Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Liberal Anger, Liberal Pessimism

i recently read two things that got me thinking about the same idea.

one was this article on the national review online concerning what author peter wood refers to as “the new anger”. he spends most of the article recounting an exchange that began when brink Lindsay, from the cato institute, wrote an article in the new republic proposing that liberals and libertarians would make natural electoral allies. the response from TNR editor jonathan chait was characterized, by a “withering disdain”. while this new sense of political anger can be seen on both the right and left, the author asserts that the left has embraced it to a much greater degree.

the other thing was this review of the pursuit of happyness in the ny times. i had to read one particular sentence several times, because, quite honestly, it astounded me. this is it:

How you respond to this fairy tale in realist drag may depend on whether you find Will Smith’s performances so overwhelmingly winning that you buy the idea that poverty is a function of bad luck and bad choices, and success the result of heroic toil and dreams.

it’s not? of course it is. if you took a given population of people with a wide range of incomes and then looked at their respective levels of education, i am quite certain that you would find a larger number of high school dropouts towards the bottom of that income distribution and those with advanced degrees toward the top. in other words, those people who either choose to drop out of school, or are unlucky enough to be forced out by mitigating circumstances, are definitely much more likely to find themselves in poverty. it seems so logically consistent that it’s basically a tautology.

i ran this argument through my head in a number of different variations, but trying to prove that statement definitively false seems beside the point. ultimately, one’s likeliness to agree or disagree is probably determined by one’s pre-existing world view. if you think that we are fundamentally pawns to larger societal forces then you will agree; whereas if you think people tend to succeed or fail on their own merit then you will not. furthermore, an argument between those two sides will inevitably just come down to an argument over the definitions of the words choice and luck.

the really interesting discussion - and this extends to the discussion on political anger, as well- concerns the evolution of these ideas and their respective world views. for me, the perplexing thing here is not how someone could come to agree with the above statement, but why. i do not know if the times reviewer has children. if she does, i can’t imagine her sending them off to their first day of school by saying, “now children, it really doesn’t matter how hard you work or what choices you make. certain people are born to be successful and certain people will always be kept down by society. there’s just nothing we can do about that, so don’t even bother trying.”

i don’t know if this is something that has been, or even could be, proven quantitatively, but i am willing to bet that the belief in one’s ability to overcome obstacles and “make your own luck” is probably even more directly correlated to success than is education. if you want to affect positive societal change, then one of your goals should be to foster a basic sense of self-reliance and optimism in those that have fallen victim to nihilistic self-defeatism.

for the sake of contrast i decided to check out the ny times review of menace 2 society. as i suspected, here is a movie praised for its “painful believability”. as the review puts it:

Sequences in which Caine and his posse hang out and toy with guns, drinking beer and spouting an endless litany of sullen profanities, offer a convincing close-up picture of a generation of black teen-agers lost in inner-city hell.

The movie is especially good at showing how the ubiquity of firearms, the violence of television and video games and an insanely inflated macho ethic combine with boredom and hopelessness to create a combustible atmosphere that can explode at any second.

here again is the idea that individual behavior always acts at the behest of larger societal forces. violence is not an act that one person commits against another; rather it is something that materializes from the sociological ether to ensnare both victim and perpetrator.

trying to prove this argument right or wrong will inevitably come down to the question of competing world views. and, again, the more interesting question is why certain people find this world view more compelling. to state this question in terms of the present discussion: why does the editorial and critical viewpoint of the ny times treat the idea of a young black male who takes responsibility for his child and succeeds by his own superhuman efforts as a “fairy tale”, while upholding the image of other young black males drinking malt liquor and committing random acts of violence as much more “convincing”?

the immediate response might simply be that one is truer than the other. it would be nice if all poor people could just propel themselves out of poverty, but the reality of the situation is that they can’t. so, if we ever want to bring about a better world, then we need to focus on changing society first.

the immediate response comes with an immediate problem. both movies are works of fiction, but one, the pursuit of happyness is based on a true story. there is a real life will smith, his name is chris gardner, who did in fact propel himself out of poverty. what’s more, there are many chris garnders; black men who take care of their children and work for a living. to say that the image of a responsible and entrepreneurial black man is less realistic than an irresponsible, shiftless and violent one is can only be characterized as bigoted.

so, it seems that i have come to accusing the ny times, a generally liberal newspaper, of being racist. not only that, but i have done so on the basis of two unrelated movie reviews. i admit that it seems suspect. it seems like the sort of post-structuralist methodology that i always found rather dubious as a undergrad english lit major. so, no, i am not accusing the ny times movie reviewers of being racists. i don’t think that most liberals are bigoted, but it does seem that the inherent helplessness of the black underclass – and the underclass as a whole – is a fairly popular theme in liberal thought.

in reality, race is relatively minor consideration in this particular liberal world view. the angry black man, the victimized woman, poor white trash from the wrong side of town; those are all bit parts. the star of the show is the liberal herself. it is the liberal, and liberal social policies, that hold the only true hope for bringing about justice and equality.

this idea also holds the key liberal anger. it seems quite appropriate that chait would respond to a fairly innocuous intellectual olive branch with such vitriol. in my experience, nothing gets liberals quite as flustered as interacting with libertarians; not even an exchange with the most right-wing of right-wing conservatives. perhaps that is because no matter how much they may disagree with conservatives, they need that conservative position to make sense of their own. the liberal imagines her own intellect, compassion and open-mindedness in opposition to the ignorance, indifference and closed-mindedness of the conservative. the particular object of discussion matters much less than the chance to posit liberal ideals in the face of the conservative enemy. it’s a self-continuing process of mutual opposition, and it has very little to do with ending poverty or promoting racial justice.


Theo said...

Hi, Jermaine. Thanks for asking for a comment on this fascinating, complicated, difficult topic. I'm not the world's best debater--Lord knows, I'm all too aware of the tendency you mention for any person to take the rhetorical position that most glorifies herself, and I'm far from exempt. I'll try to keep my comment brief and simple to avoid confusing myself.

I've seen neither The Pursuit of Happyness nor Menace 2 Society--shame on me--and thus I can't address either of them directly. But I can tell you what most disturbs me about the Up by the Bootstraps genre (especially in the case of true stories), and that's the implication that if a few exceptional people can beat the odds, then everyone else ought to be able to as well. Study after study and statistic after statistic shows us that poverty breeds poverty, that poverty begets its own culture, that it's incredibly difficult (not impossible, with hard work, grit, and luck--just very, very difficult) to rise above an impoverished childhood. But studies and statistics don't make for satisfying moviegoing; anecdotes and exceptional cases do.

You say you can't imagine the New York Times reporter sending her children off to school with the words, “now children, it really doesn’t matter how hard you work or what choices you make. certain people are born to be successful and certain people will always be kept down by society. there’s just nothing we can do about that, so don’t even bother trying.” You're right--of course an educated reporter isn't going to tell her kids that, because the work ethic that you and I and she all share is a part of middle-class, upwardly-mobile American culture. But those words perfectly encapsulate the message that tons of kids born into generational poverty are sent to school with every day, year after year, and from the point of view of the parents who send this message, it's not self-defeating, it's just a reality check for kids they don't want to have nursing unrealistic expectations that will just get crushed down the line. You and I probably disagree with those parents, but that's because we're coming from a different perspective; my guess is that for every Chris Gardner, there's some older person--a teacher, a neighbor, a coach, an aunt--who intervened and disrupted this message early on, when that successful person was a small child. I can't help but feel it's a responsibility we all share as a national community to reach out and do whatever we can to break the cycle of generational poverty; it hardly seems fair to expect folks who've grown up hearing "don't even bother trying" all their lives to break the cycle all on their own.

As far as the connection between race and class, obviously that's extremely complicated, too. The concept of race as we know it in this country today arose for deeply economic reasons: namely, to protect and justify the institution of slavery, and to convince poor Irish, Italian, and central European immigrants to protect rich Anglo-Americans' economic interests rather than forming coalitions with the working black people who shared their own economic interests. And the concept of race still carries heavy economic implications to this day--George Lipsitz's essay "The Possessive Investment in Whiteness" (American Quarterly 47:3, Sept. 1995) is extremely enlightening on this topic. But at the same time, individuals and individual communities do have agency; prejudice isn't destiny and "difficult" isn't the same thing as "impossible." There have been educated, middle- and upper-class black people in this country since long before the Civil War, and black people of the educated classes are increasingly visible today. Your statement, "to say that the image of a responsible and entrepreneurial black man is less realistic than an irresponsible, shiftless and violent one is can only be characterized as bigoted," is absolutely true and makes me think of Percival Everett's brilliant, hilarious, heartbreaking novel Erasure, in which a black professor/novelist, the son of a successful physician, is driven to the brink of madness by the literary industry's ceaseless insistence that he should be writing about ghetto life.

Ultimately, my feeling is that individual-responsibility-versus-sweeping-social-forces is a false opposition--individuals, after all, are shaped (at least in part) by big social forces, but what is society made of if not a collection of individuals? It strikes me that arguing about whose fault poverty is misses the point: we can't fix the past, so we might as well look forward, with every person--no matter her current socioeconomic status--asking what she can contribute to building a more equitable future.

Whew--so much for brief! Um, can somebody pass the popcorn?

Theo said...

For the record: as it stands, the "now children" paragraph of my comment lays too much blame, I think, at the feet of impoverished parents. While studies have shown that people in dire poverty don't parent as successfully as middle-class people, and while I do believe that the kind of depression and hopelessness that's a common, widespread result of poverty gets transmitted from one generation to the next, I want to make it clear that I don't want to point a finger at "welfare mothers," or at impoverished parents generally. I'm just trying to describe one aspect of a bigger cycle, part of a system that I believe reinforces generational poverty and makes social mobility much more elusive than American mythology would like to pretend.