Wednesday, November 28, 2012

BOOK NOTE: The election and Joan Walsh’s “What the Matter with White People?”

What do conservatives do next after this month’s election results? 

I suppose I should be grateful that despite the fact that in the last few months of the campaign Romney and Obama almost turned the election into a big government-vs.-capitalism referendum (which at this juncture in history it probably ought to have been and which I would have taken firmer sides on), many are concluding that it was in large part the small (and greatly exaggerated) handful of sex-focused social conservatives who ruined everything for the Republicans, rescuing Obama from the econ-oriented vagina dentata of defeat.

I would much rather have Republicans (in accordance with the master plan!) turn toward libertarianism as a solution (as even neoconservative Jennifer Rubin suggests they might in this cautiously pro-Rand Paul piece) than turn even farther toward welfare-statism (as John Podhoretz seems to do when he writes, “The exit-poll question [Romney] lost most definitively to Obama was about which of them ‘cares about the problems of people like me.’  Obama won it by a staggering 81–17”) or just toward greater mushiness, as the King of Mush, David Brooks, seems to do with some of the names in his column lauding what he considers to be the new crop of conservative big thinkers (though there are many people on the list I admire, including Tim Carney). 

Given the fact that two flourishing strains of libertarianism right now (contrary to what we might have expected prior to Bush) seem to be the paleolibertarian and the (more or less) left-libertarian varieties, not the establishment-rationalizing varieties, we should be grateful for writers like Dan McCarthy (self-proclaimed Tory Anarchist) reframing traditionalism itself as a diversity- and liberty-affirming thing.  The “tradition is simple and now it shall be imposed by force” approach of, say, your average Santorum fan is both ahistorical and electorally doomed (so let’s get back to econ, I say, but I realize people have a range of other interests, including vaginas). 

As for me, post-election I’m trying to spend less time online in part so I get some real paying work done and don’t starve but also because the Internet just shows you how many endless arguments all the people you like are having with each other, and it’s wearying.  Hell, given dumb things they said or did, I end the election season vowing to boycott Joss Whedon/the Avengers, Will Ferrell, Katy Perry, and The Simpsons, though none of these are big losses (life is short). 

I’m not boycotting the entire sixth or so of the population that voted for Obama (and let us not exaggerate: it was only about that many, and they had their reasons), just a handful whose support for him was so gratuitous that it interfered with their creativity and did so in an obnoxious way.  I once assumed everyone looked at old films of servile subjects idolizing FDR and his ilk (singing and dancing for the vaunted leader, etc.) and considered those long-ago performers pitiable and naive, lacking in our era’s healthy skepticism and sense of irony.  Apparently, I was dangerously wrong.

And what are we to make of the fact that purportedly society-dominating whites voted for Romney over Obama by about 3 to 2 and still lost?  That’s where Joan Walsh comes in, so I went to see her talk two days ago.


I genuinely do not want whites to start turning into another ethno-obsessive grievance group (that way lies real trouble for everyone), but precisely because of that, I hope the left doesn’t get too fond of the triumphalist meme about demographic diversity dooming those laughable old white men (Romney, as I think we all know, was an Ivy League New England moderate, for crying out loud – that’s part of the reason the right and I weren’t so in love with him – so if we start regarding even him as akin to a Klansman, we really must be living in an unrecognizably and overwhelmingly left-wing nation, and I don’t think that’s quite true, not just yet). editor Joan Walsh claims to be nudging
America leftward in her book What’s the Matter with White People? in order to promote universalism and unity instead of what she sees as the partisan divisiveness of conservative thinking – and the self-mythologizing of American whites, who (she said in her talk Tuesday) think they pulled themselves up by their free-market bootstraps and that everyone else therefore should do likewise. 

Q&A ended a bit abruptly, so I didn’t get to ask her my main question (nor tweet about it at the time, since my reception was bad), which is how she can lament historical amnesia while claiming that white success is largely due to the welfare state – which was only put in place circa the 60s and, by her account, basically ruined by the late 70s and 80s due to Carter, Reagan, and corporate influence.  In much the way that Christopher Hedges amused me by holding liberals to such rigidly left-wing standards in his book Death of the Liberal Class that liberals really only qualified as useful from about the 1920s to the 1930s, Walsh perplexes me by seeming to suggest that white society (and success) was built from about 1958-1972.  (She praised Elizabeth Warren’s you-didn’t-build-that message, to which I can only say the welfare state must have built very, very quickly.)

Is it possible that centuries of commercial habits inherited from the Dutch and English trading empires that preceded the pioneering, long laissez-faire U.S. had something to do with it all?  More broadly, might there in fact be something to this whole markets-instead-of-government idea, something applicable to all times and ethnic groups?

I do not doubt that she means well, but even when she’s speaking in the most compassionate tones, she’d have us believe that

(A) conservatives who speak abstractly of consumers, taxpayers, citizens, and CEOs are more ethnically divisive than leftists who, say, write books called What’s the Matter with White People?,

(B) there’s also nothing divisive about describing any pay that goes to conservative pundits as “wing-nut welfare” (I was taken aback the first time I saw this term being used, apparently with great frequency, on a particularly nasty but popular left-wing site, not only because it’s insulting but because it seems quadruply oblivious, implying 1. that leftists can coherently use “welfare” as an insult, 2. that conservatives aren’t supposed to get paid, 3. that the left is somehow not a “wing,” and 4. that being paid on the market is more like welfare than, well, welfare is),

(C) it makes sense to lament, as if pained by our divisions and being especially populist, that the elite left “is never happier than when telling working-class whites they’re racist and stupid” despite the fact that – in case you’ve forgotten since a few lines back – she just wrote a book called What’s the Matter with White People? (and much of her talk was lamentation in particular that working-class Irish Catholics like her ancestors have foolishly moved rightward and retain ethnic resentments)

and (D) whites are plagued by historical amnesia and thus do not appreciate, for instance, how today’s opposition to government handouts is akin to the anti-government attitudes that doomed hundreds of thousands of Irish in the mid-nineteenth century to death in the Potato Famine – yet she seems to forget that it is an outright slur to claim the Irish were floundering on the market in the nineteenth century when in truth they were floundering after a long period of extreme government oppression by their English rulers who, in and around the prior century (at about the same time they were driving away the Colonists in America), had literally outlawed the Irish owning land, leasing land, learning professions, living in factory towns, or living near factory towns. 

As a result, unemployment at the start of the nineteenth century in Ireland was no mere 5% or 10% but more like 75%.  I’m pretty sure I’d starve to death under those circumstances even without a potato blight (and I’ve been trying to avoid starches anyway).  Ditch all the ethno-analysis and decree markets for all, says I.

And after all, if we start down the road of ethnic analysis, white liberals might have to (uncomfortably) rethink some of the nasty, ironic things they’ve said at times about the “red states” being more socially dysfunctional than the “blue states” if they check out maps of where the black people live (h/t Freddie DeBoer).  Precisely because there’s a complicated, multilayered story there that would be dangerous if demagogued, I will absolutely not be writing a book called What’s the Matter with Black People?

Of course, I know we do cut stupid white people a lot of slack, which is part of the reason we love stories like this (and speaking of cartoons, temporarily losing Cartoon Network on cable is about the only serious thing hurricane Sandy really did to me – yet Cartoon Network’s night-time programming had come dangerously close to being my whole life, so it was a serious blow; luckily, there is always Tangerine Kitty’s smash-hit cartoon and song “Dumb Ways to Die” – from a government program, admittedly).


It might reassure Walsh to know that far from Irish Catholicism leading inevitably to conservatism (as the National Review types might have you believe), even Archbishop Dolan (for whom a conservative writer friend of mine works) is now urging the Catholic Church to make left-anarchist Dorothy Day a saint.  What use is Catholicism by conservative standards, really, unless we define conservatism in such a circular fashion that anything Catholics do is conservative (and I know some people who seem to think that way)?

I’m not saying simply that this shows “religion is bad,” but Dolan’s defense of Day should be yet another reminder that religion – even in the hands of ostensible conservatives – is a terrible proxy for the things conservatives claim to be defending.  Should we look forward to National Review celebrating Day’s ascent to sainthood?  Better if it finally nudges them into abandoning religion for atheism. 

Indeed, libertarian-conservative Catholic John Zmirak says he dislikes Day about as much as he does atheist Ayn Rand – and I think he’s onto something.  I hope, though, that we’re getting a bit more adept at blending the good parts of rival worldviews to become (in effect) genuine moderates – though extreme approaches are sometimes necessary.  Treating neither Rand nor Day as saints but taking the good parts from each is the bourgeois way, and there’s much to be said for it (as there is for the much-maligned yet paradisiacal white suburbs of the late twentieth century – those who experienced them tended to be both conservative and hopeful for the future, and what is a libertarian at heart if not a bourgeois futurist?).

Still, there is the anarchist defense to be made of Day – as opposed to the conservative one.  I’m all for encouraging the building of alternative institutions to the welfare state (rather than just leaving people in the lurch) and in her charity Day did that, much like the anarchist group Common Ground that helped so quickly in the wake of Katrina – or for that matter, the early-Christian charity efforts that supplanted many of the Roman Empire’s institutions.

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