It’s All About Dignity

Emma Lindsay over at Medium notes something important about Trump supporters:

We are depriving the white working classes of their means to give. As we export manufacturing jobs internationally and as we streamline labor with technology, we start moving people to the sidelines. It’s not just that they have less money, it’s that their identity as providers is being threatened. This is why they are often so against welfare. Even if it would fix their financial situation, it would not fix their identity problems. It would hurt their dignity. While the working class is undoubtedly worried about the economy, we already know many will not vote in their economic best interests. They vote for the candidate who promises a return to dignity, and it’s not because they’re dumb. It’s because they care about their dignity more than they care about their finances.

People will suffer through a great deal for their dignity, an intangible but at the same time as real as food as home, and will fight hard — and often pointlessly — in order to at least be able to tell themselves they have dignity and self-respect. Exhibit A for this, for me, is always the Palestinians, who endure much war and hardship in order to be be able to stand on their own two feet as men and women in the face of people — Israelis and Americans, mostly — intent upon denying them any sense of dignity and agency. Or even humanity.

Lindsay notes this is also an important part of why so many poor and working class whites are racist.

To summarize, no one wants to occupy the “last” place in society. No one wants to be the most despised. As long as racism remains intact, poor white people are guaranteed not to be “the worst.” If racism is ever truly dismantled, then poor white people will occupy the lowest rung of society, and the shame of occupying this position is very painful. This shame is so painful, that the people at risk of feeling it will vote on it above all other issues.

Whatever privilege poor whites have had in America, it has been a highly contingent privilege — a grant rather than a right — one that rewarded strict adherence to roles, position, and proper behavior. One that could always be taken away. Poor whites have always been a people “in-between” — a harsh land that frequently yields little of its bounty, bosses with murderous power, a sovereign who uses their propensity toward and love of violence in war and then throws them away, the people they have dispossessed (and constantly police in order to repress), and each other. The middle of the 20th century had given poor and working class whites some of the post-WWII fat of the land, but that has gone now. I have long suspected the great prosperity of the middle of the 20th century was an anomaly, an aberration, an accident of history that cannot be repeated. But we have come to expect it as our birthright right about the time it started evaporating. This is especially true of poor whites in America, who — for a moment — had something more than just scraps and fear and a trust that violence would allow them to secure some kind of living for themselves and their children.

But no longer.

Lindsay tells progressives (at least I think she’s telling progressives) that poor whites, however horrific their words and deeds are, need to be included in a vision of America. But she also notes a truth — that America isn’t much good at that.

… We must find ways for the working class to maintain its dignity, we must find a way for them to have jobs that are satisfying to them, we must find a way for them to contribute to culture. We must find a way for them to feel heard. Which, by the way, are the exact same goals we need to have for oppressed races. We all need the same thing, and until we find a way to give it to more people, we will fight each other for it.

And, America is terrible at giving its citizens dignity and meaning. [Emphasis mine — CHF] We have, with the internet, the power for more people to be appreciated than ever before, yet we use it primarily to shame each other. Shaming Trump supporters for being “ignorant bigots” is the worst thing you can do, because their entire motivation in voting for Trump is to alleviate the shame they are already carrying. If you add to their shame, they will dig in further.

I wish there was an answer. Sadly, I’m at a loss. This is insoluble. Like the white supremacy it is a part of, it was poured into the foundation of this society and likely cannot be undone.

I do think it is important to remember what some people will do to maintain a sense of dignity. They will blow themselves up. They will resist as they can. I’m not suggesting there will be an intifidah of poor and working class whites in America — resistance is futile and will fail, and they know it. They don’t really know how to organize peacefully and don’t know how to engage in a solidarity that doesn’t somehow involve racism or tribal identity. Mostly, a whole lot of people will slowly destroy themselves, taking others with them as they go. We shouldn’t accept that, but sadly, we will.

3 thoughts on “It’s All About Dignity

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I keep exhorting my democratic and socialist friends to look to the future, and the issues they share with Trump voters. It’s not about this election – it’s about whether all the people with similar needs can work together after the election. And I like that the article cuts our liberal ‘virtue signalling’ down to size, because I think our self-congratulation on line has long since gone past the counterproductive into the sinful.

  2. Your last paragraph is on target. There may be a spirit of intifada. But the default mode of poor whites in a hopeless situation is to get drunk, raise hell, and then deal with the hangover and possible jail time. They (we) are not good at organizing, because “Dang if I’ll let other people know about my business.” Except maybe organizing congregations which can agree that the rest of the world is damned. (Though most poor white churches are remarkably compassionate.) I think even hard-core racists (I’ve come across a few) are embarrassed by the Klan in its later manifestations — silly costumes which despite some horrible violence here and there utterly failed to stop the current of history. The anger is mixed with fatalism. And the culture at its roots is far more inclined to join the Army rather than throw rocks at them (and then they volunteer for the more perilous jobs, learning few marketable skills along the way). Some poor white kids like to blow things up, but it’s usually junk cars. Kind of like driving in a NASCAR race without the engine having to work. It has been noted that even in Appalachian areas where hard drug use has climbed, the overall crime rate remains below the national average. Going out with a bang and a whimper. But then it only takes a few of the more ambitious nihilists to do a lot of damage. Maybe some will appear, more likely not.

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