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.

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