The Contempt-n-Condescension Games

The Contempt-n-Condescension Games
Lake Charles., Louisiana's annual Crawfish Parade. (Image: Screen grab of YouTube video)

Has anyone in human history ever talked as much about condescension and contempt for other people as progressive leftists?

Not that their point is to encourage feeling these sentiments.  No, the pretext is (almost) always to admonish fellow leftists against expressing contempt and/or condescension.

It’s bad politics, you see.  It’s off-putting for the “white working class,” which stubbornly resists falling in line behind the contempt-feeling, condescension-expressing white professional class.  If the white working class fell in line, it would vote for Democrats.  But every four years, the progressive left is aggrieved to find that the white working class doesn’t realize how badly it needs the ministrations of the progressive left’s nanny state, and thus keeps refusing to vote for Democrats.

For progressives, this is such an obvious reason for being contemptuous and condescending that they rarely seem to bother examining any of their own premises.

Maybe (for example) there are very rational reasons why white working class people don’t want to have their choices taken away from them, and have predetermined outcomes dictated to them instead.

Maybe – just maybe – these same reasons occur to working class people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds too.  Maybe black working-class parents don’t see it as evidence of a good education, or of government working properly for them, when their children can’t read and write competently, but can recite the grievances of 1960s radicals and Harvey Milk.

Maybe — to consider another example — naturalized immigrants from India or Haiti, hard-working small-business owners, are alarmed that they will lose their livelihoods and investments, if they are forced to pay an unrealistic minimum wage to their hired workers.

But such potential pearls of policy-based analysis never seem to come up.  No, the progressive left doesn’t question its own certainties.  And one of its core certainties seems to be the obviousness of its reasons for holding other people in contempt, and condescending to them.

Although our dear brother Bret Stephens probably doesn’t think he’s migrated to the left yet, after his move to the New York Times, he has jumped this week into the progressives’ contempt-n-condescension fray, with this tone-deaf but illuminating passage in a column titled “Democrats and the Losing Politics of Contempt” (emphasis added):

Democrats may think the brand is all about diversity, inclusion and fairness. But for millions of Americans, the brand is also about contempt — intellectual contempt of the kind Nimzowitsch exuded for his [chess] opponent (the grandmaster Fritz Sämisch, who, in fairness, was no slouch); moral contempt of the sort Hillary Clinton felt for Trump (never more evident than last year when Hillary Clinton wondered, “Why aren’t I fifty points ahead?”).

That contempt may be justified. But in politics, contempt had better not be visible. Voters notice.

So, to be clear: feel your contempt.  It’s justified.  But don’t show it.

Sometimes it’s hard to decide if this is sad, or just funny.  Maybe it’s both.  It’s certainly funny, in the sense that all the endless, self-important talk about “not being so condescending; it’s killing us at the polls” goes right past most working class voters.  It doesn’t even register with them – all that itch-scratching contempt-n-condescension talk – because they don’t read the New York Times.

Nor do they read New York Magazine, or Bloomberg’s columnists, or Slate, or The New Republic (which had some rare pushback against the “liberals are smug and condescending” theme, but managed to get in some juicy discussion of their entitlement to feel that way nevertheless), or Daily Beast (another outlier combining justification with a call to go right ahead and be contemptuous), or the Pacific Standard, or the Harvard Business Review – or I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

Some unintentional humor comes through on exactly this point, in a passage from Joan C. Williams’ HBR article.

For many blue-collar men, all they’re asking for is basic human dignity (male varietal). Trump promises to deliver it.

The Democrats’ solution? Last week the New York Times published an article advising men with high-school educations to take pink-collar jobs. Talk about insensitivity. Elite men, you will notice, are not flooding into traditionally feminine work. To recommend that for [white working class] men just fuels class anger.

And, sure, I guess it might fuel class anger, if these blue-collar men with high-school educations were aware that someone at the New York Times had suggested they should take pink-collar jobs.  But believe me, Ms. Williams: they’re not.  Trust me on this.  We’re safe from that particular emergency.

It’s funny, because white working class voters don’t care if they’re being condescended to.  It’s hard to get them to even notice, and then it’s not on the terms progressives seem to imagine.

The blunt truth is that working class voters see no basis for condescension by the credentialed professional class.  This contempt-n-condescension game is a one-sided dynamic: the perpetrators are doing all the work.  The objects of contempt, to the extent that they even pay attention to it, merely think it’s ridiculous (or even pathetic).

Memorable expressions of it, like “bitter clingers” and “deplorables,” make great political memes.  But they’re used for humor, sarcasm, and shorthand allusions, precisely because they don’t sting.  They just make their authors look like arrogant fools.  If they stung, their targets wouldn’t seize on them and repeat them for years at a time.

Believe me, in politics, when your political opponents are constantly repeating your words, it’s not because your words hurt them.  It’s because your words make you look bad.

It’s funny to have to tell leftists this.  But it’s sad when they can’t see something more important – something nicely illustrated in this paragraph from Frank Rich at New York Magazine (link above), introducing us to Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild:

Determined to burst out of her own “political bubble,” Hochschild uprooted herself to the red enclave of Lake Charles, Louisiana, where, as she reports, there are no color-coded recycling bins or gluten-free restaurant entrées. There she befriended and chronicled tea-party members who would all end up voting for Trump. Hochschild liked the people she met, who in turn reciprocated with a “teasing, good-hearted acceptance of a stranger from Berkeley.” And lest liberal readers fear that she was making nice with bigots in the thrall of their notorious neighbor David Duke, she offers reassurances that her tea-partyers “were generally silent about blacks.” (Around her, anyway.)

Now, every line of Rich’s article makes me want to tell him, “Bless your heart.”  But perhaps this passage most of all, because it’s clear that he just doesn’t get it.  “Teasing, good-hearted acceptance of a stranger from Berkeley” is the very essence of America’s open-hearted tolerance and foundational kindness.  It’s something that, if you’re an ordinary person from “fly-over country,” you have experienced from almost every kind of American you’ve encountered, whether it’s white people in Lake Charles, or black people in southern Mississippi, or Navajos in Arizona, or Vietnamese-Americans in Oklahoma City, or “Hispanic” people in central Texas, or Ghanaians in central Los Angeles (who knew?) when it’s 1:00 in the morning and your car battery has died.

“Teasing, good-hearted acceptance” isn’t something to be dismissed so you can get back to your mindset of angry suspicion.  (“Generally silent about blacks”?  What does that mean?  Maybe I’d be considered “generally silent about blacks,” since I don’t go around constantly talking about who’s black and who’s not, and what difference it makes.  What exactly were Mr. Rich or Ms. Hochschild expecting the people of Lake Charles to talk about?  And what shaped that expectation?  Do progressives talk amongst themselves about blacks all the time?)

“Teasing, good-hearted acceptance” is pure gold.  But you can’t legislate it.  You can’t administer it with government mandates.

You can, on the other hand, stop using government programs to divide the people and actively encourage them to resent each other, which is what the coercive, favor-dispensing nature of government programs invariably does.

People who know how to have teasing, good-hearted acceptance for a stranger already know something of surpassing importance, which no government program or credentialed professional can teach them.  The people of Lake Charles barely even notice that someone else thinks he or she is condescending to them.  As hard as this may be to believe, what the “tea-partyers” notice is the impact of government coercion, government foolishness, government corruption, and government intrusiveness on their lives.

It really is that simple.  When they’re picking leaders, they want people they think they can trust, to carry out the policies they approve of.  And as bitter a pill as it may be to swallow, if you aren’t someone who fits that profile in their eyes, they don’t fret about perceiving condescension from you.

The secret progressives could stand to learn is that the tea-partyers of Lake Charles don’t see anyone on earth as being in a position to condescend to them.  That’s one very big reason they have the emotional groundedness for teasing, good-hearted acceptance.  They may perceive an urgent attempt at condescension from you, but if they do, they just think it’s pretty silly.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.

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