A Writer’s Tough Love

Lynch, Ky., on August 13, 2019 (Charles Mostoller / Reuters)
On Kevin D. Williamson’s brash, extraordinary new book, Big White Ghetto

I hope you have seen Kevin D. Williamson’s new book: Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Woolly Wilds of the “Real America” (arresting title, right?). The book is filled with intelligence, and filled with heart, just like the author.

As I sometimes do with books, I would like to offer a few notes — not a review, just some thoughts, prompted by the book. For your entertainment or appreciation, I hope.

• Back to the title, which includes “high on rage.” A useful phrase. It describes much of American politics today. It describes many of us from time to time, I suppose. Have you ever been high on rage? I have. What a relief to come down from that.

Then there is “the ‘real America.’” One of my great discoveries in early adulthood was that it’s all real. The small towns and the farms, yes — NASCAR and Quaker meetings — but Harvard and Hollywood, too. It’s all real — all America — “from sea to shining sea,” as Bill Buckley liked to say.

You’ve heard of “real people,” I wager? There too: They’re all real (whether we like them or not).

• On the cover of this book is a piece of white toast — burnt. It may well be Wonder Bread. We were never allowed to have Wonder Bread. Once or twice, I had it at someone else’s house. Thought it was Nirvana.

But I’m glad we weren’t allowed to have Wonder Bread. Or sugary cereal. Or whole milk.

(I had sugary cereal and whole milk in other houses. Again, Nirvana.)

While I’m down Memory Lane: We used bread bags on our feet, to help us slide into our winter boots more easily. How about you? Or maybe you lived in a warm climate?

• One of Kevin’s great advantages as a writer is that he can’t be snowed or guilted on the subject of growing up in difficult circumstances. Try it on someone else — not KDW.

• The opening piece in this collection is the titular one: “Big White Ghetto.” It is datelined “Owsley County, Kentucky.” Its opening sentence defines the Big White Ghetto as “the vast moribund matrix of Wonder Bread–hued Appalachian towns and villages stretching from northern Mississippi to southern New York.”

Of Owsley County, Kevin writes, “If the people here weren’t 98.5 percent white, we’d call it a reservation.”

Yes. In 2013, I filed a report from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

Pine Ridge is a very poor place, the poorest of all the reservations.

One could cite many grim statistics, and tug at heartstrings. I will give a few facts, quickly. Infant mortality is sky high. Diabetes is sky high. So are any number of other illnesses, including depression. Suicide is sky high. It is virtually epidemic among teenagers. Life expectancy for men is 48; for women, it’s 52. One hears that this is the worst life expectancy in the Western Hemisphere, except for Haiti.

Kevin writes, “I pass a church called ‘Welfare Baptist,’ which, unfortunately, describes much of the population for miles and miles around.”

Let me quote a further swatch from him:

Like its black urban counterparts, the Big White Ghetto suffers from a whole trainload of social problems, but the most significant among them may be adverse selection: Those who have the required work skills, the academic ability, or the simple desperate native enterprising grit to do so get the hell out as fast as they can, and they have been doing that for decades.

That is exactly what people on Pine Ridge — or rather, who had left Pine Ridge — told me. Exactly.

• On the subject of blacks and whites: I have a little speech, which I’ve given before, but will give again, quickly.

What did we conservatives say to the ghetto — the black one — for years and years? “Quit blaming others for your problems. Take responsibility for yourself. Get off drugs. Get a job. Stop having children out of wedlock. Turn down the music. Hitch up your pants. Make something of yourself!

And what do we say to poor whites? As a rule, we are tenderer, aren’t we? About the factory that left town and all?

(If you’re looking for palliatives, don’t come to Kevin or me.)

The heart must go out to all who suffer. I’m not sure that America’s problems are chiefly material and economic. I’m not sure they are amenable to political or governmental solution. I think the best government can do is: no harm.

But this is a very big subject, of course, and I’m jotting little notes . . .

• Kevin grew up in Lubbock, Texas. He speaks of “a hidebound local culture that emphasizes waiting one’s turn, which may be a Burkean virtue in theory but in practice means waiting for somebody to die before you get a promotion.”

A copy editor on the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Kevin left the paper when they declined even to interview him for a job writing op-eds.

And there wouldn’t have been any point in interviewing me: They knew who they were going to hire, and had known for years. Law firms, banks, and other businesses work much the same way.

I thought of a conversation I had in India — Rajasthan — long ago. (Kevin Williamson once worked in India, by the way.) A group of young men told me that they had no real opportunity to get ahead. They could take standardized tests, and do well on them. But it wouldn’t matter. They could apply for university places, or for jobs — but it wouldn’t matter. Everything was wired. Everything was controlled by nepotism and the like.

It was clear to me they would have flourished in a different type of society. I burned for them, and with them.

• “Eviction court is not the single saddest place in the world,” writes Williamson, “but if you were taking a Dantean descent through the underworld of underclass despair and dysfunction, it would be somewhere around the fourth or fifth circle.”

Keep Dante in mind, because I am going to return to him later.

More Kevin:

I am, as it happens, evicting my late mother’s fourth husband’s fifth wife from a modest house (much more modest than the condition I left it in) in which she has resided rent-free for a decade or so.


Kevin puts me in mind of Anthony Daniels, a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple, for reasons I will explain in a moment.

When people in eviction court narrate the facts of their case, Kevin notices, they “rarely appear as the subjects in their own sentences.” Passivity is the name of the game.

A “domestic event” just “happened,” and now the man in her life cannot reside under the same roof as her daughter — or Child Protective Services will take that daughter away.


Tony Daniels worked for years as a prison psychiatrist. Among the prisoners were stabbers — people who had stabbed other people, including to death. Tony found that they all used the same phrase with him: “the knife went in.” (“Unguided by human hand, apparently,” Tony will quip.)

Indeed, Tony titled one of his books “The Knife Went In.”

• In a report from Birmingham, Ala., Kevin describes how a junkie gets started. He is unsparing, Kevin is. The reader is left to his own emotions, and his own thoughts. This is an amazing piece of reporting and writing (one of many).

• Writing about a neighborhood of Chicago, Kevin remarks on “that universal identifier of urban reclamation: a Starbucks within view of another Starbucks.”

If he had ended at “a Starbucks,” that would have been a good line. The addition of “within view of another Starbucks” makes it a great line.

• Another piece, Kevin begins, “Philly is famous for two things: cheesesteaks and murder.” Hey, what about Marian Anderson, “the Lady from Philadelphia”? And Eugene Ormandy? And Mike Schmidt?

• I like a dateline — not “Las Vegas” but “Vegas, Baby.”

• And this title: “Sunny California, Shady Russians.”

• “Richard Spencer,” the American neo-Nazi or alt-rightist, “isn’t a storm trooper. He’s a theater kid.”

At the recent insurrectionary riot at the U.S. Capitol: Did you spot any theater kids? Catch all that dress-up?

I love this, from Kevin:

Asked for his top three policy-agenda items, [Spencer] gets no further than numbers one and two: a net-zero immigration policy and “a tremendous change in foreign policy.”

• Speaking of Richard Spencer, there is a piece in this book — a separate piece — called “Adventures in National Socialism.” I am reminded of something that Radek Sikorski, the Polish statesman and journalist, told me in a podcast a few years ago. I will paraphrase: “The combination of a right-wing cultural stance and big-government economics is one of the most potent electoral forces on earth.”

For sure.

• Outside Dallas, Kevin attends the Flat Earth International Convention, and its people want you to know that they have nothing whatsoever to do with the Flat Earth Society, “those heretical, weak-tea, milk-and-water, pansified, considerably less respectable flat-Earth enthusiasts.”

Wonderful stuff. Do you know the Jewish joke about the guy on the desert island? I could make it long, but I’ll make it short. With the materials available on the island, he builds a little town, complete with school, church, tavern, public park — and two synagogues. Why two?

One, he goes to. The other, he wouldn’t set foot in if it were the last place on earth (flat or not) . . .

• I could go on, because the book is so interesting, quotable, provocative, and illuminating. But I will stop, perhaps to let you get on with the book itself. In some circles, Kevin is known as a tough nut, casting a cold eye on America’s problems, especially its social pathologies. He does not talk in the fuzzy, euphemistic, deflective language of politicians and political types.

A cold eye, yes, or a clear one, I would say — but not a cold heart. The dirty little secret, I think, is an open secret: He writes from love. Otherwise, he would not bother to visit forlorn pockets of our country, engage with the people there, and write about it all.

Mark Helprin loves Dante and his comedy, and he says that a line from the comedy explains every book that he (Mark) has ever written: “Amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare.” “Love moved me, and made me speak.” So it is, I’d bet my bottom dollar, with my friend Kevin Williamson.


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