Revisiting Electric Kool-Aid Conservatism
Via Andrew Sullivan, Martha Nussbaum says that practicing effective poverty politics requires storytelling skill. Excerpt:
Suppose you want to wake people up to the human cost of poverty and to energize them with some urgency towards productive social action. And suppose you are a skilled writer. Your public, though well intentioned, is ignorant and more than a little obtuse, inclined to think of the lives of the poor (especially, perhaps, the distant or foreign poor) as not equally real. How do you write, if you want to inform their perceptions and inspire useful choices?
You could, of course, present your audience with a lot of data; but data don’t easily reach the part of our minds with which we see others as fully human. (It is said of Louisa Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times that she had learned of the poor of Coketown as if they were so many ants and beetles, “passing to and from their nests”). It is plausible to think what Dickens clearly thought: that you can’t really change the heart without telling a story. What Dickens knew intuitively has now been confirmed experimentally. C. Daniel Batson’s magisterial work on empathy and altruism shows that a particularized narrative of suffering has unique power to produce motives for constructive action.
I think this is true not just for the politics of poverty, but for politics, period. Paul Krugman likes to say that “reality has a liberal bias.” I don’t think that’s true at all, but I do think that liberalism seems to be more true to many people because it feels more true, or at least more decent — and this is in part because liberal claims and truths are suited for storytelling in a way that conservatism aren’t. Conor Friedersdorf wrote about this four years ago, arguing that conservatism needs fewer policy analysts and polemicists, and more storytellers. Excerpt:
Escaping this ghetto requires understanding why the media slants left. Contra the least-thoughtful conservative critics, there isn’t any elite liberal conspiracy at work. Bias creeps in largely because the narrative conventions of journalism are poor at capturing basic conservative and libertarian truths. An instructive example is rent control. A newspaper reporter assigned that topic can easily find a sympathetic family no longer able to afford its longtime apartment in a gentrifying neighborhood. Their plight is a moving brief for a rent ceiling.
As almost everyone long ago conceded, however, opponents of rent control offer superior counterarguments. Limiting rent degrades the quality of a city’s housing stock, causes shortages as a dearth of new units are built, and spurs a black market where well-connected elites game their way into subsidized flats. A talented reporter, given enough time and space, could craft a narrative that illustrates how rent control ultimately makes poor families worse off. His job is relatively difficult, however, for he can hardly write a pithy anecdotal lead about the hundred families that won’t occupy a non-existent apartment building because a foolish policy eliminated an unknown developer’s incentive to build it.
The right, in other words, has a problem with narrative. The stubborn facts of this world contradict pieties left, right, and libertarian, occassionally forcing each group to revise its thinking. But the core critiques of liberalism intrinsically resist the narrative form. Who can foresee the unintended consequences of government intervention in advance? Who can pinpoint the particular threats to liberty posed by an ever-growing public sector?
I think conservative themes may be more difficult to illustrate in compelling personal narrative, but by no means impossible. Reading Conor’s essay again, I am reminded of the time I was at a convenience store around the corner from my apartment on Capitol Hill. The old Korean man behind the counter, whose store it was, got into it with a young black man. I don’t know what it was about, but the young black man started screaming at the old Korean man, who barely spoke English, called him racist names, made threats. Everybody in the store was scared. This was the early 1990s, and this young man could have had a gun (gun crime was not uncommon in our neighborhood back then). The young man finally left the store, still screaming, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The old man stoically returned to checking customers out.
The whole incident, though, was emotionally galvanizing. It was horrible to see that old man humiliated like that by this racist black thug. In fact, all of us customers had been humiliated by that man — he must have been 19 or 20 — and forced to watch the old man’s humiliation, because we were all afraid of that man’s implicit threat of violence.
For days, I found I couldn’t let that go. That old immigrant man and his family operated the only convenience store in the neighborhood. When snowstorms came, they were open. Was he the embodiment of sunshine and fluffy bunnies? By no means. He was a gruff old man who spoke no English. But he kept a clean store, and he kept that store open during snowstorms. I thought about how the Koreans of Washington, DC, took on all kinds of risks — physical risks, I’m talking about — to run convenience stores in poor, black parts of Washington, and suffered frequent racist abuse and threats of criminal assault from young black men.
Look, I know there are two sides to this story. Black folks in those neighborhoods complain a lot about being disrespected by Korean merchants. There must be something to this. Still, thinking back on that incident I saw today, it stands as a metaphor for the emotional experience of living under siege by black male crime in Washington of that era. What that Korean shopkeeper experienced, what all of us experienced (and we weren’t all white or Asian; a frightened middle-aged black woman stood at my left elbow during this incident, no doubt praying as hard as I was that the thug would simply leave without hitting the old man or pulling a gun) — that was an emotional touchstone of life in the era. It told a story about race, and crime, and social conflict, and even economics. For example: why is it that Koreans who come to this country having nothing, not even a good grasp of English, thrive as entrepreneurs in those neighborhoods, while the people who have lived in those neighborhoods for generations do not?
The point here is not to solve the black-Korean dispute, or even to apportion blame. The point is to say that this is a story that could have explored conservative truths about culture through narrative. There are others, surely. Question for the room: Can you think of conservative truths and narratives that could illustrate them, and make readers more open to the conservative viewpoint, by which I mean a more conservative way to understand or to address the problem?