by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
That’s the title of a thought-provoking article by Frank Buckley. In it, Buckley compares the media’s recent coverage of America’s rural poor, with the way rural poverty was covered in previous eras:
After the 2016 election, when white working-class voters turned out for Donald Trump, the New York Times and the Washington Post sent their reporters to the hinterlands of Pennsylvania and West Virginia to see just what had happened. …
That’s how the Post’s Wesley Lowery came to spend a few days slumming in McDowell County, West Virginia. Lowery’s editors had chosen well, for the county has one of the lowest life expectancies and highest rates of drug-induced deaths in the United States. Males live an average of 63.9 years and females 72.9 years, compared to the national average of 76.1 for males and 81.1 for females. Between 1985 and 2013, the national lifespan increased 5.5 years for men and 3.1 years for women, but in McDowell County, it declined 3.2 years for men and 4.1 years for women. The county gave nearly 75 percent of its votes to Donald Trump.
McDowell’s coal mines had closed, and the unemployment rate was more than double the nation’s average. Without work, the county’s young men got their kicks at a weekend night fight club where they tried to beat each other up in return for a chance at a prize. That was the subject of Lowery’s story, one long sneer at his social inferiors (“All-you-can-brawl in small-town West Virginia,” Washington Post, March 29, 2017). “That $1,000, that’s a whole lot of beer, man.” The fights are scheduled just after the government welfare checks are delivered, which enables the spectators to buy their “$3 hot dogs drenched in warm chili.” Between rounds, scantily clad ring girls dance for the crowd, with what Lowery unchivalrously described as “varying degrees of rhythm.” The reader was encouraged to enjoy their humiliation through photographs meant to make them look trashy.
Lowery’s essay in redneck porn played to the prejudices of the Post’s readers. It invited them to hug themselves in self-delight for their social, educational, and moral superiority, and reinforced their belief that the pollution-spewing coal-mining industry that Trump had praised deserves to die. It told readers that the lower orders had brought their degradation and falling longevity on themselves. They are creatures of broken marriages, illegitimate births, drug dependency, and general beastliness. And better still, the Post told its readers what to think of Trump voters in general.
How different things were in the older literature of poverty. In 1936 Fortune magazine commissioned James Agee to report on the lives of three Southern sharecropper families. The piece was never published, but later became Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the most famous account of Depression-era poverty. Unlike the Washington Post reporters, Agee was sufficiently abashed to recognize the obscene voyeurism behind his reportage. A generation later, Michael Harrington revealed in The Other America that, for the poor, little had changed. He brought his readers face to face with the hidden poverty of the ghettos, sweatshops, and small farms of America. His book is credited as the inspiration for Medicaid and Medicare.
The earlier writers described the poor with compassion, as fellow Americans. At times, the programs they proposed—such as the War on Poverty—were ill-conceived, but there was no sense of moral superiority in this literature, even over those who might have brought their poverty on themselves. The desperately poor were broken in body and spirit; while they didn’t belong to anyone or anything, they still were our brothers in humanity and citizenship. If they lived their lives at a level beneath that necessary for human decency, we were called upon to do something about it. In Harrington’s case, that had meant living with them in one of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker hospices—not an experience today’s purveyors of redneck porn will have shared. …
What accounts for this change in attitudes? In Buckley’s view, it’s the decline in religious belief:
Without religious belief, everything is permitted, said Dostoevsky. That makes equality a tough sell. Among the wiser socialists, it has led to a new respect for religion as a foundation for their deepest beliefs. The religion that tells us “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble,” must after all have some connection to equality. … [C]lever Marxists today are more likely to read the Gospel According to St. Matthew than Das Kapital. But none of this seems compelling to the secular members of the new class, right and left.
Walter Berns once quoted to me these words from the Declaration of Independence: All men are created equal. “Is that an empirical statement?” he asked me. It’s not, of course. What makes us equal is belief in the human dignity of everyone, a belief rooted in our religious traditions. That’s why the left’s casual indifference or outright hostility to religion is self-defeating when it clamors for a stronger social safety net. If God is not great, if we’re so much wiser than that now, then religious duties to the poor can be ignored as well. We’ll have to look elsewhere for a requirement to support universal healthcare, and the atheist can find plenty of reasons not to do so.
The religious believer must have a concern for the welfare of his fellow man, and for his fellow citizens in particular. That’s why religion has a gravitational force in politics. … Take away faith, and the economist’s rational self-interest will counsel selfishness, as will our self-love. It’s only the foolishness of religion that demands something more from us.
Read the whole thing.