Saturday, September 10, 2005

Culturalism, not Racism

Many have opined lately on exactly “how and why” multiplied thousands of people failed to evacuate New Orleans before the hurricane wreaked havoc on that low-lying city. But rather than add to the glut of well deserved criticism of the ineffectuality of government, I think that it could be instructive to consider the real cause of the massive human tragedy that played-out on national television. That cause being, obviously: persistent poverty.

Jane Galt at Asymertical Information has already gone to the trouble of articulating the various factors that contribute to and indeed perpetuate the poverty that led to the displacement and homelessness of so many of New Orleans’ poor. Jane posted a thoughtful two-parter from which I’ll draw and with which I’ll quibble, if only slightly. The first entry is called: Perish the poor. In it, she analyses some specific behaviors that made a natural disaster even worse.
The poor did not have any money to stay in a motel, because it was the end of the month (government checks come on the first of the month) and the pay period (which generally spans two weeks), and few poor people have savings.

The poor were less likely to have cars, or know people with access to cars. They are less likely to be connected with churches or other social organizations that could have functioned to make sure they got out.

The poor do not listen to news as frequently, or as intently, as the middle class, meaning that they had a much hazier idea of what was going on, even if they had had the education to understand what a Class Five hurricane was.

The poor were angry about the divide between them and the middle class, particularly since the middle class is mostly white, and the underclass is mostly poor. When the refugee relief efforts broke down, the belief that they were being targeted because they were black seems to have led to violent and anti-social behavior. […]

As you can see, few of these are directly reparable by the government in any sort of reasonable time frame, and I'm not sure a lot of them are reparable at all; as far as I know, people on the dole in Europe live from check to check too. Other things, like gangs, are something the government has been fighting for some time.

It seems to me that the thought processes of the chronically poor are the main culprit, as thoughts (ideally) precede actions. This is illustrated very well in an axiom that Neal Boortz has promulgated for years, which goes something like this: poor people tend to do that which makes them poor, whereas successful people tend to do that which brings success. Simple, but true. Therefore, I think that Jane only adds fuel to an already unruly fire of irrationality by seemingly assenting to this canard: ”The poor were angry about the divide between them and the middle class, particularly since the middle class is mostly white…” I don’t doubt for a moment that some impoverished blacks believe that, but I do think that when intelligent people lend credence to such a notion it only exacerbates the situation. Instead of misplaced sympathy, hard truth and tough love are called for. Additionally, the term racism ought to be reserved for instances when it actually applies and ought not to be confused with culturalism. Here’s my definition of culturalism: the belief that all cultures are NOT equal. Some cultures are clearly inferior to others…deal with it.

In the second post, which is called: The poor really are different, Jane deals with poverty and its causes more generally. It begins this way:
The post below is complicated, for some conservatives, by the fact that if the poor acted like the middle class, they wouldn't have problems like no credit or savings.

If poor people did just four things, the poverty rate would be a fraction of what it currently is. Those four things are:

1) Finish high school
2) Get married before having children
3) Have no more than two children
4) Work full time

These are things that 99% of middle class people take as due course. In addition, there's some pretty good evidence that many people who are poor have personality problems that substantially contribute to their poverty.

Again, it goes without saying (but that won't stop me): poor decision-making is highly problematic. But I can’t help but wonder why people so casually excuse the irresponsibility of “the poor”. To be sure, there is certainly not an equal distribution of talent, intellectual ability or motivation. That said though, self-sufficiency is perhaps the most basic trait of adulthood. Now I’m not speaking of those with debilitating disease, severe handicap et al, which only constitutes a minute percentage of those living in poverty. No, the overwhelming majority of those that avail themselves of any number of entitlements are as capable of survival as their more well-off counterparts. If you’re able-bodied and have been unemployed for any length of time…get off your ass and get a job!
Bad peer groups, like good ones, create their own equilibrium. Doing things that prevent you from attaining material success outside the group can become an important sign of loyalty to the group, which of course just makes it harder to break out of a group, even if it is destined for prison and/or poverty. I think it is fine, even necessary, to recognize that these groups have value systems which make it very difficult for individual members to get a foothold on the economic ladder. But I think conservatives need to be a lot more humble about how easily they would break out of such groups if that is where they had happened to be born.

The crux of the problem, in my view, is none other than the refusal to think independently. In other words: the lemmings that follow their piers over the edge get exactly what they’ve earned. Face it, if one chooses to incorporate the mindset and customs of the culture of defeatism, the welfare mentality and a racial inferiority complex (ala Rev. Jackson, Rev. Sharpton, Rev. Whomever), then that one bears the full responsibility for the inexorable consequences. The same applies to the trailer-dwelling, mullet-having laborer that accepts the perceived immutability of his impoverishment, in addition to being certain that the wealthy folks in the gated community across town are to blame. One’s race is irrelevant, but one’s mindset is largely determinative of the socio-economic status one enjoys.
That leaves us in a rather awkward place, because while I don't agree with conservatives that the poor are somehow worse people than we are, I also don't agree with liberals that money is the answer. Money buys material goods, which are not really the biggest problem that most poor people in America have. And I don't know how you go about providing the things they're missing: the robust social networks, the educational and occupational opportunity, the ability to construct a long-term life instead of one that is lived day-to-day. I think that we should remove the barriers, like poor schools, that block achievement from without, but I don't know what to do about the equally powerful barriers that block it from within.

But I also don't think that the answer is to use those barriers as an excuse to wash our hands of the matter.

This is precisely the wrong way to look at it. Poverty, especially in America, is the result of a series of very bad choices. The only solution is to stop making those types of decisions and to change course. Only the individuals in question can alter their thinking. What’s more, all of the entitlements one could dream up would in no way solve the problem of poverty. In fact, ever-increasing hand-outs have only made things worse, by creating a sense of dependence upon others for the essentials of life. Lastly, the constant excusing of ill-advised behavior—in the name of compassion—is by far the largest “barrier” that enables a lifetime of poverty. Enough already.