Kevin D. Williamson and the Lumpen-proletariat
Last week, National Review contributor Kevin D. Williamson penned a lengthy attack on what he called the “white minstrel show.” Topped by a photo of a grinning Trump, the column began by discussing the phenomenon of “acting white.”
Allegedly, some African Americans deride other African Americans who work hard and try to achieve academically for “acting white.” I say "allegedly" because some researchers dispute the prevalence and impact of this phenomenon.
While researchers disagree about the magnitude of the phenomenon, the meaning of “acting white” is clear. Less studious and less responsible blacks mock harder working blacks for trying to be white: the herd resenting those who try and do better.
Kevin D. Williamson draws a parallel between blacks who complain about other blacks acting white, and populist conservatives who mock supposed elites. These conservatives, Williamson alleges, have adopted the thought patterns of the underclass, whom he distinguishes from the working class.
“White people acting white have embraced the ethic of the white underclass, which is distinct from the white working class, which has the distinguishing feature of regular gainful employment.”
According to Williamson, the working class consists of responsible, taxpaying, hardworking, contributors to society. The underclass, by contrast, consists of lazy, promiscuous, substance abusers, who work as little as they can and pursue momentary pleasures at the expense of long-term goals.
The underclass resents those more successful. Rather than emulating the successful, they hate them.
In Williamson’s retelling, populists and Trumpish conservatives have adopted the attitudes of the white underclass. Instead of preaching personal responsibility, populist conservatives tell their audience that their problems are due to external forces such as trade and globalization. Instead of praising success, populist conservatives mock “coastal elites.”
Much of Williamson’s piece rings true. Most of us would prefer to blame other people for things which are probably our fault; personal responsibility is a bitter pill. Anti-elitism often comes with the baggage of anti-intellectualism, and a contempt for achievement.
But Williamson’s article also has some obvious problems. In practice, it is hard to draw a sharp distinction between the hard-working, salt-of-the-earth, working class, and the shiftless underclass. Williamson’s mother, whom he describes as underclass, earned a good income, but died in poverty because of her irresponsible behavior.
It would also be a stretch to claim that populist conservatives such as Sean Hannity have adopted the norms of the oxy-abusing, work-avoiding, out-of-wedlock, children-having underclass. Populist conservatism has problems, but an inability to pass judgment on other people’s poor life choices isn’t among them.
Despite these problems, too many anti-Trump conservatives have heaped praise on the article, perhaps because the article mercilessly skewers conservative figures they don’t like (Hannity, Ingraham, Trump, etc.). This is unfortunate because the article has another glaring problem.
Williamson ignores one of the major drivers of anti-elite resentment; namely, how badly elites behave.
The Sun, a British tabloid, interviewed Harvey Weinstein’s former limo driver. The former limo driver quit after Weinstein attacked him and broke his sun-glasses. Weinstein had arranged to pick up two prostitutes and take them to his hotel. Only, there was a problem. The girls had mistakenly gone to Weinstein’s hotel to meet him. Enraged, Weinstein demanded that his driver find the girls, and when he couldn’t, Weinstein attacked him.
The driver, Mickael Chemloul, described for the Sun what it was like to work for Harvey Weinstein.
“He recalled how the mogul once picked up a woman at a billionaire’s yacht party — while pregnant wife Georgina Chapman stayed behind at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc.
He said: “She was a good-looking girl, around 25 to 30, who had clearly had a few drinks. This was a fairly familiar sight for me, but even I was shocked when I heard her say, ‘Don’t hurt me’ in the car.
“I turned and saw her with her head in his lap and him pulling her hair. I knew Georgina decided to stay in her room and miss the party because she was feeling tired.”
“I said to Harvey, ‘Are you sure?’ He replied, ‘Just drive to the f****** Cap’.
“When we arrived, Harvey got out with the girl and headed for another room. He was with her until 5am and left her there to go back to Georgina.
“The worst of it was that Georgina phoned me at 4.30 while I was trying to catch some sleep in the car and asked me where Harvey was.
“I was in an awkward spot. All I could think of was he had gone for a meeting with some business friends. I felt forced to lie.”
Chemloul also describes how Weinstein almost choked to death from overeating. Weinstein had undergone gastric bypass surgery, a process which limited the amount of food he could safely consume.
“Mickael recalled how Weinstein was minutes from death at Naomi Campbell’s birthday party at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc. He said: “People ran out to say Harvey was flat out on the floor and could hardly breathe.”
“Luckily for Harvey someone found a surgeon who lived nearby on the Cap D’Antibes. It appeared he had eaten so much from the buffet that it was too much for the sort of gastric band he had fitted.”
“The surgeon did a manipulation that allowed Harvey’s food to go down, so he could breathe more easily. He told me Harvey would have died within 30 minutes if he had not intervened.”
“The amazing thing was that when he opened his eyes and saw me, he said, ‘F*** you, go home.’ Then he went back to the buffet and started eating again.’’
Does this sound like a self-regulating individual whose success can be attributed to the virtues of prudence and personal restraint?
The Harvey Weinstein story contains an uncomfortable truth for libertarians and conservatives, it’s a lot easier to recover from mistakes when you have money. For the rich, the margin of error is much larger than for the poor.
In college, a lot of my friends came from lower income backgrounds. They had to work and take out student loans. It’s a lot harder to get through college when you have to work at the same time; it doesn’t leave you much free time, and if you have to drop out you might not get another chance at college.
You don’t have to be a Bernie-bro to sympathize with the less fortunate. It is true that many poor people suffer from the habits of poverty, behaving in ways that perpetuate their poverty. We can acknowledge this, while still recognizing how hard it can be to make it out of poverty.