One of the nice things about what I do is that I get to be so many different people. When I am tired of being me, the critics come to my rescue. In Paul Krugman’s world, I’m a guy who sneers at European-style social arrangements rather than the guy who has argued at some length that Switzerland is the best-governed country in the world and that Canada is more responsibly governed than is the United States. For the brain-dead types associated with what’s left of The New Republic, I am a man whose views are shaped by an excessive estimate of his own merit rather than someone who has argued precisely the opposite, who isn’t sure that the facts of biology support our comfortable ideas about meritocracy.
For alt-right types, I’m a self-hating white man who has sold my soul in the service of nefarious Jews. In Salon and Daily Kos, I’m a self-hating black man who has sold my soul in service of nefarious Jews. (What do you think “neocon” means, Sunshine?) The variety is nice. Funny that they mainly seem to agree about the Jews.
For certain Trumpkins, I’m a pauper who, like Jonah Goldberg, can’t afford to buy a pair of pants; for others, I’m a private-school guy from Greenwich who cowers behind the high walls of my gated community in the D.C. suburbs. For Breitbart, I’m . . . I can’t even pretend to care what those cretins think.
Funny thing about my most recent magazine piece on the politics of white poverty, which has brought out a great deal of emotional incontinence from the usual bladders: 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. We cut those parts, and I think that was probably the right thing to do: The least interesting thing about the piece is the author. I note that none of the critics have pointed to anything in the piece that is incorrect; the criticism has been almost exclusively variations on, “I don’t like you for having written that.”
The piece in question is part of an ongoing discussion between Michael Brendan Dougherty and me. (Many of the critics have failed to notice that the piece’s fictional unemployed disability-fraud artist from Garbutt, N.Y., is Dougherty’s literary invention, not mine.) And I may have made the same error as many of my critics: Dougherty says he agrees with much of the piece but disputes my characterization of his attitude toward the conservative movement and its organs as “bitter.” That’s fair enough. He is, after all, the leading expert on the state of his own mind. I regret the mischaracterization.
Weird thing: When all those tedious po-mo literary-criticism professors I encountered in college insisted “the author is a fiction,” I generally rolled my eyes. Turns out they were partly right, though not in the way they had imagined.
A better example of criticism can be had from Rod Dreher, though I’d dispute his characterization of my argument with Dougherty as “heated.” Dougherty and I have a friendly correspondence, and we are two of the least heated people you’ll ever encounter; I doubt that our combined standing pulse rates add up to 150. 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.
That’s part of what I hear in KDW’s essay, that attitude. Having trouble reaching your bootstraps because you were born with arms too short, or you threw your back out permanently? Sucks to be you.
I have argued at some length that our attitude should be precisely the opposite, that, contra Professor Krugman’s cartoon version, we can and should help not only the “deserving poor” but also the undeserving, those who have made mistakes and bad choices that have led them to addiction, poverty, and dysfunction. As I have written before: A conception of “mercy” that includes only the “deserving” is not worthy of a Christian ethic, in that assisting only those who merit our assistance is merely forgoing to perform an injustice, which isn’t mercy at all. Authentic mercy is the cup that overflows. We can help a man while saying, “Yeah, you screwed up pretty badly, buddy.” In fact, we really do need to say that — that, too, is a necessary form of assistance.
Sentimentality about our backwards communities, and circumlocution regarding their problems, isn’t mercy at all, nor is it — I hate the word — “empathy.” It’s cowardice, a refusal to look at the thing squarely as it is and to do what it is necessary to do. When I think about my own upbringing, one of the thoughts that comes to me most often is: “Why didn’t someone say something?” Which is, I suppose, what the white me and the black me and the rich me and the poor me and the Europhobic me and the Swiss-loving me are trying, best as we can, to do.