And my answer to what to do about a community or a family that offers you little or nothing and that may be actively working against your real long-term interest is for me the same today as it was 25 years ago, when I first was forced to consider it and answered in the argot of my own downscale tornado-bait community: “F*** ’em.”
Williamson is always accused of being an elitist because he thinks poor whites need to clean up their act, leave their homes, and go where the opportunity is. The accusation of elitism is unfair. Every now and then, as above, Williamson refers obliquely to his own childhood: it does not seem to have been privileged or happy, but rather mean and chaotic in the manner typical of poor communities.
I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by people who expected me to be successful, supported me when I left home, kept their mouths shut when I made some rather hair-brained decisions, and who a decade later accepted me back with a laugh when those hair-brained decisions didn’t pan out. But that does not mean I don’t see plenty of the other side, of families and social circles that hold people back.
If I were to find myself in such a family, or such a community, what would I do? Go or stay?
Knowing my tendencies, if I had to make a choice between A) another generation of misery with the comforts of family and community solidarity and B) telling them all to fuck off while I go get mine, it would be ‘B’, every time.
It would be ‘B’ with heartache, nostalgia, and guilt, but still ‘B’.
This is the sort of decision facing white kids in rural America and black kids in urban America. It is probably stronger with blacks.
A few generations ago a talented black kid could never leave black society and join white society, but with energy and luck he could leave poverty. He could go to seminary and become a minister or start a business catering to other blacks, even attend a black college. As such, the talent was reinvested into the community. Of course the mechanism by which this was achieved – institutional racism – was gross injustice.
Nowadays a talented black kid is pulled away from that community, never to return. I think part of the motive of contemporary black activism, beyond the greed, stupidity, fantasy and hucksterism that motivates most political movements, is a sincere desire to maintain a sense of identity in the face of the centrifugal forces of the modern economy.
The recriminations directed by blacks against successful blacks who “act white” or vote Republican is, I think, motivated not so much by jealously as by a desire to maintain talent and cohesion in the community. The paranoia about racism lurking around every corner serves much the same purpose. It is ultimately about preserving the community.
Williamson would have us ask the unsentimental question: is black American culture worth preserving?
I suppose it depends on what you mean by culture. The dysfunctions we tend to associate with urban black America – illegitimacy, crime, homicide, drug abuse, unemployment, and dependency are not culture (in the sense of something cultivated) as much as the absence of appropriate human culture. They are also, with the exception of the homicide rates, not unique to blacks. Appalachian whites display almost identical dysfunctions, except they don’t show such enthusiasm for murder.
But if you look at black achievements in music and rhetoric, there is something worth preserving. Both of these arts were developed in the church, which was also the origin of the healthier black political movements. It isn’t sentimentality to want these traditions continued. In fact, it would be a great service to the community and the nation to dedicate oneself to those traditions.
It is not always a choice between a helping out dysfunctional culture and making a living, it can also be a choice between a functional but narrow culture and making it big.
Jews have always had to make these kinds of decisions: sometimes it is a radical decision – do I stay Jewish and in the ghetto, or “hide the sign of circumcision” or get baptized and join the wider society? Usually it is more a matter of making trade-offs and compromises.
The Amish have a great mechanism for self-preservation of their sub-culture: sixth-grade educations. If you’ve ever talked to a member of the Amish church you can tell right away they’re not dumb, but their lack of formal education makes them unemployable outside of manual labor, which is just the way they want it.
It is easy to sit back and ponder what other people should do, but the choice will come around to me some day. As America becomes more pagan, people who call themselves Christian are going to have to make more and more decisions about what sort of jobs they are going to take, what neighborhoods they are going to live in, how they will educate their children. They will form a ghetto culture, or a complex set trade-offs and compromises, or just leave.