“The rich are different than you and me” F. Scott Fitzgerald is purported to have told Ernest Hemingway, to which he is purported to have replied “Yes, they have more money.” (In fact, that exchange never took place, but was a (favourable) reworking by Hemingway of a different exchange , but I digress)
I was thinking about this quote as I was reading Heather Mallick’s column about “Toddlers & Tiaras”, it’s spin-off “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and other “reality” shows which portray the, frankly, appalling behaviour of the North American “poor” (poor, in this case, being a decidedly relative context). I doubt Mallick and I agree agree on much of anything, other than a common dislike for those shows. But I suspect we dislike them for very different reasons which, I think, reflects the difference in thinking between the right (or at least the less retrograde elements of the right) and the left on the subject of the North American poor.
For Mallick, the problem with these shows is that they portray the poor as “feckless and depraved”, when in her view “[d]espite the outliers on these TV shows, poor people are not base. They simply have no money.” She’s playing the role of Hemingway to my Fitzgerald. The poor are different from you and me, she is saying, they have less money.
As it happens, I’m in the midst of reading “Life at the Bottom” Theodore Dalrymple‘s account of the English underclass. Dalrymple, for those of you not familiar with his work, is an English doctor and writer who draws upon his years of working with the English underclass to write, bluntly, about the violence, depravity, indolence and vice that typifies their lives (he’s also an eloquent and witty writer, whose essays are often worth reading even if you have no interest in the subject matter). In his view, the problem is precisely that the poor, or at least a rather large subset thereof, ARE “feckless and depraved.”
Moreover, pace Mallick, the problem isn’t one of money per se. A common theme running through his writing is that material poverty itself is not the issue, rather it is the spiritual poverty that, too often, accompanies it. The white poor in the UK are generally infinitely more depraved than their equally deprived (at least in crude material terms) neighbours who immigrated from Pakistan, India or Jamaica (and whose children often go on to university and enter the ranks of the English middle-class). The life of criminality, violence and vice lived by the white poor is an anathema to their equally poor, but foreign-born, neighbours. For Dalrymple, the English-born poor are not just different from you and me, they’re different from the foreign-born poor who have the same amount of money.
Moreover, what’s striking about reading Dalrymple, is how his similar his observations of the white English poor are to those of the (largely) black poor contained in David Simon and Ed Burns‘ ‘The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Drug Corner” about life in a Baltimore ghetto (Simon and Burns drew extensively from this book when they wrote “The Wire“, which is part of the reason it was so good). There too we see the sharp contrast between the the materially poor who, despite their material poverty, still ascribe to essentially middle-class values, and their equally (materially) poor neighbours, who have adopted the values of the “Corner” and succumbed to the depravity and degradation that comes with it.
A key point about both Dalrymple and Simon and Burns, is that their aim is not to demonize the poor, however depraved. Quite the contrary, in reading both their books, you’re struck by their obvious fondness for the subjects of their writing and, if not sympathy, at least concern for their well-being. Crucially, they emphasize the humanity of even their most depraved subjects.
On the other hand, they make no bones that the problems of the poor, and in particularly the underclass, whose problems run deeper than just lack of money. The poor, or at least the underclass, suffer from cultural, spiritual, and moral deprivations that money alone can’t address. And those deprivations are reflected in the (often) poor decisions made by the subjects of their writing, whether they’re decisions about education, jobs, family, children, drugs, you name it. By recognizing the humanity of the poor, Dalrymple et al also recognize their agency, their ability to make choices, whether good or bad. In contrast to Mallick (and others on the left), who sees poverty as being something that is externally imposed – the absence of money – Dalrymple et al. see poverty as being more complex than that, as a function, at least in part, of human agency on the part of the poor.
Which brings me back to Mallick’s article. She’s appalled by the sight of the children on Toddlers & Tiaras and their slide “into a miserable life”. But despite that, has nothing against the mothers of the children on the show. Writing of one “pathetic good-natured mother”, she says “she doesn’t know any better”. Rather, the shame of those shows lies with the viewers for watching “an extreme sample of North America’s poor being mocked for toothlessness and other social crimes”. For Mallick, the trouble with these reality shows is the mockery of the poor. The mother’s participation in Toddlers & Tiaras is a “social crime”, akin to using the wrong fork at a fancy restaurant, and one over which she has no control – “she doesn’t know any better”. In that, she echoes the typical (though not universal) left-wing response to the social problems of the poor, be they drugs, violence, or poverty itself – it isn’t their fault.
I share Mallick’s concern for the children on Toddlers & Tiaras, but their welfare is a symptom of the underlying problem, it isn’t the problem itself. The problem, that Mallick is unable, or unwilling, to address, is the parents. They don’t know any better? Really, these are parents who tart up their toddlers for a show that, as Mallick puts it, has a “huge demographic of pedophiles”, and they don’t know any better? That maybe true, but isn’t that in itself grounds from condemnation? The problem is that the parents are either utterly clueless about parenting or are so self-absorbed as to be indifferent to the welfare of their children (or both). In either case, it’s a reflection on the moral, spiritual and cultural failures of the parents.
This isn’t poor manners, it’s poor parenting, and parenting moreover, that even 20 years ago would have been beyond the pale. Our mockery of the mother is wrong, not because her parenting is undeserving of mockery or scorn, but because her parenting is so profoundly sad and troubling that it is deserving of condemnation. Mockery isn’t the appropriate response, outrage is. That we mock the parents, instead of condemning them, is a damning criticism of us and of our society’s unwillingness, much like Heather Mallick’s, to hold the poor (and the not-so poor) to the same basic standards of human behaviour and decency that we hold for ourselves. The poor are different from you and me, and that’s the problem that we have to deal with.