Wajahat Ali has a piece in the New York Times titled: ‘Reach Out to Trump Supporters,’ They Said. I Tried. The deck headline says: “I give up.”
I’m not entirely sure this fellow has it in him to try to understand other people, and my suspicions are confirmed in the piece, which does not reveal a very sincere attempt to listen, but rather a desire to lecture. This part struck me:
In 2017, I was invited by the Aspen Institute — which hosts a festival known for attracting the wealthy and powerful — to discuss racism in America. At a private dinner after the event, I was introduced to a donor who I learned was a Trump supporter. As soon as I said “white privilege,” she began shooting me passive aggressive quips about the virtues of meritocracy and hard work. She recommended I read “Hillbilly Elegy” — the best-selling book that has been criticized by those living in Appalachia as glorified poverty porn promoting simplistic stereotypes about a diverse region.
I did not hear the allegedly passive aggressive quips, but the sense I get is that Ali is disdainful of the virtues of hard work, or any discussion of meritocracy. His goal is to lecture you about “white privilege” and if you don’t agree, then you are simply unable to get past your own white privilege.
Do you think Wajahat Ali has read “Hillbilly Elegy”? I don’t. It seems clear from that passage he hasn’t. I’m not sure what “glorified poverty porn” is even supposed to mean. But I read the book. It’s written by someone who grew up in Appalachia, and knows firsthand what it was like. The book illustrates that some subcultures in this country have pathological aspects to them — prevalent drug addiction, a disdain for education, a culture of violent response to insult, a hostility to work and a tendency to accept public assistance — and that such cultures are certainly not limited to any one race. It’s hard to see the denizens of Appalachia as benefiting from “white privilege” — especially when stacked up against privileged young black students from wealthy families who are preferentially admitted to prestigious universities and will convert that education into lucrative careers as professors, writers, and the like, denouncing racism and “white privilege.”
As for hard work and meritocracy, that’s another discussion, with some subtle aspects. I recently heard an excellent podcast where Sam Harris interviewed a critic of meritocracy named Daniel Markovits. Rather than proceeding on the arrogant assumption that if you disagreed with him you are simply unfeeling and unworthy, Morkovits went to the trouble of acknowledging the benefits of meritocracy and made a reasonable argument that some of what we consider merit (not all!) is not something we can claim credit for, like our genes, upbringing, unique talents, good fortune, and so forth. On the other hand, people who oppose meritocracy need to realize that most rich people in this country actually work very very hard, and that there is a virtue in hard work and that it does get you ahead for the most part, at some sacrifice. To be dismissive of this, as Ali obviously was, is to miss something.
Ali certainly did encounter his share of cretinous behavior. After all, he was dealing with Trump supporters, and they are a collection that includes reasonable people who support Trump for defensible reasons, and unreasonable superfans who adore and praise Trump’s worst character traits. Deal with enough of them and you’ll find examples of actual deplorable behavior, and if you want to focus on that in your New York Times op-ed, you can, I guess.
In the end, I think Wajahat Ali should read “Hillbilly Elegy.” He should reflect on the fact that a healthy respect for hard work is a good thing. He should wonder why he denigrates someone who read a book he hasn’t read, and who has a respect for hard work that he apparently lacks (judging from his dismissive attitude), as an example of the type of Trump supporter who simply can’t be reasoned with. Maybe she just didn’t want a lecture from Wajahat Ali. Maybe she wanted to have the conversation that he claims he sought, but actually didn’t.