“We weren’t supposed to be here,” Kevin Durant told his mother, Wanda Pratt, in front of his teammates, friends and teary-eyed cameramen. “You made us believe, you kept us off the street, put clothes on our backs, food on the table. When you didn’t eat, you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry, you sacrificed for us. You’re the real MVP.”
It was the most memorable moment from a truly remarkable speech Tuesday night, as Durant accepted his award for being the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2014. He spoke for half an hour without notes and there was hardly a dry eye in the building. Commentators always remark on Durant’s incredible humility (which is almost spooky to see in such a spectacular athlete), and it was certainly on display here. Having succeeded at a level that would be thrilling for any person alive, Durant couldn’t stop handing over the credit.
He doesn’t appear to have a bitter or resentful bone in his body and that’s why we should take particular notice of his most haunting line, which he repeated twice: We weren’t supposed to be here. Everyone told us we weren’t supposed to be here.
It’s the kind of talk that can make conservatives a little uncomfortable, because it says something about opportunity in America that we don’t quite want to believe. When he says he’s “not supposed to be here,” this isn’t addressed to his team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s not the prelude to a miracle story about recovering from crippling injury. He’s talking about his family, and what it was like to grow up in a poor neighborhood in Washington, DC, under the care of a struggling single mom.
She was 21 when Kevin, her younger son, was born. Her relationship with his father fell apart, so for years she worked multiple low-paying jobs and sacrificed her personal life to give her boys as much time as she possibly could. From the heights of NBA stardom, her son remembers what it felt like to be a presumptive failure from his earliest years. He credits his success to the enormous maternal strength that helped him overcome the crushing feeling that kids like him “weren’t supposed to” succeed in life.
We’re sometimes inclined to dismiss such sentiments (“I had a hard childhood! The world is after me!”) as the product of envy, or as an excuse for laziness. Certainly envy and indolence are real problems in America, which Democrats are happy to feed for electoral reasons. But it would be ridiculous to levy such charges against a man like Durant. He earned almost $18 million this year playing basketball, with another $14 million in endorsements. He has a reputation for being humane and generous, as for example last year when he donated a million dollars to help Oklahoma’s tornado victims. Receiving one of the highest individual awards in American sports, he used his spotlight to shower love and gratitude on practically everyone he knows. He doesn’t have envy issues.
As lovers of excellence and opportunity, therefore, we should bravely face the problem that he highlights. Why do so many kids today grow up feeling that they have no chance? In a sense this really is a problem of “inequality,” though liberals are quite wrong to see it in strictly material terms, as though the poverty of Kevin Durant’s family was somehow a consequence of Warren Buffet’s wealth. Large disparities of income are a healthy part of a prosperous and free society, and the flourishing of a wealthy investor class really ought to spell good news for poor kids from struggling families. And conservatives love “up by the bootstraps” success stories at least as much as liberals do.
Nevertheless, liberals have their finger on something true when they suggest that a large number of Americans feel “locked out” of the American dream. A toxic blend of political, cultural and economic factors have combined to leave us with a substantial contingent of people who honestly feel that the doors of opportunity have been slammed in their faces, perhaps from the moment they were born. By admitting this problem and presenting themselves (however hypocritically) as properly concerned, Democrats have propelled themselves to electoral success. Meanwhile, our ineptitude at shaking the “greedy plutocrat” caricature has spelled electoral failure for Republicans.
That’s not to suggest that conservatives have simply ignored these issues. Quite the contrary. If you look beneath the hood you’ll find that conservatives have quite a lot to say about mobility and the poverty trap, including a range of well-considered suggestions for how we might respond to the problem. Drawing from the work of sociologists like Brad Wilcox, conservatives talk regularly about family structures and the need to build a stronger marriage culture. Economists like Jim Pethokoukis and Scott Winship help us appreciate the real dimensions of income disparity, revealing among other things that while the 1%” canard is mostly just silly (because it’s a constantly fluctuating group), people really do get ‘trapped’ at the bottom in a legacy that, like the curses of Biblical times, can extend down through generations. Pethokoukis also offers solid, concrete suggestions for how we can fight entrenched economic interests and open more opportunities for the struggling poor. Meanwhile, politicians like Mike Lee and Paul Ryan soldier on through obviously-specious accusations of “racism,” promoting policies that might actually be effective at disarming the poverty trap.
Conservatives do care about poverty. We have a whole color-coded portfolio of good ideas for how to tackle it. But if the public is disinclined to believe this, that may sometimes be our own fault.
Conservatives love freedom, personal responsibility and spirited individualism. Those are wonderful (and very American) values that we are right to cherish. But we could perhaps be more discerning at times about choosing our talking points. One side of conservatives’ Lockean, libertarian commitments is the mischievous impulse to counter Dickensian stories of poverty with a bland, “how is this my problem” stare. We get tired of sanctimonious sob stories about kids scrimping for lunch money and elderly people sharing false teeth, so we rebel with smirking dismissals. No conservative I know really believes that generosity and communal support are unimportant, but the public tends not to get the joke.
We lose out, too, by allowing liberals to control the conversation to our detriment. When conservatives argue that (income) inequality is unimportant, they are making a serious and important economic point. But we might make more headway by first joining the end-the-injustice chorus, and then explaining that its dimensions are not what liberals suppose. Contrasting hardships like those Durant described with lurid descriptions of liberal privilege might be an effective way of making this point. There are indeed people in this country who feel that the world owes them, not just a living, but a princely existence filled with mansion homes and luxury cars. Most of those people are liberal Democrats. America should know that.
Size-of-government debates are another area in which we often allow ourselves to be boxed in by liberal talking points. Conservatives don’t really believe that suffering people are always to blame for their own problems, nor are they indifferent to hardship. Often our real point is that personal needs are better addressed by extended family and by civil society. Government is inefficient and not sufficiently discerning about personal situations. Its efforts to relieve suffering too often end up subsidizing vice and eroding more natural support structures. When poverty relief is done privately and locally, it’s more possible to relieve hardship in a way that builds up moral character instead of breaking it down.
Unfortunately, we sometimes run on too long about the evils of the public solution, such that the public has tuned us out by the time we get to the benefits of a well-formed civil society. They conclude that we just don’t plan to do anything about poverty and suffering. On a grassroots level conservatives are often heavily involved in community life (especially in churches), but we don’t advertise this as much as we could. If Americans could see us brimming with eagerness to build a healthy, robust civil society that can bring hope to the suffering and facilitate the common good, they might not notice so much that we don’t want government to be extensively involved in the process.
Just in general, we should recognize that the balance between holding people accountable and showing appropriate sympathy is a delicate one. We love explaining to people why they’re not really victims, but sometimes it might be appropriate to pair that with some recognition of why they think they are. As an example, conservatives did a great job recently of countering the Democrats’ “Paycheck Fairness” legislation by eviscerating the old and tired “wage gap” canard. There were important points to be made about this, which is why I myself joined in the effort. Nevertheless, it’s important to realize that there is a reason why women so easily fall prey to this Democratic pandering. There are many women in this country (particularly single mothers) who feel they are treading water furiously and barely keeping their heads above water. The reasons for that are complex, and “equal pay” legislation won’t remedy them, but we can easily lose ground if we seem ignorant or apathetic about that reality.
Conservatives are at their best and most appealing when they are talking about the goods of family and community, and of the opportunities that a free and fair society can bring to everyone. In that frame of mind we can be simultaneously principled and merciful, upholding personal responsibility without dismissing the reality of the hardships that the poor especially face. We are at our worst and least appealing when we seem sullen and obstructionist, peevish about liberal accusations, and more interested in parrying those complaints than in articulating a vision of our own.
Let’s allow ourselves to be softened a little by moving speeches like Durant’s. If we have confidence in our own principles, and in the efficacy of our own solutions, we shouldn’t have any problem admitting that some kids have it pretty rough nowadays. We should be as assiduous as anyone when it comes to looking for doors that we can open to those people. We should allow ourselves to feel (and show) sympathy for people’s challenging circumstances.
I’m glad you made it, Kevin Durant. You belong where you are, as much as any American ever born.