Kevin Williamson for The National Review had this to say about poor whites:
Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.
I was pretty surprised by this, and apparently so were their readers. (Check out the comments section to see the mostly visceral reaction.) When I say I was surprised, I don’t mean that Republican/conservative elites don’t care one bit about the white working (or non-working) poor, but that one of its supposedly intellectual mouthpieces would state explicitly how the elite feels about them.
But I shouldn’t be surprised. That Williamson believes immigration and trade agreements and outsourcing and every other effect of Reaganomics and neoliberalism have had at best negligible effects on these people is merely a demonstration of his commitment that those policies, of which he is a champion, can be nothing but positive. For Williamson and other like-minded intellectuals, the virtues of the free market are so unshakable that admitting some adverse effects are even possible is equivalent to sacrilege. Instead, it’s the fault of these poor, lazy, meth-addicted white fucks.
Evidence that Williamson is not alone? David French penned a defense for Williamson a few days later:
Kevin is right. If getting a job means renting a U-Haul, rent the U-Haul. You have nothing to lose but your government check.
So French also believes that cheap, imported labor and wage stagnation and outsourcing and everything else have no effect on these people. Instead, it’s a combination of ‘progressivism’ and liberal government programs that fail people, though these failures are no excuse for their own personal failures. Somehow loosening the sexual mores of the country contributes to poor white disabled people getting hooked on prescription medication. I can’t draw the line between those two, but French apparently can, so that’s good enough.
Unsurprisingly, French’s piece was also met with hostility, and he issued a response with a great title:
The Great White Working-Class Debate: Just Because I’m ‘Nasty’ Doesn’t Mean I’m Wrong
It’s just tough love, is all! Hear that, down-and-outers? You are 100% to blame for everything that happens to you. Sound mean or unfair? Well, go fuck yourself!
French has the audacity to claim that no one has actually offered a refutation to his defense of Williamson—meaning of the hundreds if not thousands of articles and especially comments in response, not one did any more than say French was big ol’ jerk. Never mind that all you have to do is scroll to the bottom of the page to see the magazine’s own subscribers offering rebuttals. But anyway, onward:
We’re all responsible for our actions, and our income is irrelevant to our moral obligations. We could have the greatest elite in the world, but if America’s poorer citizens can’t stay faithful to their spouses, are indifferent to their academic and work performances, and abuse alcohol and drugs, then their lives will be a struggle — even if we created the big-government, protectionist utopia that the socialist Left and Trump Right seem to crave.
Our income is irrelevant to our moral obligations? Well, unpack or explicate that claim any way you’d like, but if French is seriously suggesting that our personal financial standing shouldn’t ever effect the ethical decisions we make, he’s living in a more idealistic world than the communist left he accuses of pampering the poor, and he’s certainly in a financially stable enough position where it’s easy enough for him to hand down moral platitudes to us peons without having to think about how realistic they are.
It’s like French can’t understand that regardless of how good people want to be, dealing with the real-life fallout of living in poverty is grinding on the soul. What kind of demigod does he think he is that he could definitively say if he and his wife were in dire financial straits for a number of years that they wouldn’t argue more often, that they wouldn’t resent each other more, that they wouldn’t turn to drinking to deal with the stresses of a strained relationship, that they wouldn’t sleep with someone else out of anger or spite or fear or self-loathing? How does he not recognize that not everyone is equipped with the same mental fortitude, and that some are more easily tempted by drugs than others, even if they don’t want to be?
And as for his ‘it wouldn’t matter if we had the best elites in the world’ bit, that’s completely irrelevant, because we don’t have omnibenevolent elites, so we’ll never find out whether his thought experiment would pan out in the real world. It’s not hard to imagine, though, that people probably wouldn’t give in to drink and drugs, would probably be less likely to cheat on their spouse if labor hadn’t been maneuvered in such a way that people had to uproot themselves with the little resources they had to gamble that it would work out someplace else.
French and Williamson will never accept rebuttals to their arguments because they are incapable of recognizing why anyone would object to their arguments in the first place. French and Williamson and those who agree with them are people whom I can’t imagine ever having had a truly hard day in their lives, that they never woke up with dread squirming through their chest because of the very real prospect that they weren’t going to get out of whatever trouble they found themselves in. French and Williamson are representatives of the perhaps the final stage of that peculiar brand of American conservatism, one that looks at those who work and ask why they should be rewarded for their labor.