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Philly Cheesesteaks & Murder:
Kevin D. Williamson’s Big White Ghetto

1,566 words

Kevin D. Williamson
Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Woolly Wilds of the “Real America”
Washington, DC: Regnery, 2020

I suppose the author and publisher meant the title Big White Ghetto (etc.) to be eye-catching and amusing, rather like those humorous travels-in-dystopia books that Joe Queenan and P. J. O’Rourke and Bill Bryson were cranking out some years ago. But it’s not really apt for this collection of essays from the last ten or twelve years, most of them originally published in National Review

There’s little humor and less dystopia. Williamson does do his familiar rounds of down-at-the-heels Appalachia and points west and south, but most of the book is padded out with solemn, in-depth studies of soybean farming, natural-gas fracking, oil refineries, Flat Earth societies, gambling casinos, cannabis in Colorado, murders in Chicago, and Antifa rioters in Portland. As well as takedowns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, two of the author’s bêtes noires

Not to say Williamson doesn’t try to be funny. But he has a heavy hand, a sour attitude, a tin ear for humor. He points and he sneers, but he forgets to wink. He takes us on an excursion to Atlantic City casinos because he wants to talk about the destructiveness of gambling culture and how the casinos in A.C. are surrounded by teeming black slums. But he mainly expresses his disgust for the vile, ungainly golden-agers he sees around him: 

We are the silver horde, and we are descending — on chartered buses, on Chinatown buses, and on the Greyhound “Lucky Streak” express bus we come, on crutches and canes, lapping obesely over the seats of mobility scooters, adjusting oxygen tubes, discreetly nursing Big Gulp cups full of tequila and Pepsi through bendy straws at three in the afternoon, doing serious damage to complimentary troughs of Cheez-Its and Famous Amos cookies. We are getting comped. Free passes to the all-you-can-eat buffet? Whatever. We have our own dedicated train, Amtrak’s Atlantic City Express Service (read: ACES), and we come rolling and thundering down the tracks bearing our Social Security checks, our welfare checks, and quite possibly our rent checks. We are the blue-rinsed, unhinged, diabetic American id on walkers, and we are scratching off lottery tickets the whole way there as we converge from all points on the crime capital of New Jersey — because we are feeling lucky.

That’s the opening of the piece, but he returns to this theme every two or three paragraphs. Disgusting old people on mobility scooters! You can’t flog a dead horse too much.

Such mockery-without-a-moral is the Williamson brand. Perhaps his best-known bit of writing is his early-2016 piece in NR, in which he blames small-town and rural people for their economic woes. Williamson had been having a friendly altercation with his colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty, who had written in The Week about the appeal of Donald Trump for small-town folk, citing an imaginary hard-luck friend in a notional hamlet called Garbutt. Williamson’s self-righteous reply went on for three or four thousand words, ending with the snort: “If you want to live, get out of Garbutt.”

In Big White Ghetto, Williamson amplifies that contempt by relating his own hard-luck story: how he was the illegitimate baby of a teenage mother whom he never met; how he was adopted by a slattern who married four times, sometimes to violent, abusive men who were functionally illiterate. “You know what I learned from all that? Get the fuck out of Garbutt.” 

So there! Williamson is still angry, but he wants you to know that his anger is justified. His thinking goes something like: “I was an abused, unappreciated child, living in the wrong part of the country. I can sneer at the white underclass because I’ve been there.” But has he really? His story lacks telling detail, much in the manner of the vague generalizations in J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. It’s a narrative long on self-pity, short on insight. The kind of thing you weave yourself as a security blanket when you’re a kid. Today at 47, Williamson uses it as a weapon to defend his snotty and cranky opinions. 

You can buy It’s Okay to Be White: The Best of Greg Johnson here.

Like Vance, Williamson worked hard in 2016 to push the disinformation that Donald Trump’s supporters were mainly poor white trash in hollowed-out counties of Appalachia. Of course, Trump swept most counties in 2016 (and 2020), as well as most white demographic groups. He carried Pigeon Forge and he also carried New Canaan. But Williamson is still pushing that “low-class” innuendo, beginning with this book’s title essay. Apropos of nothing, he suddenly announces that the very poor Owsley County, Kentucky went 83.8 percent for Trump. What he leaves out is the actual headcount: a grand total of 1,474 Trump voters in the second-smallest county in the state.

Incidentally, that gratuitous, meaningless statistic did not appear in the original version of the essay (“The White Ghetto” in NR), for the very simple reason that it was written in 2013, a couple of years before the Trump bogeyman took up residence in the Williamson brain. Williamson’s Trump obsession reminds me of Mister Dick in David Copperfield, forever plagued by unwanted visions of King Charles I’s decapitated head. 

Donald Trump pops up in the strangest places, including a truly enjoyable (almost lighthearted) essay called “Death of a Fucking Salesman.” That was what the original cast of the stage play Glengarry Glen Ross called it in 1983, so famously cluttered was it with profanity. But most people know it through the 1992 movie with Al Pacino and Alec Baldwin. Williamson rhapsodizes about those actors, their roles, and their performances. Especially the Baldwin character, who has exactly one scene, but that one scene made him an icon among a certain set of young men. Williamson went to a revival of the play a few years ago. He saw young “finance bros” in the queue, quoting Baldwin’s lines at each other: “Get them to sign on the line which is dotted. Got that, you fucking faggots?” 

But here’s the funny thing . . . the Baldwin character wasn’t actually in the stage play! No, David Mamet wrote that scene and character specially for the film, to add star power (Alec Baldwin being very hot just then) and raise production money. So the finance bros watching the play went home disappointed. They didn’t get to hear the magic lines. 

Williamson mulls it all over, this cult of alpha-male wannabes who idolize the toughest, meanest guy on the leaderboard. Then suddenly he remembers Donald Trump . . . and his thinking completely short-circuits. The essay struggles on for another page, coughing up lame Trump takes. “For all his gold-plated toilets, he is at heart that middling junior salesman watching Glengarry Glen Ross and thinking to himself: ‘That’s the man I want to be.’”

As the above suggests, Williamson can be quite readable when he wants to be. He just has to stay away from “triggering” subjects that make him lose it. His coverage of the West Texas oil industry and Pennsylvania fracking are the most dispassionate and informative treatments of those subjects I’ve ever read. Like John McPhee of the New Yorker, who specialized in things like 20,000-word articles on the history of wheat, he can maintain the reader’s interest for a long ride through dull territory.

Otherwise, he has a fatal weakness for the glib phrase, the trite factoid, the unfunny joke. The late Sam Francis had “loopy, crackpot, racist ideas,” and so does Trump. (Williamson gets his opinions on Sam Francis third-hand, needless to say.) Writing about the “alt-right” five years ago, he dumbs it all down to the Betsy Woodruff level. For example, this “alt-right” thing has its own “special lingo,” such as “normies.” Richard Spencer is “the slickest and most notorious racist in American public life since David Duke.” (Not since Sam Francis?) Or: “Cathedral” is “a favorite name of the so-called alt-right for the ‘distributed conspiracy’ (in the words of Curtis Yarvin, a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug) that might in less riled-up times be described as ‘polite society’ . . .” 

This boy is very confused.

Investigating the chaos and squalor of Black-Run Philadelphia, he opens his article with the snappy line “Philly is famous for two things: cheesesteaks and murder.” Not soft pretzels and the Liberty Bell? Franklin Institute and Betsy Ross House? This is Williamson at his worst, tossing off what he thinks is a witty line that just reveals his shallowness and ignorance. Outside the ethnic enclave of South Philadelphia, cheesesteaks have been around about as long as the World Wide Web. As for “murder,” Philadelphia was the most sedate of cities until racial violence arose in the 1960s and 70s. The crime problem is simply a negro problem, but Williamson prefers to suggest Philadelphia’s decline has to do with tax abatements and empty skyscrapers. 

But what can you expect from someone who thinks that cheesesteaks have been around since William Penn?

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  1. Weave
    Posted January 27, 2021 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Just from this small sampling I have my doubts anything from Williamson has ever been “quite readable.” Instead, I think he is just a middling J-School graduate writing his unfunny and unkind slop, and thinking to himself that he is just so very clever. I do take some pleasure, however, in how deeply unhappy and envious he seems. That comes across quite clearly.

  2. James O'Meara
    Posted January 27, 2021 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    An excellent review, of what would appear to be a truly terrible book.

    As for Baldwin, one can’t help but note that he is now mainly known for his Trump impersonations on SNL (although he’s also the radio “voice” of the New York Philharmonic). I think they were grooming him to be the next Sean Connery. The failure of The Shadow probably sank his career, which is a shame, since the Shadow is one of the few “superheroes” who doesn’t wear a ridiculous outfit, just a slouch hat. There are YouTube genres like “Black guy listens to Led Zeppelin” or “Millennial couple watches Fargo for first time” and if the movie is Beetlejuice there’s always a point where someone says “Wait a second, is that Alec Baldwin?” in amazement.

    Finally, back in the days of “message boards” I recall someone claiming they had worked for a business where the boss used Baldwin’s rant as an actual motivational film. “Go and do likewise gentlemen.” As for the finance boys, I recall Arthur Miller saying that at the premiere of Death of a Salesman, he overheard two salesmen, one saying “I always said that New England territory was no damn good,”

    • Weave
      Posted January 27, 2021 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      I have personally sat through two separate motivational sales meetings where they have shown the Baldwin clip and I absolutely get why. Sales is not for the weak-kneed.

    • margot metroland
      Posted January 29, 2021 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      Eight or nine years ago I took a coworker to lunch at the bar at P.J. Clarke’s (not the real one but the one that used to be O’Neal’s Baloon). And there right next to us, or two stools down, was old Alec. My friend breathlessly told his wife, who didn’t believe him. He’s one of the most ubiquitous and spottable people in Manhattan, right up there with Jackie Mason. Took a train down from some Upstate track meet, and Alec was right there in my car, peeling off at 125th St. But what I’ve really wanted to say to him, is Why did you let yourself go like that, and why did you trash your career? For a brief shining instant he was the new Harrison Ford. But you couldn’t insert Harrison Ford into the middle of Glengarry Glen Ross.

  3. Ray Caruso
    Posted January 27, 2021 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Kevin Williamson feels superior by pouring hatred on other Whites. That’s despicable coming from a self-described liberal, but it’s worse coming from a pretend “conservative”.

  4. Alexandra O.
    Posted January 27, 2021 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    The Bell Curve has indeed left us with some misfits, but before we point fingers, think back through your own life at some real screw-ups you’ve been involved in, despite your Ivy League Ph.Ds. I can tell you, I sure have my share — “I coulda been somebody!’ Let’s figure out some charitable foundation we can create that will help get them back on track, and get us laudatory kudos from the Left for our “Charitable Intentions Toward Helping the Poor”, while admitting quite a few more Whites to our ‘identity-aware’ ranks.

  5. blake121666
    Posted January 27, 2021 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    Philly cheesesteaks have been popular in Baltimore my whole life and I was born in 1966. So their popularity went beyond just South Philly- although Baltimore and Philly are close both geographically and culturally.

    The product “Steak-umm” was marketed starting in 1968 for the purpose of making Philly cheesesteaks at home. And I definitely remember me using that to make Philly cheesesteaks in the early ’70s.

    • margot metroland
      Posted January 28, 2021 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

      Ha ha ha. I was taking a risk there, suggesting cheesesteaks went wide around the time of the World Wide Web. But I did a newspaper search, and cheesesteaks suddenly appear as a frequent news or ad item in the 1980s. So I wasn’t terribly far off. In the 90s the phrase “Philly Cheesesteak” starts to be seen, like it’s something regular people ate in the Philadelphia area. They didn’t. I grew up in the Delaware Valley and I never saw cheesesteaks in the 60s or 70s. Hoagies, ugh, yes. People had steak sandwiches, sure, and putting melted cheese on top of minute steak does not require the culinary imagination of Henri Soulé, so there were undoubtedly cheesesteak sandwiches in many places.

      But the notion of a “Philly Cheesesteak” being a local specialty, like lobster rolls in Maine, is a modern invention, and that’s what I was ragging on Williamson for. A couple of Italian delis in South Philadelphia had them decades ago, but most people in the city and region didn’t go to South Philadelphia, any more than they went to the Navy Yard. Cheesesteaks might as well have been on the moon.

      Thank you for riding along with my quirky pedantry.

      • blake121666
        Posted January 29, 2021 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I think you are correct on second thought. I definitely made steak sandwiches with cheese, bell peppers, and onions as a very young man in the ’70s but the term “Philly cheesesteak” didn’t become popular until about the ’90s as you say. I think at that time in the early ’70s the term “Philly cheesesteak” was more a vague understanding of sliced beef sandwiches being made in south Philly.

        I agree with your beef about citing such things as being what Philly is known for. Philly is of course most famous for the period around the revolution: Continental Congress (the first one being around me at Annapolis fyi – but the Philadelphia congresses are of course the best known), Liberty Bell, … etc. And even the art museum steps that Rocky ran up, lol! Even Bookbinders is better known than Philly cheesesteaks.

        It sounds like you must have grown up around where Washington crossed the Delaware – around the Yuengling brewery in Pottsville. Did you use Rapa or Habbersett scrapple at breakfast, lol! I wasn’t even aware that Habbersett was more popular until about 15 years ago. MD and DE are Rapa territory!

        • blake121666
          Posted January 29, 2021 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

          I only now looked up my Annapolis Continental Congress statement and I see I was wrong about that – Philly was first. I coulda sworn Annapolis was the first something or other during the Revolution. First seat of government or something or other?

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