To me, the most distasteful prejudice of thought is a condescending attitude. Applied to politics and policy, condescension is an infection that enables a subtle and perverse racism, jingoism, and elitism. Once, this arrogant habit was referred to as the “white man’s burden.” Today, it threatens to become known as run-of-the-mill liberalism.
A friendly, well-meaning, and intelligent acquaintance approached me this morning while I was eating my breakfast in the hotel restaurant. He asked about the book I was reading, “Nothing to Envy,” by Barbara Demick. In the book Demick meticulously re-creates the stories of a few ordinary people in contemporary North Korea. From interviews with escapees from that police state, Demick offers a glimpse into everyday life for a few regular North Koreans. I explained this to my friend.
The literature of totalitarianism interested my breakfast guest. He studied Russian history in college and was familiar with Solzhenitsyn and others. It is a grim reality, he noted, but quickly added that he thought democracy just was not for everyone. Though that may be correct it does not necessarily follow that totalitarianism is the only alternative. Besides, I avowed, no one wants to or deserves to live under the thumb of a murderous autocrat. He disagreed. It is his contention that some people prefer to live under a “strong hand.” That struck my ear as euphemism for “iron fist.”
We have all heard this argument before. These peoples “lack the political culture” for something different, or those people “have a history” of strong-man hierarchies. It all boils down to a patronizing belief that some people just cannot handle something I/we manage every day.
This condescending undercurrent is prevalent amid modern liberalism. I have heard it too often.
The best example is Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” where Frank writes (from his Washington D.C. office) that the dumb rubes of middle America have been bamboozled by Republicans into voting against their self-interest. Personally, I consistently encountered liberal patronizing when I was promoting school choice issues. In my experience, it was well-educated White elites who explained that poor ignorant urban populations could not be trusted to make complex choices on behalf of their own children. As Hilary Clinton said, “It Takes a Village” to raise a child, by which she meant that it takes a government to tell a parent how to mold a child. Our current President seems to be suffering under an advanced stage of this disease.
The Korean example is a perfect battering ram to smash this condescending liberalism. The Koreans (North and South) are the most homogenous people on the planet. For well more than a thousand years there was only one Korea. Then, through the failure of the United Nations, the Korean peninsula was artificially divided and two disparate governments installed. The result is conclusive. South Korea is one of the richest, most technologically advanced societies on Earth. North Korea is literally starving to death, and basic amenities, like electricity, are frequently lacking, even in the capital of Pyongyang.
It is true (as I will discuss in a future post) that not everyone treasures freedom. It is my sad conclusion that some people prefer security to freedom and in defiance of Benjamin Franklin, are willing to “trade liberty for some temporary security.” Yet there is no question that people everywhere deserve and want to live peaceful and comfortable lives, to pray to their own Gods, and hold aspirations for their children. I refuse to believe that anyone, anywhere is consigned by history to live according to the whims of another.