Luck and virtue
In a piece by Kevin D. Williamson published in the National Review Online, Williamson, by his own account brought up in Texas’ rural underclass and the owner of a functioning “ poor-white-trash cultural radar,” charges would-be populists with imitating the (bad) virtues and manners of the poor rather than the (good) manners and virtues of the working poor. “ The more you know about that world, the less sympathetic you’ll be to it,” Williamson writes, and cites me as an example of this phenomenon. “ Well-heeled children of privilege such as Elizabeth Bruenig condescend to speak on behalf of people and communities about whom they know practically nothing,” he says, in reference to my belief that our society should strive to eradicate poverty vis-a-vis social democracy.
Williamson is right on the way to being wrong. My politics aren’t a product of ignorance of the poor, they’re a product of knowledge of the rich. If he knew what I know — what he can’t know, by his own account — about the mythology of merit among well-to-do elites, he might well understand my position.
For Williamson, poverty comes about by “acting poor, i.e., repeating the mistakes and habits that left them (or their parents and grandparents, in many cases) in poverty or near-poverty to begin with.” He has the right to conclude this, he suggests, because he himself was raised poor.
Williamson is right that my immediate family has done well financially — especially my father, who is a private person whose privacy I want to respect, but I would be remiss in not mentioning his hard work and generosity. I am grateful for the fortune of being his daughter. But that is luck — only luck, and no virtue. Studies of social mobility in the United States suggest there are millions like me, comfortable by fortune, not merit. Williamson knows poverty because he grew up poor, so let me let him in on something about the well-to-do:
Their decisions are no better, even if they are more lucrative. Their vices may be different than those of the poor, but they’re no less vicious. Their morals are just as weak, their perversions just as abhorrent, their waste appalling, their greed all-consuming, their covetousness and anxiety and decadence just as crippling. I did not “get to where I am” because I am a special person full of merit; nor have I often met someone accorded much wealth and prestige by society of whom I think, now this person did it all on their own. I got to where I am through a sequence of lucky breaks, any of which could’ve broken another way. Anybody could do it. But few are given the opportunity. That is part of what makes me feel so strongly about programs that reduce poverty and inequality.
The “basic human failure” Williamson attributes to poor people is rife in rich people, as well. Society does not, and never has, rewarded saintliness with vast estates and untold treasures. For every low-rent sleaze, there is a Harvey Weinstein; for every meth-head, a coke-head; for every petty con-man, a banker selling bundles of rotten mortgages. We’ve come to a sorry state in society where we equate the decisions that land one money and prestige with virtuous decisions, but the fact is that the two are not the same. There are morally unacceptable ways to get poor, and morally unacceptable ways to stay rich.
Williamson may counter that he knows for a fact the habits of the well-to-do are better and finer than those of the poor. But I would have to ask him not to opine on things he doesn’t, by his own account, know much about.