Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Failing Communities

This week, David French in The National Review favorably quoted an article by Kevin Williamson in his article "Working Class Whites Have Responsibilities - In Defense of Kevin Williamson". I found the quotation by Williamson to be distressing and one of the reasons that I hesitate to call myself a conservative these days, although I have to admit that French walked back the most egregious statements. What was it that so disturbed me?

It is immoral because it perpetuates a lie: that the white working class that finds itself attracted to Trump has been victimized by outside forces. It hasn’t. The white middle class may like the idea of Trump as a giant pulsing humanoid middle finger held up in the face of the Cathedral, they may sing hymns to Trump the destroyer and whisper darkly about “globalists” and — odious, stupid term — “the Establishment,” but nobody did this to them. They failed themselves. 
If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that. 
Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down. 
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.
Read more at:
To be fair, I haven't read all of Williamson's article because it is behind a paywall. Nonetheless, this section is disturbing, to say the least.

Maybe part of the reason I feel so strongly about this is because my extended family is part of this working class America. Yes, my immediate family managed to work their way out of it, but they were the exception and not the rule.

Williamson starts by claiming that working class white American have "failed themselves". Victim blaming is not an auspicious start to any argument. But, he claims that the working class can't blame some outside force for their circumstances, so they must look to themselves. 

So, it is their fault that these families are largely welfare-dependent, drug using, bearing children they can't afford, and in family anarchy. And since this is all their own fault and that they should just stop it and get on with a healthy productive life. Really? As if they could just do that?

This is where Williamson shows his lack of understanding of social structures and mental illness. Someone brought up in a community with fractured families and who lives financially hand to mouth has not had modeled for them anything like what we would call middle class values. In fact, they probably are living with survival instinct. Their chances of changing their social class without some serious effort is low. This is not because they don't want to but because they don't know how. Even in a stable home, these communities are not able to teach children how to do the basic things that middle school families teach their children: self control, saving money, the importance of education. The poor and working class of this country simply don't share middle class values.

People often use drugs or alcohol as a response to the hopelessness they see around them. Getting off drugs or alcohol is not a walk in the park, though. Those who are addicted have the physical illness of addiction and usual one or two psychiatric diagnoses as well. They can't just quit using.

Women have children they can't afford for lots of reasons. Some don't think about or know about contraception. Some think a child will help them hold onto a man. Some want a baby to love them. It's all dysfunctional, but you can't just tell them to "get over it." These young women making babies without the benefit of a stable relationship need help. Yes, they are making bad choices, but these women are making these choices for reasons and they need good examples and life rope to get out of the quagmire of poverty and single motherhood.

Williamson writes from a conservative point of view where the individual is primary. The failing working class could turn around if the individuals involved would just start making better choices. On the face of it, that is true. But, the reality is that their social world impacts them so much that they can't just "make good choices". They rarely know what good choices are and then there are social costs to making those choices.  In many small communities, people have gotten jobs based on personal relationships. They may have never dealt with employers outside the community. They may have few job skills and be poorly educated. The individual does not exist outside of their social milieu.

What is the answer to these failing communities (because, I agree that they are failing)? On the face of it, I don't know. Welfare cheating is bad, but I'm sure that some welfare programs are still needed. Women and families need education and motivation to change to more positive habits. Schools can do a better job helping children learn self-control and self-efficacy strategies as well as pointing them toward post-high school opportunities. 

If there are no jobs and people move on, then, sure, maybe the community will dry up. But, a community is a group of people and it doesn't deserve to die just because it's not functioning. We as a society need to come alongside the community and work with the people to help them. We have a problem with our working class, but let's deal with the issue and not blame the victims.

Your thoughts?

No comments: