The Cynicism of the Right | Shaindel Beers
Today at work I had the opportunity of meeting a woman who for most intents and purposes was extremely nice. In fact, in our conversation, we had one philosophical disagreement which between most people with our respective views would have turned into your typical verbal knock-down, drag-out political argument, but because she was so pleasant, we managed to remain civil, and my only reaction (which goes against every fiber of my very outspoken, quasi-militant being) remains sheer bewilderment.
It all started when she mentioned that her son had gone to Stanford. This piqued my interest (as it would the interest of most individuals who can't seem to fend off bouts of academic snobbery), and I asked what he had studied in the hopes that we might have a mutual acquaintance and further our cheerful banter. When she mentioned his studies in Public Policy, I realized that we wouldn't have a mutual acquaintance, but Ah-hah ed, picturing him fighting for the rights of the poor, lobbying for educational reform, protecting the Endangered Species Act. When I asked what sort of Public Policy, her face lit up, and she beamed, “Venture capitalism,” with an ambience of peace I thought only my yoga instructor could muster. Earlier, I had mentioned my work on the opposite end of the spectrum, before I had realized the nature of the territory I was entering. She continued on, telling me about his yacht, his beach house, his very Republican-ism because he feels that if he earns it, he should keep it. I tried to shut the conversation down, stammered that he and I probably wouldn't get along too well, in the hopes of diverting the conversation away from the topic of her son.
I could tell at this point that things could only get worse if they continued on the present tack.
“Oh, I'm sure he would think you're adorable ,” she gushed.
Of course, I'm a strong believer that adorable should be reserved for kittens worthy of calendar appearances, not sensible, politically active feminists, but this was a battle I chose not to enter into at this point.
My affable companion noticed my discomfort and tried to make the situation better. “My son did try mentoring once,” she confessed. “He spent hours working with this kid. He wasn't supposed to give him any money, but was supposed to give him enriching experiences. He took him to museums, exhibits, that sort of thing. And what does the kid do?” At this point her eyes grew eerily wide—“knocks off a convenience store.”
This is where it gets interesting. I guess I must have missed my cue to agree with her, that yes, the poor are a lost cause and that we should all revert back to the Malthusian principle of letting the “residuum” exterminate themselves through the time-honored means of Social Darwinism.
Instead, I decided to tell her a story of my own. I began in my best story-telling manner. “When I was first student teaching, I was at a school which isn't even in existence anymore because it had a seventy-five percent dropout rate.”
She leaned in. Apparently this was going to be Malthusianism at its best—the poor refusing the ridiculous social construct of public education—which the taxable public doesn't have to give them, and probably shouldn't be obliged to.
“I loaned a book, which I had always said I would never loan out—because it was out of print—to a student. I told Tim how important this book was to me and that he had to give it back to me on Monday.”
She nodded in assent.
“When I came into the classroom on Monday, I glanced around the room before taking attendance, and no Tim.”
She shook her head knowingly, as if this were the only possible outcome of helping out “poor kids.” I would like to say I was imagining it, but a sort of evil glee played across her face.
“When I looked down at my desk to pick up my attendance book, the book I'd loaned Tim was on the corner of the desk with a note. He'd gotten suspended for smoking in the boys' room, but had come in to school even though he didn't have to, even though he'd get in serious trouble for being on school grounds during a suspension just to give me my book (and this was a school where you didn't want to get into any kind of trouble, considering the armed guards who patrolled the halls), because he'd promised to. And in the note, he said that I was the best teacher he'd ever had, because no one had ever trusted him before.”
I'd hoped that my homily would inspire optimism, but she huffed and leaned back, then disinterestedly changed the subject. “My son's Public Policy training was in Finance,” she reiterated, as if I'd been an idiot to bring up any of my own beliefs.
Somehow I'd betrayed her by not siding against the poor, by not agreeing that they were somehow untermenschen, the great unwashed. Maybe she could tell that I was one of them. Maybe, at that moment, she could see through the top-notch education, the smoothed out inflections that I'd practiced as soon as I'd realized that I somehow sounded different from people outside of my rural Indiana hometown. Maybe she even saw the girl whose poverty-stricken family's house had been condemned by the public health department, the girl who'd spent one of her college summers raising her siblings while their mother was in jail. I think that this is the fear of everyone who “passes for middleclass”—being found out.
It was then I realized, I wouldn't mind at all if she saw all of that. It couldn't have been as disturbing as that unnerving glee that flitted across her face for a split second when she thought I was going to say that my book came back defaced or didn't come back at all and that something horrible had happened to the kid because of it. Or that I'd learned my lesson and never taught in the inner city again…or had never given food or money to someone who asked for it.
I've heard others talk about the cynicism of the right, but to be honest, I'd never witnessed it face-to-face. Sure, I'd seen politicians on TV talk about, “if we give the poor this, they'll do that,” or that “some people just don't want to pull their own weight,” but I'd never had a conversation with someone who actually hungered for a story about how awful these people are—and who seemed so utterly disappointed in me when I couldn't deliver one. I'm sure there are reasons for it—that if “we” (as in, the human race), see everyone as human, then we're responsible for them—and it would undoubtedly be frightening for someone at the most affluent end of the “us” spectrum to identify with someone at the most impoverished end of the “them” spectrum. This works philosophically, I guess; but whenever I recall the instantaneous change in this woman's attitude toward me, I'll still just be lost in utter bewilderment.