THE DEPLORABLES AND THE UNIVERSAL ASPIRATION.
A few weeks back, as you undoubtedly recall, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, dismissed roughly one quarter of the country as unworthy of her – or anyone’s – respect and concern. “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables,” the would-be president proclaimed, “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic – you name it. . . . they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.”
Although Clinton later conceded that the number of “deplorables” might not be as high as she initially suggested, she neither backed off the comments nor apologized for labeling a significant percentage of the people over whom she would presume to govern “irredeemable.” Needless to say, for many on the right – many whom Mrs. Clinton would consider deplorable – this sentiment is the defining factor in this election, the reason why an outsider like Mr. Trump must be elected.
Of all the responses to the deplorables comment, likely the most earnest, thoughtful, and generous came from a rather unexpected source: a conservative military veteran who has, over the course of this campaign, become something of spokesman for the very people whom Hillary and most of the Left consider beyond the boundaries of acceptable society. His name is J.D. Vance. He is an erstwhile Marine and an Iraq War veteran, and has penned perhaps the most painful and fascinating book of the year. Called Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis, it is part autobiography; part lament for the white working class of the Mid-Atlantic and Appalachia, i.e., those left behind by the globalized economy; and part admonition to this working class to fix what is wrong with its culture and stop contributing to its own victimization. Vance’s people – his family is from rural Kentucky and Ohio – are Hillary Clinton’s deplorables. And they are also Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters.
Soon after Mrs. Clinton’s comments, Vance took to the pages of the New York Times to remind her gently that we are all, to some extent, deplorable, that it is human nature not to trust fully those outside of our extended ”clan.” Specifically, Vance wrote:
It’s difficult in the abstract to appreciate that those with morally objectionable viewpoints can still be good people. . . .
There’s no reason to limit basket-worthiness to those with explicit prejudices. For decades, scholars have studied the ways in which implicit biases affect how we perceive other people in this multiethnic society of ours. The data consistently shows that about 90 percent of us possess some implicit prejudices — and, unsurprisingly, people typically favor their own group. Layer on top of that the many people unwilling to speak about their prejudices with a pollster, and a picture emerges of a nation where a significant majority of the country harbors some type of bias . . . .
We can recognize that most of us fall into another basket altogether: One where prejudice — even implicit — coexists with incredible compassion and decency.
Now, whether Vance or Hillary Clinton or anyone else, for the matter, knows it, this paradox – this ability of most Americans to harbor prejudices but to overcome them nonetheless – is no mere coincidence. It is learned behavior. It is not necessarily innate to humans, though we in the West tend to think of it that way. Indeed, one might go so far as to say that this ability to hold but yet to supersede prejudices is an especially Anglo-American trait. All of which is to say that Mrs. Clinton has it precisely backward: these deplorables ARE America; they represent the nation and its beliefs in all their glory.
Nearly a quarter century ago, one of the giants of American political and social studies, James Q. Wilson, penned one of the most important books of decade, and one the most insightful of his long and storied career. In his classic The Moral Sense, Wilson attempted to explain the common nature and common moral foundations of all men and all civilizations. In a later chapter, “The Universal Aspiration,” Wilson cut to the heart of matter regarding humanity’s nature, its “deplorable” sentiments and its rather recent and limited ability to transcend those sentiments. In short, he argued that the West as we know it – the Graeco-Roman-Judeo-Christian melange that defines our culture – is unique in human history, an unprecedentedly forbearing civilization that has advanced man’s interests in unique and powerful ways. Wilson put it this way:
The most remarkable change in the moral history of mankind has been the rise—and occasionally the application—of the view that all people, and not just one’s own kind, are entitled to fair treatment. Americans are so familiar with the passage in the Declaration of Independence asserting that “all men are created equal” that they forget how astonishing and, in a sense, unnatural that claim is. . . .
However common the savagery, bloodletting and mendacity in contemporary life, a growing fraction of mankind lives under the claim that men and women are entitled to equal respect. The spread of that claim is extraordinary; even more extraordinary is the fact that so many people sometimes obey it. We are appalled by occasional stories of torture, but at one time thoughtful people approved of its routine use. We are angry at terrorists who take hostages, but once diplomacy was largely conducted by the mutual seizing of hostages, and hardly anyone save their immediate families thought their fate was of the least interest. People are inclined to treat equals equally, but where once people were thought to be equal only if they were of the same sex, age, class, and religion, today people are often thought to be equal regardless of their rank or station provided only that each has made the same contribution of time and effort to some joint endeavor. People have a natural capacity for sympathy, but where once sympathy extended to those closest to us, today it often extends to people whom we have never met and animals that are not our pets.
Wilson traces this sentiment to the Stoics – Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. I’ll happily concede the point, but would argue that there are even earlier precursors throughout the Mediterranean, from the Hebrew Bible to the ancient Greek playwrights. Indeed, I would contend that the two notions that undergird this “universal aspiration” are the irreproachable worth of the individual and the universal application and transcendence of natural law and that these notions are embodied in two celebrated quotes, the first from the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Jeremiah, and the second from Sophocles’ drama “Antigone.” To wit:
Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. And before you were born I consecrated you.
Creon: And still you had the gall to break this law?
Antigone: Of course, I did. It wasn’t Zeus, not in the least, who made this proclamation – not to me. Nor did that Justice, dwelling with the gods beneath the earth, ordain such laws for men. Nor did I think your edict had such force that you, a mere mortal, could override the gods, the great unwritten, unshakable traditions. They are alive, not just today or yesterday: they live forever, from the first of time, and no one knows when they first saw the light. These laws – I was not about to break them, not out of fear of some man’s wounded pride.”
Whatever the case, the “universal aspiration” is the inheritance of the West: the Greeks, the Romans, the Jews, and the Christians; the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the American Revolution, and so on. All of which is to say that while Hillary Clinton may bemoan the fact that some people in this country are more publicly and obviously prejudiced against those different from themselves, they are anything but “deplorable.” They may cling to their biases, but like their rest of their Western/American brethren, they are simply struggling to overcome a baser part of human nature and to embrace a more noble and enlightened part of their civilization.