Why we need more speech, not less
How to Create a Conservative Elite in Touch with America
Many years ago, as an undergraduate looking for work, I interviewed for a teaching position. The place was a youth soccer club, and the guy interviewing me said that most of the kids would not make it into the professional leagues and would need to matriculate from high school to make a living another way.
I succeeded in impressing him with my knowledge and command of high school material in many subjects. He said he would be in touch. I got the phone call a few days later. He said that while it was clear I knew my stuff in terms of the curriculum, he could not see the kids learning from me. In so many words, he said we did not speak the same cultural language.
It’s something I took to heart then, and it’s something that makes me think about the present social divide in America today.
I am what commentator David Goodhart calls an Anywhere. I have a college degree. I am comfortable with moving around for work. While I am not at all against local attachments or national sentiments—indeed, I consider them vitally important even for people like me—my “country” includes books describing history and virtual spaces like Twitter. I don’t begrudge people who enjoy things like sports, but they’re not for me.
If you’re reading this, odds are you’re also an Anywhere or at least aspire to be one. You seek the broader social, intellectual, and professional horizons that come from getting a good college education. Whether you’re from a small town or a big city, where you grew up will be but one station along a lifetime journey, even if it remains an important one.
There are millions of people like us, conservative and liberal, male and female, of every race and background. But there are millions more—probably still a majority of any given country—who are not, and whom Goodhart calls Somewheres. For them, place is not just something beautiful to be appreciated in song or documentation; it is the very core of who they are and enjoy being. Lacking a college degree for any number of understandable reasons, their world is much more physical and local, and their social circle much more immediate in terms of friends and family.
Tell an Anywhere that a beautiful location has died out or been torn down, and they will briefly grieve and lament, maybe even write an article or a novel or a poem bewailing the fact. For the Somewhere living there, it can be absolutely devastating in a personal way. The Anywhere’s heart will be pained; the Somewhere’s heart will be torn out.
Creating a Conservative Elite in America
This is an important fact for anyone who cares about America, and especially anyone who wants to help create a conservative elite in America. Right now, conservative intellectual programs—including this one—seek to cultivate a cadre of people who pursue knowledge; who understand the good, the true, the beautiful; who cherish everything about the country.
All this is vital, of course. Popular and political fads come and go. But we always need dedicated people who cling to and preserve what remains universally important and true, even when not in fashion.
Yet we do not claim to be mere preservers of important knowledge—we aim to be leaders of America, at the local as well as federal levels. Otherwise, all our involvement in public policy and attention paid to the structure of government makes little or no sense. And if we wish to be leaders, we need to be leaders for more than the kinds of people who regularly read the content produced by ISI. We need to be leaders or at least true peer citizens for Somewheres, wherever and whoever they may be.
So how to do it? How to relate to, understand, even engage in productive dialogue with people far apart from us both physically and psychologically?
The best advice I have received on that score so far is simple: Spend time with them. And that’s exactly what Chris Arnade, author of the book Dignity, did. In a years-long tour of America, he tells the story or more accurately relates the story of people in America who are “down and out”—due to economic or family conditions, discrimination or just bad luck—and doing their best to stay alive and get by, often not very well.
Contrary to some superficial impressions, probably by people who did not read the book, this is no white nationalist or Trumpian tract. The Americans Arnade surveys are a diverse bunch—rural and city folk; black, white, and Latino; straight and gay; full citizens and refugees. There are some policy comments strewn throughout, but they can be safely disregarded for the human stories he tells. This is a chance to “spend time with them,” even if through the medium of text.
The world he describes is much rawer, less refined, blunter than Anywheres might be used to. Religion here is an important bulwark for many, but it is not the highly sophisticated religion of a Commonweal or First Things reader. People interviewed are often directly insightful about life in America and social changes; they are also often narrow-minded and prejudiced toward fellow citizens. They are also realistic and nuanced about prejudices—how much harm they do and don’t do—in a way you don’t often see in Anywhere publications.
Somewheres are often, though not always, deeply attached to where they grew up, and this also expresses itself in a natural suspicion of outsiders, especially people who swoop in just to boss them around or tell their story to the national press—even if legitimately well-intended.
Enemy of the Perfect
“Happy is the person who is satisfied with his lot,” said the Jewish Sages, and many who struggle in these places are just that, taking joy in their friends and family and their place. Many more are on the edge of existential disaster, though, taking drugs of all kinds or seeking release through death but not getting there just yet.
The immediate instinct of an Anywhere, myself included, is to start crunching policy numbers and considering ideas to help them out. But that’s a mistake.
For starters, there is no simple policy solution here. Some of the people Arnade describes could be helped with solid noncollege jobs if they could be found, but others suffer from real emotional and psychological ailments, often born of serious childhood trauma, that prevent them from even holding down a job. Some investment in where they live now might help, but many such efforts have not come to much, including those described in Arnade’s book. Some can be weaned from their more destructive habits and may find meaning and purpose; others can’t and won’t.
All this is understandably heretical to an American mind, steeped as it is in an often healthy, sometimes overweening optimism about bettering the human condition materially and spiritually through reason, science, or faith. Even American conservatives, who do not share the belief of the left in achieving human perfection, tend to be strong advocates of improvement and its possibilities. To accept this conclusion is to adopt a tragic, Old European–style conservatism of the sort Americans instinctively reject. And yet it may still be reality for some, whether we like it or not.
Yet I would not quite call Arnade’s book tragic, even if it paints a pretty bleak reality for so many fellow citizens. While he doesn’t really have any hard policy solutions—and I am not sure they exist—he does suggest paths we can take to make Somewheres feel much more welcome, much more a part of the American national fabric, instead of just forgotten “left behinds” breathing the dust Anywheres have kicked up racing for the stars. One of the most important insights he has in this regard is how we need to think of value, dignity, and purpose as deriving from a variety of places.
The problem with the current meritocratic ideal is that it is presently the only one considered legitimate, with both right and left merely debating how best to ensure people can achieve their potential. This means your value as a person is tied exclusively to what you have “earned” in terms of knowledge or professional success. Anywhere values, in short.
But there are other ways in which people have always sought and often found such value in themselves—local pride, faith, their immediate family, simply staying alive while friends have passed from addiction, various forms of identity. If meritocracy is a ladder adding value on each rung, “unearned” value and worth is a solid bedrock, anchoring a person in an often stormy sea of social chaos and danger.
A Genuine Elite
While some of these approaches can be and are often toxic—Arnade mentions white racial identity, and conservatives can note the weaponized forms of identity politics or empty and narcissistic “self-esteem”—many of them are quite healthy and stabilizing, and indeed are the sorts of things conservatives are supposed to espouse and champion.
While it’s true that, at least in theory, we Anywhere conservatives are all about encouraging people to better themselves through learning and mobility, we might also want to acknowledge that many of our fellow citizens prefer other ways, and that we each have a legitimate, valued place within the American national fabric.
If we want to be a genuine “elite” as defined by influence and authority, learning about how to govern the people is not enough. We need to learn about the people themselves, including the people we don’t understand, with whom we don’t really share a cultural language. Just spending time with them—not necessarily to agree or pretend we’re all the same—is a good start. We could do a lot worse than beginning with a read of Dignity.
About the Author
Avi Woolf is an editor and translator. He has been published in Arc Digital, National Review, Commentary, and The Dispatch.
Image by Tomohisa via Unsplash.
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