Monday, November 01, 2010


Culture of Poverty

Sometimes a little cognitive dissonance can be helpful.

In the last two weeks, I’ve read two lines of argument from the same political camp, and I couldn’t help but notice that they don’t seem to mesh. Which is a shame, because there’s actually an intelligent argument to be made.

Several commenters have noted the New York Times’ recent announcement that sociologists are once again considering “culture of poverty” arguments within bounds. Broadly, in the wake of the Moynihan report in the 1960’s, it became taboo for left/liberal policy analysts ever to suggest that one cause of persistent poverty was dysfunctional behavior by poor people. Doing so was considered blaming the victim. Now, forty-plus years later, it’s apparently okay to suggest that some common behaviors -- drug use, unstable home lives, etc. -- are not just symptoms of poverty, but also causes of it.

There’s some truth to that. Anybody who has taught has seen students sabotage themselves. People engage in self-defeating behavior all the time; why the poor should be uniquely exempt from that isn’t immediately obvious.

Then I read this piece by Charles Murray -- the high priest of ‘culture of poverty’ arguments, who actually goes so far as to suggest a genetic component to the culture of poverty -- excoriating some imagined liberal elites for losing touch with “real” American culture, which he takes to include NASCAR, The Price is Right, and the Left Behind series.

And I thought to myself, hmm.

I grew up outside a dying Northeastern industrial city that I sometimes call Northern Town. In the schools I attended -- public K-12 systems -- nearly everybody was white. The primary social division was class -- the working-class kids had one set of preoccupations, and the professional class kids had another. (I fell in an odd nether zone -- culturally of the professional class, but financially of the working class.) Among the working-class kids was a subset everybody called “the burnouts.” They wore heavy metal t-shirts with 3/4 sleeves, wore their hair like hockey players, worshipped Pink Floyd, and interrupted their weed smoking only for occasional sex or fights. Beavis and Butthead got the look right, and much of the attitude, only these kids weren’t funny.

The burnouts were ubiquitous, aggressive, smug, and mean. They were the kids who kept pet snakes because they enjoyed feeding them live rats. They often seemed surly and bored, but were always up for “whaling on” someone else. Many of them eventually dropped out, and those who didn’t went straight to work or the military after high school.

Some of us who managed to escape Northern Town had an inchoate, but visceral and pronounced, aversion to burnout culture. We didn’t know the term, but at some level, many of us would have agreed that the burnouts had a culture of poverty. They lived in ways seemingly designed to keep them working-class or poor forever. Worse, they seemed to take pride in it. They sneered at ambition, and went out of their way to cause real physical fear among those of us who decided that the best response to life in a northern town was to get the hell out of it.

The cultural affectations of the leaders and sympathizers of the Tea Party should be familiar to anyone who had to navigate his walk to school to avoid the burnouts. Jingoism, defiant ignorance, pride in self-defeating behaviors, arrogant stupidity -- it’s all there. When the guy with the “don’t tread on me” t-shirt stepped on a woman’s head, I recognized the gesture.

My disregard for the Charles Murray line of argument is based on any number of things, but one of them is precisely the recognition of a culture of poverty among the people he claims to valorize. They’re proud of their ignorance. Ignorance is not a principled position. (I would expect any self-respecting conservative to know that. The entire point of conservatism -- its valid reason to exist -- is to remind us of the accumulated wisdom of the ages. Conservatives conserve; it’s what they do. The Tea Partiers are not conservatives; they’re pure plutocrats.) Petulance is not constructive. And manipulating the ignorant with appeals to their worst instincts so you can rob them blind is disgusting.

No, I don’t watch ultimate fighting, or follow NASCAR. Instead I advocate (and vote) for health care for everybody, and education good enough to help the next generation of kids like me to get the hell out of the backwater in which they’re stuck. Best case, I’d hope that some of the kids who might have been confined to burnout status back in the day might find some constructive reason to actually care about something. Give them something to lose, and maybe they’ll actually step up. If they don’t, at least they had a shot.

I’m just struck that the same behaviors that get dark-skinned people tagged as deserving of poverty get romanticized when they’re done by white folk. Black parochialism is considered toxic; white parochialism is considered authentic.

No. Parochialism is toxic either way. Ignorance is the enemy. There was once a time when conservatives knew that. Liberals have finally and correctly realized that some behaviors are self-defeating, even when done by their core constituency; I look forward to the day when conservatives can drop the redneck fetish and do the same. The stakes are too high to base policy on a noble savage, even if the noble savage looks like you.

DD wrote: Petulance is not constructive.

Sounds like someone is already feeling a wee bit petulant about tomorrow's election.
The Murray piece was hilarious for reasons Murray didn't anticipate. When listing the cultural categories that marked one as a "real American," he kept choosing markers of minority status.

Live in a rural environment? You're in the minority, and have been for decades.

Associate "Jimmy(ie) Johnson" with NASCAR instead of the NFL? The NFL is much, much more popular than NASCAR, so if you make that association, you're out of touch with mainstream America.

Knowing about Branson, Missouri? Branson is a decent size, but many other places draw a hell of a lot more people.

It went on like this. I find it strange when "mainstream America" is defined as a small and shrinking sliver of the American population.

Perhaps Charles Murray is just out of touch with America.
"Many of them eventually dropped out, and those who didn’t went straight to work or the military after high school."

Careful, your "liberal" disdain for the military is showing.

As for Rural America being a minority, do minorities have rights? Our voice is to be silenced? We must bow down to the elite city dwellers?

There is a large political divide between rural America and urban America with the suburbs being the swing vote. It has been this way for decades.
So are we back to making the argument that only white people are "true Americans?" Because I know quite a few people who grew up poor and/or lower middle class who had more personal experience with the Khmer Rouge than with Bob Barker or Oprah. His argument dismisses them as part of the mainstream American culture but in my community, they are as mainstream as anyone else, having lived here for the last 30-40 years.

Murray's argument is one you could only make if you grew up in a predominantly white community that was working class and has somehow survived unscathed by the last few decades. Ironically, his description of "mainstream America" is totally out of touch with the experience of people growing up on the polyethnic coasts, where culture is a patchwork of intersecting communities which themselves are imperfect shapshots of the culture of the place that they left. There is no American Monolith Culture that people can be "in touch" with - where I live and there never will be. There is a frighteningly competitive meritocracy and extremely good food. Beyond that we're a cultural Venn diagram with a hundred overlapping circles.

For him to cast striving for an education and working hard as some kind of rare and unusual "elite" thing is insidious. It’s the smart thing to do in an economy where service jobs pay poverty wages and manufacturing happens elsewhere. It's what most middle class parents want for their kids - that's about as mainstream as you can get.
'Jingoism, defiant ignorance, pride in self-defeating behaviors, arrogant stupidity -- it’s all there.'

Is that really a fair tag to apply to only one political movement? From the 'strategery' of the Bush administration to the idol worship of the Obama ‘Hope’ poster, I daresay that is fair to apply to both major American political parties. Likewise, if the candidacy of Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell is sufficient to justify the accusation that the Tea Party represents a special kind of anti-intellectualism, then William Jefferson, Charles Rangel, and Maxine Waters are a sufficiently representative sample to justify that all members of the Democratic party take bribes.
I thought Murray's argument had a sliver of something useful. I didn't read that he believes NASCAR and Oprah to be morally superior, or that we should elect the "pro-ignorance" crowd to office. He simply points out that a large percentage of Americans follow NASCAR, watch Oprah and read romance novels. The "new elite", however, engage in "elite" rather than "common" experiences: they watch field hockey, listen to NPR, and read Great Works of Literature. Because the "elite" tend to hold positions of influence (doctors, lawyers, CEO's, elected officials) the lack of common experience with their patients, clients, employees and constituents poses a significant harm. NASCAR vs field hockey is a shallow example, but consider a doctor trying to explain "healthy diet" to a patient raised on TV dinners, or a CEO for whom "layoff" is simply a business strategy, or a politician for whom "welfare mom" is merely a convenient political construct.

I think Murray's article does a poor job of expressing his argument, and he did better in the WashPost live chat: "It doesn't make much difference to public policy when a factory worker doesn't know much about life in Potomac, MD. It makes a big difference when the people in senior positions don't know about life a working-class neighborhood." I'm not defending every point he makes, and I'm certainly not vouching for any of his other work, but this article certainly gave me something to consider.

The live chat, in case anyone is interested:
I've read several replies to the Murray piece, and I'd have to say this is the best. Good insight, DD.
Man, we liberals work so hard to make conservative anything about anything other than race and class warfare.

It's a conservative piece. It's about how either white people are better or about how rich people are better or about how rich white people are better. It may be about the intermediate point, about how people who don't acknowledge the inherent superiority of rich and/or white people are worse than people who do acknowledge one or both of these superiorities.
The "new elite", however, engage in "elite" rather than "common" experiences

When has this ever not been the case? The rich are different. Surprise!

He could have argued that the new elite needs to speak Spanish to really "get it" or follow soccer. He could have said that everyone should have at least one Catholic friend so that they'd be familiar with the church to which 1/3 of American Christians belong. Instead, he picked "common experiences" that are relevant to poor and lower middle class whites in the Midwest and South. It's myopic, disturbing, and wrong that he thinks of that group as representing the common American culture.
@Ivory: Again, I think Murray does a better job of explaining himself in the live discussion: "I don't think there is any one behavior that a large majority of Americans share. The issue is the extent to which you've been exposed to a lot of things that your fellow Americans do." It would seem Murray isn't arguing Typical Americans do X, Y and Z, but that the "New Elite" are increasingly unlikely to have ever experienced X, Y _or_ Z.

And regarding which experiences he recommends, I'd argue the "elite" are already likely to follow soccer (as opposed to the NBA or NFL) and learn a foreign language (eg Spanish). On the other hand, I don't think I've ever heard a tractor pull or deep friend Twinkie described as culturally valuable.
@Jrant: and Murray's examples are exclusively of things that are mainly done by white conservatives.

Because he would never in a million years want a member of the elite to be familiar with, for example, what it really means to work with your hands for eight hours a day.
"In the last two weeks, I’ve read two lines of argument from the same political camp, and I couldn’t help but notice that they don’t seem to mesh. "

Moynahan and Murray are not from the same political camp at all. Moynahan got into hot water by suggesting that certain behaviors led to a "culture of poverty," and that overcoming the culture of poverty would require addressing these behaviors. (Although Moynahan studied African Americans, in the 60's, it's easy to identify these traits among poorer whites now).

Murray argued that African Americans were genetically inferior.

So the arguments are not really the same at all.
Hey, that post was worth the wait!

Up front, I will call out Murray for his implicit claim that the Koch brothers, educated at a prep school (!!) and MIT, are a product of a "melting pot" education. Do they hang out in the infield at Talladega? I doubt it. Yet they are allegedly not part of the New Elite.

"The Tea Partiers are not conservatives; they’re pure plutocrats."

Not quite. A tiny minority of them are plutocrats. The rest are Tools, being used by the plutocrats to advance political ideas that are against their best interests. There is nothing rational about arguing, as one of my acquaintance does, that Obama's 10% tax cut was bad and a millionaire tax cut is good ... when that person has an income below the national median! Ditto for being opposed to closing the "donut hole" or reducing Medicare fraud. He hates things that benefit him for reasons that are totally irrational.

The Tea Party political approach reminds me of the way the Elites who ran the KKK used race to keep the "white trash" in their place (a place that was basically dumb and poor). If you lie over and over again, and again and again, you can convince anyone that s*** is shinola.

P.T. Barnum was a genius.
I thought that the essay was a rather mushy and ideological expression of an interesting truth, much more intelligently argued in a great Jeffrey Toobin essay in the NYT magazine a couple of years ago: that the past 20-30 years have seen a class consolidation that transcends political distinctions such as Republican and Democrat - and in this case, I would argue, cultural distinctions as well. Toobin's essay traced some basic similarities between Clinton and Bush era economic policies - and I think those similarities are still evident in Obama's policies. In my opinion economic privilege doesn't really have a whole lot to do with whether or not one likes Nascar or soccer - and efforts to distinguish a "new elite" according to cultural tastes that purportedly reflect the "heartland" are just ideological blinders that hide from us more important factors - like who benefits from the tax code more, or which sector of society gets a bigger slice of overall income, etc. I probably have more in common culturally with Larry Summers, but our real class positions are very very different. I probably share the populist rage of my local tea party members, though I am not able to channel that rage into voting for local Republican candidates, who are likely to disinvest even more in infrastructure and lay off lots of government workers - and I already live in foreclosure central!
Sounds like someone is already feeling a wee bit petulant about tomorrow's election.

No kidding.

And the MoveOn/RepubliCorp goon who choked a man in Arizona? That's totally different -- that's sanity, y'all.
Anonymous 6:37:

When I googled something along the lines of "choke Arizona Moveon," I got a bunch of obviously right-wing sources - and the videotape from Youtube looked really strange (didn't really look like choking at all). Do you have any good (i.e., politically unbiased) journalistic sources for this?
DD, the level of vitrol in this post isn't your normal fare. Was it the stress from whatever happened last week talking? I do hope you and your family are well.
Did the alleged choker carve a backwards B on his or her victim?

Or did it take place in a ranch which has been taken over by Mexican drug gangs -- which is under sharia law?
Once upon a time, the common schools were more committed to develop the habits of the middle class in their charges. I'm a few years older than Dean Dad, and my Northern Town is Milwaukee, at the time the Toolshop of Industry. We had precursors to the burnouts (we called them hoods or greasers, the latter a reference to the stuff that held ducktail haircuts in place, not an ethnic slur; Henry Winkler's Fonzie character is a sanitized parody of those guys.) We also had teachers who had been up against tougher customers in Germany or Japan or Korea and they didn't take much nonsense from those guys. We also had reform schools, and in those days, you could keep the more difficult cases occupied in shop class, because customizing a car didn't require a degree in computer engineering.

So what's changed? Dean Dad's social science, filtering for the petulance or not, reminds me of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas and more particularly Richard Longworth's Caught in the Middle, the latter being at once unsparing and sympathetic to the anti-intellectualism of blue-collar white people still wondering where the monopolized, unionized jobs that were an historical aberration went.

For another perspective, you might want to read Francis Gilbert's Yob Nation and Thomas Sowell's Black Rednecks and White Liberals, both of which suggest that public policies less judgemental of bad behavior in neighborhoods worst served by bad behavior enabled bad behavior by everybody else, including burnouts and on up the social scale. Scroll around here for commentary on such books (yeah, you'll have to scroll a lot, I read a lot.)
I don't know what made me think of that, but watching Death Wish is a trip from the modern perspective.

I mean, all of that suffering, and all they had to do was hire a bunch more cops and patrol more aggressively. Drugs are bad, but the damage can be contained. You just have to have enough professional police officers to keep some kind of order.


Doesn't read that way to me.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?