a good society as one that makes it easier to be good. Father Gilger’s experience of the poor as “a call to work for justice” can be read as a call to order the world in which the poor live so that it is easier for them to be good.
But does it require that all Christians must welcome all the poor into their neighborhoods, regardless of the newcomers’ willingness to live by the standards of the neighborhood? I don’t understand how it does. I’m thinking of a friend of mine, a devout Christian, who, in a spirit of mercy and compassion, invited a known child molester (a relative) to live with his family. Only much later, after the child molester died, did my friend discover that his own daughter had been molested by this man in their house. Now, this is an extreme case, but would anyone argue that this man had a Christian obligation to open his home to the child molester, knowing that he (the man) had children?
Again, that’s an extreme case. But you see the principle.
Father Gilger continues:
So this must be said: To the extent that Benedict Option communities do not form persons who are eager to welcome Christ in the poor—who can welcome Christ Poor—they are failing to be fully Christian communities.
… This does not mean we do not need thicker communities. We most certainly do. But these communities are only Christian communities to the extent that they teach us to seek and to find God in friendship with the poor.
If there is anything of value in the Benedict Option—and as I have written, I think there is— then it must be in the formation of such communities. These will be communities that teach us to desire Christ more than comfort. More than material success. More than respectability. More even than our own strategies for the salvation of Christian culture.
I’m grateful for this critique. Seriously, I am. This is the kind of exchange I welcome. I agree with Father Gilger that a Benedict Option that refuses contact with the poor is failing to be fully Christian. It is certainly the case that in the Benedict Option book, I don’t talk about how the Ben Op might work for poor people. The reason for that is simple: I don’t know. It is hard enough to figure out how to make it work for middle class people, but we have to start somewhere. The West Dallas Community School — a classical Christian school for the poor, in the heart of one of Dallas’s poorest communities, and supported by a wealthy church in the richest neighborhood of the city — is a good start. I’ve been to that school. It is a wonder. It is also the case that the school’s staff and the kids who go there are up against immense challenges from within the neighborhood culture.
>Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it. What’s needed is a phase shift in how we think about poverty. Renewal efforts in Sandtown-Winchester prioritized bricks and mortar. But the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.
Jane Jacobs once wrote that a healthy neighborhood is like a ballet, a series of intricate interactions in which people are regulating each other and encouraging certain behaviors.
In a fantastic interview that David Simon of “The Wire” gave to Bill Keller for The Marshall Project, he describes that, even in poorest Baltimore, there once were informal rules of behavior governing how cops interacted with citizens — when they’d drag them in and when they wouldn’t, what curse words you could say to a cop and what you couldn’t. But then the code dissolved. The informal guardrails of life were gone, and all was arbitrary harshness.
That’s happened across many social spheres — in schools, families and among neighbors. Individuals are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted. It is phenomenally hard for young people in such circumstances to guide themselves.
Yes, jobs are necessary, but if you live in a neighborhood, as Gray did, where half the high school students don’t bother to show up for school on a given day, then the problems go deeper.
The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology. Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.
This is true. And I think about Trey Hill, part of the West Dallas Community School community, whom I interviewed years ago. Hill is a white man from a prominent Dallas family who felt a missionary calling to go into the poorest part of his own city, and try to help. From my article:
On nearby Holystone Street, he runs Mercy Street Ministries (www.mercystreetdallas.org), a privately funded outreach to poor kids in the inner city, which he founded in 2002.
The ministry’s Holystone Street headquarters is where neighborhood kids come for mentoring, educational counseling, Bible clubs and sports teams.
“Growing up, it was a place you didn’t go,” he says of the part of town he now calls home. “South of the Trinity, it was dangerous. You could go north, but you couldn’t go south.”
Trey leans back in his office chair, weighing his words carefully. We talk about what it means to be white and privileged in Dallas. Mr. Hill’s father is Bill Hill, a prominent Dallas lawyer who most recently served as Dallas County’s district attorney; today, the elder Mr. Hill works on staff at Mercy Street. His son, Trey, went to Highland Park High School and then Baylor University.
Unlike the Other Dallas, Trey Hill grew up in a Park Cities culture that expects its young people to go to college, succeed there and beyond.
“But there’s a negative side to that, too,” he says. “Pressure to conform. This whole success mentality, where success is gauged in financial terms.”
Trey says his parents taught him to have compassion for the poor and took him into impoverished parts of Dallas as part of charitable initiatives. But for the most part, southern Dallas was no-man’s land for white kids.
“The community I grew up in taught us to isolate, cloister and ignore,” he muses. “When you don’t know something, you feel somehow absolved from dealing with it. Besides, people looked different, had a different culture, and too often, we view different as bad and scary. I didn’t see any active racism growing up, but I didn’t see anybody actively engaging with other communities or races either.”
But running track at Highland Park High changed the trajectory of Trey’s life. At track meets, he spent a great deal of time with black kids from Wilmer-Hutchins, Lancaster and other southern Dallas communities.
“I just liked them,” he says. “I got to spend time with them in their communities, and I saw the disparity. I could see that I was given opportunity that some of these guys just didn’t have or see that they had.”
These West Dallas flatlands, once home to massive public housing projects and a lead smelter that poisoned the air, have historically been the grimmest part of the grimmest end of town. The smelter closed in 1984, with 90 percent of the neighborhood children suffering from dangerously high lead levels in their blood. Eight years later, conditions were still so bad that this newspaper wrote, “If Dallas has a netherworld, it is the bleak area west of the Trinity.”
This is where Mercy Street made its stand. Now employing 14 — and overseeing a budget of close to $1 million, all privately raised — its director spends his days and nights living in a hardscrabble world that he used to believe existed only in the movies.
And this is what Trey Hill says he has learned: When black and brown kids in his part of town look across the Trinity, they see things they want. And they believe people north of the river got those things by keeping the people on the south side down and working to keep such things out of black and brown hands.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that over the years there’s been systemic injustice and racism,” Trey says. “I think we’re in a place now where those are far more subtle. I’m sure they still exist, but not to the extent that they would prevent access to those that pursue it with diligence.
“That’s the challenge now, to persuade these kids that they really do have access.”
I tell him about a guy I know, a white teacher in a predominantly minority Dallas area public school [Note: This is the friend I mentioned above], who is about to give up on his school. He’s tired of trying to change a culture. The black and Latino kids he deals with despise authority and don’t want to do their schoolwork. When my teacher friend challenges them to stick to their studies, they tell him he can’t possibly understand their lives, because he’s a “rich white man.”
“This is why so many whites have so little patience with poor minorities,” I say to Trey. “There’s such a culture of excuse-making and victimization going on there. My teacher friend says that the values of hip-hop music have colonized his students’ minds.”
This, I tell him, is the heart of the matter: culture.
We all pretend that if only we spend more money or implement new programs or in some other way manipulate material conditions for the urban poor, their problems will be solved. It seems we never talk about culture, especially the broken-family culture, because we don’t want to come across as judgmental.
The despairing public school teacher contends that school authorities constantly lean on him and his colleagues to be culturally sensitive, but nobody has the courage to tell these kids that the hip-hop culture they’ve embraced ‚Äì one that idealizes sex, drugs and gangsters and looks down on hard work, study and self-restraint ‚Äì all but dooms them to failure.
“Yeah, I see that,” Trey says resignedly. He prefers the term “poverty culture” but agrees that hip-hop artists are evangelists for a toxic, self-defeating worldview and that their youthful converts are legion. We concede that the same hedonistic materialist values many north Dallas whites disdain in hip-hop music are embraced north of the Trinity too, in a more socially acceptable guise.
Still, Trey insists, public school teachers and other adults of all races who know right from wrong, and who have daily contact with urban minority kids, can’t abandon the fight. If they won’t tell these lost kids the truth in love, and let them know there’s more to life than what he calls “ghetto nihilism,” who will?
“The culture you grow up in is stronger than a lot of people realize,” Trey says. “If I had been raised in this community in a single-parent home, with few examples of success around me, I probably would have dropped out of high school, like 65 percent of our [West Dallas] kids will do. Culture is captivating. It’s powerful. There’s a force behind it that seems to capture all of our kids.”
In the end, he emphasizes, it’s difficult for people north of the river or in the suburbs to understand the degree of dysfunction in inner-city lives. Eighty-five percent of the kids Mercy Street ministers to have no father in the home. How do you tell people to bootstrap their way out of the ghetto when they don’t even know what a bootstrap is?
“The only way [for these youths] to succeed is to say, ‘OK, there is injustice in the world, but now we have a chance, and the only way we can take advantage of that chance is by studying hard and working hard and making wise choices,’” he says. “But I don’t see a lot of people saying that.”
Trey no longer identifies exclusively with the GOP, and, unlike some Republicans, he has come to believe that government has a role to play in the inner city. But he also says that what the poor need most, the state cannot provide.
“The government cannot change a heart and a mind,” he says. “You look around here, you see a lot of nice new rooftops. They razed a lot of the old projects. They’ve replaced those with nice, townhouse-style housing developments. I’m grateful for that, but the statistics in our community haven’t changed a bit. You have to ask why.”
This is where the church — and only the church — can help, he says, because the government cannot speak in the language of right and wrong, of forgiveness, of redemption, of brotherhood and of love. And the church has not been doing so.
“It’s not that the church doesn’t care about the poor,” Trey says. “Our churches are so segregated racially and economically that we just don’t know the poor. It’s hard to love someone you don’t know.”
Love ‚Äì not just the emotional state, but real, active love ‚Äì is the only thing that will save Dallas from its racism, poverty and self-destruction. Trey says he’s starting to see among younger Christians a greater concern for the inner city, “a definite willingness to engage and to engage beyond their checkbooks.”
“Being a white guy living in a predominantly black and Hispanic community, my own presence is important here as well,” he says. “The suburban churches’ typical involvement with the inner city is to drive in and drive out … not living among the people and sharing their lives and experiences. Our example is Christ, who vacated the perfection of heaven to live in the slums of our world, so that he might redeem a people for himself.”
When Trey preaches to northern Dallas congregations, he tells them the poor are not simply the black and brown people who live across the river, but our neighbors, to whom we have obligations. And when he talks to people on the other side of the river, he tells them they have a responsibility to do better for themselves.
I think I wrote that in 2009, and I am grateful to have rediscovered it today. Trey Hill still challenges me, by his words and his example, to repent. This is good. Here’s a white man who has put it all on the line to live out the Gospel in a radical way. He acknowledges the destructive power of ghetto culture, but he also acknowledges the (spiritually) destructive power of middle class and wealthy people’s indifference to the plight of the poor.
No Christian could seriously claim that they have no obligation at all to the poor. But I wonder: do the Christians who live in prosperous, orderly north Dallas have an obligation to prove their faith by welcoming housing projects into their neighborhoods? Because that is precisely the point of contention in this “shithole” dispute.
It’s something that I didn’t pick up on when Trump’s nasty comment was first reported. As you can read here, I initially shared the contempt many people piled onto Trump. My second thoughts about my reaction came after I forced myself to think about how I would feel about the matter if the poor from dysfunctional countries were moving en masse to my neighborhood. Because as I’ve said, the people who bear the brunt of high levels of immigration from poor people are other poor and working class Americans, of all races. These are not the people who write op-eds for newspapers, or who have a voice in the halls of power. These are people who, if given the chance, would articulate their concerns in the crude language of Donald Trump. People of my social and cultural class don’t want to hear them (though as a reader suggested to me privately, if I had said “trailer park” instead of “housing project,” I wouldn’t have had nearly the pushback that I did, because in the mind of liberals, “trailer parks” contain deplorable poor white people who fly Confederate flags and vote for Trump, and who are therefore safe to despise).
I believe that Christians have a real obligation to the poor, one that goes beyond writing paychecks. I don’t believe that it is easy to determine what that obligation is in every case. And I don’t believe that that obligation requires being willing to import large numbers of poor people of any race into one’s neighborhood — or to open the borders of one’s country to large numbers of immigrants from poor, broken countries (or any country at all, for that matter).
As I often do these days, I think about what my late father would say about the issue. He grew up very poor, in rural Louisiana during the Great Depression. His family got running water in their house when he installed the pipes as a high school senior in 1953. He was a civil servant, and we never had a lot of money. He always had a strong chip on his shoulder against the rich, or people he took to be rich. I can remember as a child him lecturing my sister and me to never, ever look down on anybody who was poor. This was a very big deal to him.
I thought about my dad the other night when I read this excellent profile of the late Ernie Mickler in Bitter Southerner. Mickler wrote a very funny cookbook called White Trash Cooking. The shock value of the title is obvious, but when you read the recipes, you — if you were me — recognized a very familiar world. This was the world Ernie Mickler grew up in. From the profile:
Pickette brought me down this road to see the Palm Valley of Ernie’s youth. It was a place, as he wrote, “where you never failed to say, ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, sir,’ never sat on a made-up bed (or put your hat on it), never opened someone else’s icebox, never left food on your plate, never left the table without permission, and never forgot to say ‘thank you’ for the teeniest favor. That’s the way the ones before us were raised, and that’s the way they raised us in the South.”
Yes, that was my father’s world: the world of working-class country people. And this:
As Ernie would explain time and again, to be “White Trash” was something to be proud of. In the introduction to White Trash Cooking, Ernie laid out a distinction between uppercase “White Trash” and lowercase “white trash,” claiming that “Manners and pride separate the two.” To be poor, Southern, and White Trash was anything but shameful.
My father did not recognize this distinction quite like this. He would never have claimed the word “white trash,” which he used derisively to describe white people who had no manners and no self-respect. For people like my dad, there was a clear distinction between poor white people and poor white trash. It had to do with a sense of dignity. They may or may not have been churchgoers, but they lived by a strongly internalized code. One of the trashiest things you could do, for example, was fail to say “yes ma’am” to a woman older than you. And entire world is built into that simple practice. It’s a world so complete that I was always anxious when I lived up north, and children called adults by their first name, and failed to say “ma’am” and “sir” when addressing adults. This, by the way, is not just a white thing. It’s a Southern thing. But as usual, I digress.
In the 1970s, my father turned a peanut patch of his into a trailer park. We needed the money, and the parish needed housing for all the workers moving in to help build the nuclear power plant. Daddy ran a respectable trailer park. I can recall hearing my parents argue about my father’s willingness to let renters get way behind on rent. He felt bad for them, and wanted to show mercy. Though we didn’t have a lot of money either, he was the kind of man who would go out of his way to cut people struggling harder than us a break.
But the one thing Daddy never tolerated was people living in ways that violated the peace and order of the trailer park. If you weren’t willing to respect the property and respect your neighbors, then you were gone. He drew a strong line there. Because of his job — he was a state health inspector who worked in the local public health office — and because of how he had grown up, he knew the poor. He did not sentimentalize them.
It took me a long time to understand how much practical wisdom my dad had on this topic. During my ardently liberal youth — the 1980s — I thought he was a hard man because he talked about how welfare corrupted people’s work ethic. I was sure he was selfish, and probably racist too. (Little did I know how hard my folks were struggling then to keep their own heads above water, even then.) I was too full of myself to recognize the fact that my dad, whatever his personal failings, actually worked among the poor, and saw them up close and personal every day. He might have been wrong in his views of welfare, but that’s not the point. The point was that I, with all the righteousness that a woke teenager can muster, refused to consider his point of view, because he was a Democrat who voted for Reagan, and that meant he was a terrible person.
My father did have his biases and prejudices, as we all do. But he saw a world that I could not see. He saw what could happen to poor people who did not live by the moral order that he had internalized. I was willing in those days to dismiss all of it because that moral code had not stood up to racism. I don’t think I started to change my mind until I began reading Flannery O’Connor, especially her story “The Enduring Chill,” in which the character of Asbury was a lot like … me. What I considered to be progressive virtue in myself was really pride and vanity. This did not make my father and his views correct, but it did make me understand that I didn’t know what I was talking about, and that I owed him a lot more consideration than I had been willing to give.
I believe that a lot of progressive (and conservative) critics of Trump — a man I greatly dislike — ought to think about whether or not we have inadvertently taken the Asbury Option.
And I think anybody who is willing to jump on me for saying that most people wouldn’t be happy to have a housing project built in their neighborhood, and that they’re justified in that displeasure, ought to first work out why they don’t live in a poor neighborhood now, even though it would certainly save them a lot of money, and give them an experience of vibrant diversity that they prize, at least in their rhetoric. They ought to ask why it is that President Clinton and President Obama put their children in a fancy private school (tuition is just over $40,000 per year now) instead of sending them to DC public schools, where they would have been able to share the experiences of the poor.
And by the way, the Benedict Option communities that I envision would not be willing to accept rich or middle class people who did not live by the discipline of the moral code. You can be perfectly middle class, and still be chaotic and out of control (see The Lost Children of Rockdale County, for example). Money cannot buy moral strength, nor does the line between good and evil run between poor neighborhoods and middle-class ones. The difference is that where basic order has been established, it is easier to be nurtured in virtue. It takes a village to raise a child, but when you are desperately trying to save your child from the village, you cannot afford to be sentimental about such things.
Here’s a story about middle class people. A pastor I know told me last year that he was struggling with the youth group at his church. Half the kids who came to their meeting on Wednesday nights came from families that took Christian discipleship seriously. The other half came from families who weren’t especially involved in the church, and who just wanted to give their ill-behaved kids a little exposure to Christian principles. The pastor didn’t want to turn anyone away, but he said the latter group was so badly behaved in the meetings that they were driving away the kids who were there to learn more about living the Christian life. In other words, the church discipleship group was unable to do what it was supposed to do because of the presence of a large number of kids who rejected its rules.
This was not a matter of rich vs. poor. Everybody involved is middle class. But the principle here is the same.
I’ll end with this. Last week, I watched an excellent Romanian movie, Graduation, which is on Netflix right now. It speaks directly to the “shithole countries” debate. It’s about a physician in Cluj whose daughter has been offered a scholarship to Cambridge, provided she does well on her final exams. Dr. Aldea is desperate for her to get this scholarship, so she can escape Romania. He and his wife Magda returned from the West to Romania after the fall of communism, to try to build a better country. They regard themselves as having failed. The culture of corruption was too strong. They don’t want their daughter to make the same mistake they made. A Cambridge scholarship is her ticket out.
But just before the first exam, the daughter, Eliza, is physically assaulted outside the school. She takes the test despite having a sprained wrist, and being shaken up. She doesn’t think she did well on it — and this puts Dr. Aldea in a difficult position. He is a basically honest man, but he’s so desperate for his daughter to escape life in Romania — which he regards, basically, as a shithole country — that he enters into the world of corruption to attempt to guarantee her a way out. In other words, he becomes the kind of man he wants her to escape. TAC alumnus Tim Markatos reviews the film in the new Fare Forward. Caution: the review contains spoilers. Here’s an excerpt:
Eliza doesn’t want any part of this rule-breaking, but in the warped logic of this universe Romeo’s exhortation to vice is practically a virtue. For in the slice of Romanian society depicted in Graduation the adults have effectively grown so used to corruption and responding to their circumstances immorally that they have all forgotten what it looks like to do good in the first place. Critic Victor Morton has astutely called the film’s world a “Structure of Sin,” an apt description for the web of rationalized bad behavior that [director Cristian] Mungiu spins tight across each one of the movie’s 128 minutes. According to Morton, “Graduation is not the story of a good man corrupted but a corrupt man trying to do ‘good’ (when it serves him and his) because society runs on corruption.”
Indeed, while Mungiu’s shaky cam and tight editing keep our anxieties high, society here appears to be getting along just fine—with the caveat that the only way anyone in it knows how to respond to sin is through the logic of sin.
Here’s Victor Morton’s review. Excerpt:
This is what a Structure of Sin looks like.
First viewing I was expecting a story of moral decline spinning out of control, a la A SIMPLE PLAN, but that’s incorrect. That was the story of a good man who did a bad thing. GRADUATION is the portrait of a society where nobody can do the right thing because nobody ever does the right thing.
Now, how does this apply to our general discussion? There’s no question that Eliza Aldea would be a good citizen of the UK, or anywhere that had her. But if you are a Brit, why is it incumbent upon you to prove that you are a decent person by welcoming more Romanians to Britain? And if you are Dr. Aldea, why is it immoral for you to want your daughter to leave her own people, and a world where she can only succeed by being corrupt?
OK, enough. I’ve been all over the place with this discussion. I thank you for your patience. I’ll end with this: I genuinely value these messy discussions, and will host them here despite the fact that more than a few people on the Left try to shout them down by screaming racism, classism, or what have you. These discussions are too important to have. You know that I welcome your views, whether you are left, right, or center, as long as you treat others with respect. We will never come to the truth of things if people are too afraid to say what they think because somebody is going to accuse them of bigotry for it. Please, America magazine, stop being so incendiary in your unjust headlines.
UPDATE: I was wrong about the headline writer, and I apologize to him or her. It was taken from a line at the very end of Father Gilger’s post. Well, then let me object to Father Gilger bringing race up here. I did not bring up race, and it really ticks me off how many (but not all) liberals insist on inserting race into these discussions and calling conservatives racist (or at least implying that we are racially insensitive). As if people of all races and classes are not capable of living virtuously, and to believe that they are is a sign of bigotry.