Part 3—Nor very sympathetic: Kids who live two miles apart may be living in different worlds.
Consider two kids who grew up in tiny Yamhill, Oregon in the 1970s. They were teammates on the Yamhill Carlton High School cross country team.
One of those kids was Nicholas Kristof; the other was the late Kevin Green. In a recent New York Times column, Kristof sketched one face of relative childhood advantage:
KRISTOF (1/25/15): Let me tell you about Kevin Green. He grew up on a small farm a couple of miles from my family’s, and we both attended the same small rural high school in Yamhill, Ore. We both ran cross country, took welding and agriculture classes and joined Future Farmers of America. After cross country practice, I’d drive him home to his family farm, with its milk cows, hogs and chickens.Kristof’s parents were professors at Portland State. Green’s father couldn’t read.
The Greens encapsulated if not the American dream, at least solid upward mobility. The dad, Thomas, had only a third-grade education and couldn’t read.
That doesn’t mean that Green’s father wasn’t a loving parent. But the runner whose parents were both professors went on to Harvard and then to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.
The runner whose father couldn’t read graduated from high school. But he went no farther than that in school and was saddled with a series of low-income jobs.
(Kristof’s late father, Ladis Kristof, was a great deal more than your average professor. In this memorable column in 2010, Kristof told the story of his father’s astonishing life. For a standard obituary, just click here.)
According to Kristof’s recent column, Kevin Green’s adult life spiraled downhill to his premature death. In his own adult life, Kristof went on to Harvard and Oxford, from there to journalistic fame.
That said, we’re sometimes struck by the lack of smarts the professors’ kid demonstrates in his columns.
One such column was his tribute column to Green. In this column, Kristof demonizes “lots of Americans” in ways we think are both unwise and unfair.
More than that, we think Kristof’s basic analysis wasn’t especially smart. But the demonization he performed was very typical of the current drift among us on the pseudo-left. Indeed, it’s an impulse which led to the recent crucifixion of Kristof himself!
Why do we say that Kristof’s analysis wasn’t real smart in that column? Alas! His demonization of “lots of Americans” was based upon a single response in a recent survey:
KRISTOF: Lots of Americans would have seen Kevin—obese with a huge gray beard, surviving on disability and food stamps—as a moocher. They would have been harshly judgmental: Why don’t you look after your health? Why did you father two kids outside of marriage?According to the professors’ kid, “lots of Americans” would have been “harshly judgmental” about his high school friend.
That acerbic condescension reflects one of this country’s fundamental problems: an empathy gap. It reflects the delusion on the part of many affluent Americans that those like Kevin are lazy or living cushy lives. A poll released this month by the Pew Research Center found that wealthy Americans mostly agree that “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”
They would have voiced an “acerbic condescension.” This would have reflected one of our country’s fundamental problems: their “empathy gap.”
In fact, no one had said a word about Green, who wasn’t a public figure. How the [Y]am Hill did Kristof know what millions of harshly judgmental Americans would have said?
Alas! He based his analysis on the latest survey from Pew, the place where American “experts” go to prove they may not be all that sharp.
Kristof is angry about that survey, in which “wealthy Americans mostly agree that ‘poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.’ ”
For ourselves, we don’t think that “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”
On the whole, we don’t think that poor people have it easy at all! For ourselves, we wouldn’t agree with that statement.
That said, newspaper readers don’t have it easy either. In part, that’s due to the lack of smarts of professors’ kids and the rest of our upper-end experts.
Let’s look at the way that Pew survey question worked. As we do, let’s note that a large number of people living in poverty also agreed with the statement quoted by Kristof.
Kristof provided a link to the survey. Flawlessly, we clicked the link, strongly suspecting what we were destined to find.
Sure enough! No one volunteered the thought that “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”
In a rather typical survey question, respondents were asked to choose one of two rather ham-handed statements, neither of which we ourselves would affirm:
The Pew survey's two possible statements:We wouldn’t affirm either statement. Here’s why:
STATEMENT A: Poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.
STATEMENT B: Poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently.
In our view, Statement A is obviously false. As a general matter, we don’t think that “poor people today have it easy” at all.
That said, we also wouldn’t affirm Statement B. If we were given this survey question, we would refuse to affirm either statement.
What’s wrong with Statement B? In the most obvious sense, poor people would of course have easier lives if government benefits were larger. Indeed, poor people wouldn’t even be poor any more if those benefits were sufficiently large.
Still, the statement rather plainly suggests that government benefits ought to be larger. In some areas, we might agree with such an assessment. But as a general matter, we wouldn’t affirm a (somewhat loaded) statement of that type, even when given the chance by a gang of Pew eggheads.
Banging the drum for his own moral greatness, Kristof reports that “wealthy Americans mostly agree” with Statement A.
Technically, that statement is accurate. According to Pew, 54 percent of respondents in the upper 20 percent by income chose Statement A rather than Statement B when given that choice of two statements.
On the basis of that choice, Kristof tells us what “lots of Americans” would have called his high school friend a moocher. He tells us that these “affluent Americans” are “harshly judgmental.” They suffer an “empathy gap.”
The “acerbic condescension” of these very bad people “reflects one of this country’s fundamental problems,” Kristof says.
Here’s what Kristof didn’t report in his column. According to Pew, 29 percent of people who live below the federal poverty line also agreed with Statement A!
That’s less than 54 percent. But it’s a whole lot of people.
Why did 29 percent of poverty-level people agree with Statement A? We can’t tell you that.
(In part, it’s because many people don’t like to say “neither” when a gang of experts from Pew give them two statements to choose from.)
Do some people suffer a shortage of empathy? Presumably yes. Some people also suffer a shortage of smarts.
Sometimes, we think that Kristof might suffer both shortfalls. Let’s start with the possible shortage of empathy he put on display in that column, a column we think was deeply peculiar:
Good God! In his column, Kristof seems to describe a pair of obvious victims. But he shows little sympathy for their plight.
We refer to Kevin Green’s children.
According to Kristof, his high school friend fell far behind in his court-ordered child support payments. He fell so far behind that he had his driver’s license revoked.
Kristof is willing to note the Catch-22 involved in this matter. The revocation of the license made it that much harder for his former friend to seek work.
That said, he largely skips past the failure to pay which led to the revocation. When Green’s brother suggests that Green could have looked harder for work, he skips past that statement too.
Does Nicholas Kristof have “empathy” for Kevin Green’s two children? According to Kristof, they saw their father fail to pay court-ordered child support. Beyond that, their father may have skimped a bit in the search for work.
Result? According to Kristof, Kevin Green’s children aren’t on their way to Harvard and then to Oxford. This is Kristof’s report about two kids for whom he seems to feel amazingly little sympathy or empathy or whatever you want to call it:
KRISTOF: [D]octors told Kevin a few weeks ago that his heart, liver and kidneys were failing, and that he was dying. He had trouble walking. He was in pain.That is a terribly tragic story. But the child of the two professors doesn’t seem to have much sympathy for the children of the guy who didn’t pay child support.
He was also worried about his twin boys. They had trouble in school and with the law, jailed for drug and other offenses.
According to Kristof, Green was worried about his kids as he neared death. Reading his deeply peculiar column, it seems to us that Kristof doesn’t match that.
What was Kevin Green really like? We have no idea! Beyond that, we see no sign that Kristof actually knows.
We don’t think it makes any sense to go around judging people we don’t even know. We wouldn’t pass judgment on the late Kevin Green. We wouldn’t tell others to do so.
That said, Kristof tells a terrible story in that column, but he seems unable to see this. Is his own empathy meter low? If we wanted to judge people’s souls in the blithe way Kristof does, we would shout a loud yes.
Kristof’s column strikes us as extremely peculiar. He seems amazingly blind to the shape of the story he tells.
That said, his column fits a pattern which is increasingly loved by us on the pseudo-left. We simply love to trash The Others for their very bad morals.
In this column, Kristof’s morals seem imperfect to us. Beyond that, his intelligence seems very low. This is why we say that:
Surveys questions like Pew’s always strike us as a rather low-IQ affair. That said, if you’re going to report the way rich people respond to some such question, you need to say that quite a few people living in poverty gave the morally bad answer too.
Kristof isn’t always especially smart. In our view, he wasn’t obsessively honest when he failed to say that a whole lot of poor people affirmed Statement A, just like the rich people did.
Mainly, though, he thundered hard against the morals of All Those Very Bad People. Increasingly, we pseudo-liberals love this play. We love to thunder about the bad character of people whose votes we need.
We pseudo-liberals love this game. And alas!
Shortly after this column appeared, the man being lynched was Kristof himself. Tomorrow, we'll look at what was said. Perhaps he should check his privilege!
Tomorrow: Joan Walsh! We swear!