George Will Explains Poverty

George Will’s column in the Washington Post this Sunday was as offensive as it was incoherent. His subject was John Edwards, specifically his efforts to fight poverty. At least, I think that was his subject. Hard to be sure:

Most Americans seem to regard as the only searing economic injustice the violation of their constitutional right — surely it is in the Bill of Rights — to cheap gasoline. But Edwards believes attacking poverty can be politically energizing if, by stressing “work, responsibility, family,” the attack “is built around a value system the nation embraces.”

What? After reading this a few times, I really don’t know what to say. The first sentence seems to be mocking Americans who are upset that gasoline prices are going up. The second sentence makes Edwards sound totally right–who doesn’t want to fight poverty by promoting “work, responsibility, and family?” But the million-dollar question is: why are these thoughts related? Why does Will think that this constitutes a coherent paragraph? The world may never know.

After the incoherence, the offense:

The new paradigm is of behavior-driven poverty that results from individuals’ nonmaterial deficits. It results from a scarcity of certain habits and mores — punctuality, hygiene, industriousness, deferral of gratification, etc. — that are not developed in disorganized homes.

Edwards, who does not recognize the name James Q. Wilson, may have missed this paradigm shift. Many people in public life, and almost all those with presidential ambitions, are too busy for the study and reflection necessary for mastering any subject.

This new poverty paradigm (i.e. the poor are lazy) results, according to Will, from “spending at least $6.6 trillion on poverty-related programs in the four decades since President Johnson declared the ‘war on poverty’.” I hypothesize a different possible explanation: Will is the one who lacks the necessary mastery of this subject, and Edwards, who has spent a great deal of time and effort acquainting himself with the realities of poverty in this country, understands that every American can and should be lifted out of poverty. Rather than blaming the victim, and making ridiculous generalizations that adumbrate–dare I say it–somewhat racist sentiments, Edwards is trying to make a difference.

Of course, the column wouldn’t be complete without a final incomprehensible graf:

But the idea that the candidate’s persona is primary and that issues are secondary is a mistake made by some Democrats who yearn for another John Kennedy. He was a talented but quite traditional politician whom many Democrats wrongly remember as proving that charisma trumps substantive politics. Edwards, who has been called Kennedyesque, has a stake in that yearning.

George W. Bush is the ultimate “character-driven” President, so I think Will is pretty overtly wrong here. Wrong, that is, insofar as I can decipher any particular rational thought at all.

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