Tag Archives: american culture

On Class Divides

9 Aug

Not many people have many nice things to say about the state of our current presidential campaign. But even rotting trees can bear fruits, however, and the Trump candidacy in particular has inspired a rush of quality analysis on people who have had a rough time in an often post-industrial economy. Some even pitch this election along class terms, as the people struggling in 2016 America coalesce around a single figure and a well-educated, well-connected, and financially stable upper class tries to figure out what all the fuss is about. It’s not that simple, of course, but it still points to some important realities that are worth talking about.

The relationship between race and poverty tends to get plenty of press, and has been contested politically (whether out in the open or more subtly) throughout the country’s history. Class warfare, on the other hand, has come in spurts, only surging when led by Jacksonians or turn-of-the-century populists and such. It has long been dormant as a national political force, most likely due to a Cold War consensus that rejected anything that smelled of Marx and claimed it was possible to rise up via hard work, a free market, and some basic supports from the government such as public education, taxation policy friendly to homeownership, and a small safety net. And for the second half of the twentieth century, that was more or less true.

Revolutionary Marxism is fading into history now, and few people seriously believe many of its tenets: most notably, history disproved the idea of a united proletariat. But the people on the bottom half of the socioeconomic ladder haven’t gone anywhere, and with overwhelming evidence showing greater separation between the top and the bottom, the class lines are hardening again. There has been a rise of a vague, white underclass. People have been putting out books on this rough topic for some time now, but the pace has accelerated this year, and has culminated in some provocative recent titles, including White Trash by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. (The Atlantic reviews both here; the interview with Vance that made the book go viral is here.) The lament is clear: there’s an entire class of people, from the rural South to Appalachia to working-class suburbs, that has mostly been ignored or scorned by the upper classes, and this is starting to come home to roost politically. It also hits home for a northern Minnesotan; while nowhere as extreme as in Appalachia, there are headlines about counties scrambling to combat heroin abuse, and the region caucused for Trump, while the wealthier Republicans of the Twin Cities gave Marco Rubio his lone win of the primary season. Something is clearly happening here.

The Atlantic piece makes an important distinction: tossing anyone who’s white and doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree (or even those with bachelor’s degrees in non-prestige positions) in one big group is going to hide a lot. In fact, it feels like a group that elites might use to denote “white people who are not like me.” This blind lumping of all flyover country white people has led some on the left to accuse poor white people of voting against their economic interests. This misreads the electorate: for the most part, the stereotypical Appalachian doesn’t vote. It’s their neighbors who do who are the core Trump supporters: the people who are managing to get by in these places, as teachers or policemen or in whatever remaining factory jobs there are. Surrounded by people whose lives are going down the tubes, these relative success stories want to pull up the drawbridge to protect themselves and their families from the depravity around them. As people who have made it, they don’t want their hard-earned tax money going to the deadbeat down the street. Middle America is a nuanced place filled with its own networks class distinctions, sometimes more subtle but no less real than on the coasts.

Trump’s appeal goes beyond class, though, and the emergence of a more distinct class divide goes far beyond Trump. The media is now filled with people decrying elites (many of them elites themselves), and the Democrats faced their own sustained anti-establishment insurgency through the primary season. No one can really agree on what the establishment is (Finance? Big government? People with PhDs? Any rich person?), but it sure makes for a convenient bogeyman. Suddenly, longstanding divides are becoming realms of political conflict.

It’s so easy to resort to these generalizations because class is so highly fluid, and we can plausibly accuse most people of being part of some class we don’t like. In 26 short years, I’ve had moments where I’ve felt near the top and toward the bottom. Most people also don’t have a very good appreciation for where they land on this spectrum; even as a very self-aware person, it was easy to think I was “poor” in a place like Georgetown. (In relative terms, sure; in absolute terms, not at all.) For someone in poverty, a 15-dollar-an-hour wage seems like a ticket to the middle class. A couple making over $100,000—successful, clearly, but possible with two jobs that aren’t exceptionally high-paying—is already in the top 25 percent of households. In fact, median household income lands at around $51,000, so a full half of American households are earning less than that. Yet most upper middle class kids—generally, the people I’ve been surrounded by throughout my life—think they come from somewhere much closer to the middle, and for some, there’s a genuine anxiety in needing to preserve some sort of status. People are constantly struggling with ideas of class, and it’s not hard to come to resent a more successful group or fear a less successful one.

Education can prove just as much a source of class as income, as I can well attest as the kid of two parents who have never brought home huge paychecks, but both have advanced degrees: my path to Georgetown felt as natural as it must for children of far greater means. Seven in ten Americans don’t have bachelor’s degrees; one doesn’t need a degree from an elite school to get a credential that separates oneself from over half the country. For graduates of high schools from which the vast majority of graduates go to college, this may seem baffling, but that just goes to show what a different world such high schools are in comparted to the ones where people don’t follow these roads. My new master’s degree puts me in the ten percent of the country that has an advanced degree, and I expect I’ll end up in what others might label the “upper middle class” in some way or another, whether I like it or not. The paths set before people can make alternatives difficult to fathom.

And then, of course, there are less tangible ways to signal status, such as clothing and comportment and spending habits. One can now create an illusion of wealth by buying and acting in certain ways, and on the other side of the coin, there are the bohemians for whom scorn of such status symbols is a status symbol in and of itself. The conformity of hipster non-conformity is its own little subculture with its own set of rules now. The “upper class” is just as complicated and diverse as the lower class, as it tends to include anyone from financiers to professors to celebrities to people who just work boring but well-paying jobs. Some think class comes with certain codes of conduct; others use the benefits of class to act as they please.

There are so many gradations, and so many different ways to signal class, that any effort to draw clear lines is probably doomed. Likewise with class-based political action: critical masses of people just don’t usually define themselves by identities that are this fluid, this capable of changing with time. But as those lines grow less flexible, these identities can harden, and the contour emerging in this presidential race will probably only grow with time. Visible voting blocs need not win to have influence, and even if Trump goes down in flames, it’s not hard to imagine a more polished populist successfully stoking this newly visible class divide.

I’m not totally opposed to such a campaign. Elites ignore the masses at their peril, and while stratification is unavoidable in complex economies, those on top need to do everything in their power to stay in touch with the rest. Class consciousness creates a necessary dialogue, and could perhaps yet lead to sensible policy outcomes. But it also comes with inherent risks and threatens to expose deeper divides, and the rhetoric of class warfare (from all sides) isn’t always conducive to a stable republic. The growing divide compels people who care about the American body politic—particularly those with greater means to do so—to keep a pulse on both and to cycle in and out, comfortable in both chic restaurants and dive bars, in the box seats or in the bleachers.

America’s classless history may be a myth, but that need not lead us to assume battle lines. Even if we do, they likely won’t last, given the messiness of it all. Class distinctions can help us understand a society, but we shouldn’t mistake them for reality. Yes, money and credentials can take a person far in life. But they are still no substitute for virtue, and we cannot reduce people to what they earn, where they’ve gone to school, or the signals they send. If all we can see are divisions, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves in a fragmented state.

Road Trip Journal I: Minneapolis to Salt Lake City

24 Jun

(Preview post)

Day One: The All-American Road

My friend and I are on our way, ready to discover what we can of a country across two weeks. The trip begins with a gentle wind down the Minnesota River, through small towns whose names I know but which I’ve never seen. For the most part, they’re well-appointed, and we don’t pause to ponder them. We’ve seen a few Minnesota farms in our lives, and we’ll see more again before this trip is up. We plow on beneath a low sky, pick up I-90 in Worthington, and have lunch alongside a cornfield just past Sioux Falls.

In South Dakota, the twin ribbons of road undulate over rolling hills, slowly but steadily rising upward. One of the few pauses comes at the Missouri River, here wide enough to be a lake, and with an unnatural, greenish tinge. In time, the Badlands appear, the green grass falling away in cliffs and along buttes with such precision that it looks like they’ve been mined out of the plain. Ten thousand signs alert us to the presence of the Corn Palace and Wall Drug (we skip both), but just one sign gives any indication of the Pine Ridge reservation, which we skirt past. Just beyond these kitschy frontier towns lies one of the most destitute corners of America, a desolate and poverty-stricken zone where the future is as bleak as in any inner city. Drive down this highway, however, and you’d probably never know. Aircraft and helicopters buzz over us at the Ellsworth Air Force Base just outside of Rapid City, and after a bypass around the largest outpost in western South Dakota, we come to the Black Hills.

We climb into the hills, made dark by their scores of ponderosa pines. My first recollection, curiously enough, is of the Mexican highlands: dry pine forests, crowded winding roads, and an endless string of attempts at tourist attractions the entire way. These let up some when we enter the national forest, but there’s still a steady stream of them intermingled with signs warning us of bighorn sheep. Many of the attractions seem frozen in a different time to a couple of urbane city kids, but the culture that produced these roadside curiosities is alive and well beyond our limited cosmopolitan world. We eat it all up, too.


We pitch our tent a short ways north of the main highway. Home for the night is the Sheridan Lake South National Forest Campground, just north of Hill City. It sits among the pines along a small lake, and its whispering breezes evoke the Boundary Waters for us Minnesotans, though the RVs just down the way are a new wrinkle. We set up our tent and head into Hill City for dinner. We pass a series of wineries; we’ll have time for wine later. Instead, we end up on its Old West main drag, and we dodge motorcycles (Sturgis is just north of here) for dinner at the Bumpin’ Buffalo, which has a fairly empty deck with a view of the town. Further underscoring the Mexican instinct, we’re serenaded by the cowboys singing about cerveza in mediocre Spanish at the Mangy Moose across the way. Satisfied, it’s on to Mount Rushmore.

We come at the mountain from the south, and get a profile view of George Washington before coming around to fork over a heap of cash to the National Park Service for the privilege to park. We head up an avenue of flags and concrete arches to behold the quartet of presidents, all gazing over the valley below. Rushmore is so legendary that it seems almost small to me upon first sight, but even from our considerable distance, it’s a marvel of sculpture and ambition. I now appreciate its remoteness, and what Gutzon Borglum and company went through to sculpt this into being. The site museum adds some background, and the short walk back out passes some six thousand or so boy scouts. Bruce Springsteen serenades us as we drive away.


We swing south through the Hills toward the Crazy Horse memorial, still very much a work in progress; at $11 a person, we sheepishly snap a photo from a distance and instead drive on for a loop around Custer State Park. We work our way back up the Needles Highway, a narrow, sometimes precarious stretch of road that winds endlessly through the hills at a painstaking pace. Before long, however, we’re rewarded: the road climbs up into a forest of stone towers, culminating in the Cathedral Spires that support the ceiling of these hills. The view extends all the way back to the plain from which we came, the Badlands now illuminated in setting sun. The golden glow catches the top of the spires, and after every turn we’re compelled to stop again and jump out for another look. We inch through a few one-way tunnels, one of which is blocked up by some sheep; a whole herd of them dances down the mountainside, and we get a moment to admire their scraggly, shedding winter coats.


It’s nearly dark by the time we’re back in camp, and we linger down by the water for a little while before we crash. The stars, no doubt, were pristine, but in midsummer the sunlight lingers until late, and between our exhaustion and a rising moon, we have no real chance to gaze upward. Day one is done, a complete rush into a West that, while still vast an empty and hauntingly beautiful, is no frontier. It’s now an attraction, with Custer and Crazy Horse, those best of old friends, together on road signs, directing us onward to the next attraction. The Black Hills are the ultimate road trip destination for a car-loving country, distinctly American in so many ways. Yes, it has a side to it that produces t-shirts of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump together on a Harley, but it also brings forth a simpler era and nostalgia for a family on the road together, off to see beauty and building some memory they’ll always have. A fitting start to our journey.

Day Two: Dispatch from Deseret

We’re on the road early again the next morning, passing back through the Black Hills before coming into the high plains of Wyoming. The Equality State (so called for its early provision of women’s suffrage) is, for much of its expanse, a vast tract of nothingness, and we spend the majority of our day traversing it. It starts out as high plains, with ranches here and there. We cruise down the desolate federal highways, the towns rarely more than highway junctions. It’s nothing but space, and I have newfound respect for the old natives who called it home and the settlers who crossed it without asphalt and air conditioning.


The road southwest from Casper offers a little more scenery. State Highway 220 travels down a valley with the North Platte River at its start, weaving along the longest expanse of water we’ve seen since the Missouri. We have lunch at Independence Rock, the halfway point on the Oregon Trail, still covered in pioneer graffiti and evoking memories of cholera outbreaks in the old computer game. In time, we come to I-80, which for a stretch is even duller: gone are the layer cakes of colored rock, and we’re left with steady marches of empty green hills. A sudden squall beyond the Red Desert slows the endless convoys of trucks, and the downpour washes away the graveyard of bug guts on our windshield. We pass a few more vaguely familiar Oregon Trail locales: the Green River, Fort Bridger. To the south, the Uintas rise, their whitish peaks perhaps still bearing some snow. The land grows slowly greener, and we understand why the Mormons, in exodus on this very route a century and a half before, thought they might finally come to a promised land.

The engine protests some as we push up and down passes through the Wastach Mountains and snake past the ski slopes of Park City. After a twenty-mile descent, we’re in Salt Lake, our largest city since Minneapolis, suddenly teeming with late rush hour life. We check in at an Airbnb in the suburb of Bountiful, whose chief bounty is a neighboring oil refinery. Our host, a jovial Mormon ready with suggestions, tells us we can catch a Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearsal in Temple Square. Intrigued, we head back into the city, though we’re distracted by the stunning state capitol first. Other capitols can match its size and grandeur, but few can equal its commanding position on a hill over the city, and its white-and-grey marble has a pristine quality absent from the sandier stone in the Midwest.


We hike down the hill to Temple Square. It’s in the upper 90s, but dry enough that it feels nowhere near so hot. The Latter-Day Saints have built themselves a lush marvel of a plaza, and we slowly approach the temple along fountain-lined promenades, the archangel Moroni beckoning us in. Mormon elders are on hand to explain some history, and direct us to the concert hall, which is so overcrowded that a line has formed, and the coordination of the line leaves something to be desired. After a wait, we make it in and catch a few songs from the choir. They’re brilliant, as we’d expect, even amid the din of bored children and cell phones. When we emerge, the line for this mere rehearsal is wrapping around the square. Nonbelievers aren’t allowed inside the Mormon temples (of which there are just 50 or so worldwide), but a visitor’s center gives a few glimpses of the events inside. Famished, we leave the complex and past a statue of a perplexed Brigham Young gesturing toward the Zions Bank tower across the street.


Salt Lake is built on the vast scale of cities of the West, with streets the width of eastern freeways and a rigid grid of numbered streets. Still, the space allows for innovation: there are bike lanes, a new light rail, and a fleet of pedicabs scurrying around downtown. It seems clean and orderly, as the LDS capital should be. Still, Salt Lake is surprisingly non-Mormon for Utah; many of its establishments could be anywhere, and we find a bustling brew pub to our liking for dinner. Day two closes with further examination of the Mormon faith, and a fair amount of respect on my part: they’ve built a remarkably strong institution that supports a distinctive way of life, but yet their integration with everyone around them remains impressive. Others who are in this world but aspire to ends beyond it have something to learn from the Latter-Day Saints, whatever we may think of their theology and nametags.

For now, though, it’s far too late already, and the wastes of Nevada await tomorrow. Onward to San Francisco.

(Part II)

A Fractured Vision for a Fractured Nation

1 Jun

Book Review: The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism by Yuval Levin

I have a certain fascination with books about American decline. It’s part a case of morbid curiosity, and part genuine concerns about such excitement as declining civic institutions, lack of trust, segregation by race and ethnicity leading to new battle lines…the list goes on. It’s not difficult to drift this way given the current political climate, even as I try to stay critical of it all. Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism hits all these notes, so I made sure to snap up a copy right away.

Levin’s book follows in the recent tradition of alarm bells about divergence in American society, a topic that attracts authors both on the left (George Packer, The Unwinding; Robert Putnam, Our Kids) and the right (Charles Murray, Coming Apart). They all share a profound concern for a collapse of national unity and a thinning middle class, and wonder what may come of it. Levin falls on the rightward side of the debate, and fits in with the “reform conservatives,” a group that has mustered some intellectual heft and gets the occasional nod from the likes of Paul Ryan, who (along with Packer) gives the book some plaudits on the dust jacket. To date, however, they’ve had limited electoral success, and very little policy success. (One could almost see the rise of Donald Trump as a sort of cruel joke on them: here is a populist attacking the “establishment” thinking of the left and the right, paying attention to the grievances of Middle America left behind by our current political and economic climate…and yet instead of careful, wonkish solutions with strong philosophical backing, we get their antithesis.)

Levin offers his best insights in his historical analysis, in which he traces the U.S.’s march from its incredible post-World War II cohesion to our increasingly fragmented present state of affairs. Here, he usually avoids an ideological reading and critiques both the left and the right for their sense of nostalgia for varying forms of midcentury political situations that aren’t coming back. The left is still pushing for the same general things it wanted in the 1960s, while the right is stuck in Reagan-land. Levin calls out baby boomers for imposing a false history, as popular readings of the past 60 years map neatly on to boomers’ march through stages of life, from youthful rebellion to in the 60s, settling down in the 80s, and on into a decline into old age in recent years. Weirdly, because the old authorities have faded away, our era of extreme fragmentation doesn’t lead to diverse, new, creative solutions: people just hear what they want to hear, and fall back on the same old canards.

Both left and right can claim some successes since the 60s: the left has tended to win the culture wars, while the right has advanced its economic thought. Levin shows that these wins are two sides of the same coin: in each case, a philosophy of individualism wins out, whereas the collective worldview of leftist economics or cultural conservatism fades away. And the atmosphere that created the prior cohesion, a story of modernization and corporatism and responses to great crises like the Depression and the World Wars, is unique to mid-century America. It’s not coming back, so Levin concedes (too quickly?) that all future policy responses must acknowledge this reality and look to work with it and block only its worst excesses, rather than trying to turn back the clock.

The solution, Levin tells us, lies in the old principle of subsidiarity: the idea that we should find solutions to problems on the smallest practical scale, one that reflects the diversity of human experience. This may sound stupidly obvious, but it’s actually a fairly alien sentiment in modern political discourse, which tends to consider only the individual’s relationship to the nation-state. The left is certainly guilty of this, often viewing anything in the middle as something to be liberated from instead of a potential partner in solutions, and while Levin tries to argue the right offers more fertile ground, his practical evidence for this point proves sparse. Rather than framing it as a conservative philosophy, he could gain more followers by emphasizing the story of human interaction at its core, which can find adherents anywhere and everywhere.

The Fractured Republic faces something of a paradox in its attempt to rebuild the United States by giving the work of doing so to its smaller parts. We’re conditioned to think on a national scale, but if the solutions are frequently sub-national and experimental, how on earth do we come out of that with anything resembling a coherent republic? So often, critics of our federal leviathan take for granted the benefits of a nation-state; for all the flaws in our system, it’s a guarantor of incredible stability and opportunity for growth. If there really is no nation-building project to go along with all of the local work, the outcome may be far more radical than Levin intends. Whether this is a bad thing or not is up for debate.

Levin is a believer in the “laboratory of democracy” theory, where different states and cities try different approaches, and we all learn from one another. I like this method, but to my disappointment, he doesn’t touch on the most glaring criticism: experimental policy runs the risk of turning people into lab rats, and may underestimate the power of inertia in the failed experiments. Take charter schools, for example, which Levin tosses out as an unquestionably good idea: yes, some are very successful, but others are not, and empowering them consigns kids to failing schools, with potentially long-lasting damage. Is that worth the cost, and how do we hold the failures accountable? The public school system obviously can fail to do this also, but at least here we know how to navigate the bureaucracy, and all the data are readily available. If this is a laboratory, who’s running the experiment?

The worldview Levin draws from to build his case is one I know well. From Tocqueville to Nisbet, I spent a lot of time swimming in these waters when I went looking for a philosophical backstory for my shifting beliefs as I wrapped up my time at Georgetown and headed home. With some nuances, I still think this is a valuable place, and one that needs a much louder voice in contemporary America. It provides both as a realm to build close ties with people and build toward a vision of what a strong community looks like, and, as events warrant, as a place to pull back and build defenses against a wider threat of collapse.

Reading Levin, however, I found myself more on guard than ever before about this milieu. I need to make sure that my discussions of the “human scale” don’t replace one fetishizing ideology with another, and that my own nostalgia for the community I grew up in—one whose ability to provide options for everyone, I fear, is fraying, even less than a decade out of high school—does not cloud my judgment over how to order things wherever I end up. In tearing down Levin’s creative solutions to partisan gridlock, I run some risk of simply being the great defender of the status quo, too skeptical of the alternatives to trust any of them. But there are still a lot of lingering questions about our faith in local ties and altruism to really offer something profoundly different from the vicious cynicism of national politics.

A Fractured Republic offers a compelling history, but remains a bit too mired in that history, and a bit too vague on the details, to offer up a compelling vision going forward. I think that vision exists, and it has a lot to learn from Levin and his fellow travelers, but no one has quite written that book yet.

American Dream, American Reality

15 Jul

What to do with the American Dream? On the Fourth of July I busted out the red, white, and blue attire, not out of irony, nor to follow a herd of over-the-top ‘Murica bravado that seems to think wearing certain clothing is a sign of patriotic superiority. No, it was an honest statement of belief: for everything this country gets wrong, it’s an exceptional place to be.

As I’ve written before, I’m both deeply committed to the Dream and an unapologetic critic of what it tries to do. My loyalty is conservative in nature: I’m unable to come up with any more plausible ordering principle for a society short of a fanciful revolution, and we all know how that worked out for those who tried it in the 20th century. It has withstood the demise of most competing ideologies, and it helps unite a giant, disparate nation. It taps into some fundamental aspect of the human psyche, and even when the revolts are abortive, its spirit can be found from Havel to Bolívar, from Tiananmen to Tahrir.

In a Mexican park back in 2010, I released myself from any obligation to a sense of political destiny. Ever since, I’ve oscillated between rallying cries for the Dream and building a bunker to guard myself against its impending doom. I wonder if and when its real weaknesses will come out into the open and doom the project, and what will happen in the aftermath. The question of our times is whether this abstract dream is enough to keep a nation united and strong. It’s supple enough to deal with changes over time, but runs a risk of vagueness and hypocrisy, should the Dream ever sour. It’s both human destiny and a sure disaster, a center broad enough that can unite the spectrum behind a governing vision or send it all into chaos as it narrows political reality into a stultifying elite class.

These questions became real during my final two years at Georgetown, a surefire incubator of the American elite. It’s not quite Harvard Law, and there are plenty of Hoyas who take roads less traveled, but let there be no doubt: most of its graduates end up on top of the heap, either in politics or business or in institutions that shape culture, from academia to the media. The trouble is that so few people who come out of these places recognize their status, or stop their relentless pursuit of dreams to meditate on what it means to be an elite. Sure, there are efforts to tell people to “check your privilege,” but these are often too wrapped up in a left-wing agenda to say much to most of the people involved. Many who are have worked (or been spoon-fed) their way up never really recognize how far they’ve come; others, born into the upper middle class comfort of those who rose up in a previous generation, don’t see it for what it is. It just seems natural, and with a dominant culture that emphasizes a comfortable suburban home as the peak of Americana, they don’t realize how out of step their experience is with the national mainstream.

This isn’t to say most of these people take their comfort for granted. Thanks to an uncertain economic climate, they’re understandably fixated on keeping what they’ve got. The upper middle class will defend its status with every weapon at its disposal. (Witness the looming war over enforcement of the Fair Housing Act in the wake of a recent Supreme Court decision.) In fact, they’ll win these wars because they mostly don’t see themselves as an entitled upper class, born to rule; they just see themselves as normal people defending what they’ve earned. And who could blame them? When liberal ideals collide with realities family life, the ideals usually wind up dead.

The superstructure of American politics reflects an underlying post-World War II cultural unity, where a consistent majority conforms to a few cultural touchstones that define what it means to be an American Dreamer. The U.S.’s two-party system, built on this consensus, all but guarantees governance by a meritocratic party of the center. For all the foaming mouths, and some noble exceptions aside, the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties have much more in common with each other than they do with the bases for whom they claim to go to war. On the whole the arc trends leftward, given the cultural power of the media to shift the debate, but the Republican Party’s donor class is all on board, and we have it to thank for the likes of Mitt Romney and John McCain. The unity is clearly political, but even more significantly, it’s cultural. Any vocal opposition comes from libertines and libertarians who may be a bit radical for the center as a whole, but speak the same language and tend to be the vanguard for what may come. As guardians of rights and freedoms, they speak to that Dreamy consensus behind it all.

These powerful Dreams emote freely, play off simple passions and make the most basic ones the foundation of a culture. In a way, this is impressively universal: who doesn’t want to be free? But if the only thing we stand for is some vague cry to freedom with few details beyond, it runs the risk of playing to the lowest common denominator, and of course the cheap buck. Confronted with big questions about why we’re here, we shrug our shoulders and mumble a few platitudes about freedom, the arc of history, and gut instincts for what is right and what is wrong.

The result is a mass culture that reflects the vague morality. I certainly don’t pine for some past age of unquestioned moral absolutes, but most people don’t realize how much agency they now need to carve out a coherent narrative for themselves. Many abdicate on this responsibility, and it’s more than a little amusing how basically everyone, no matter their politics, winds up complaining about the ills of popular culture while sucking it all up anyway. It’s a natural outgrowth of the political, social, and economic world we inhabit, and with such a monolithic underlying morality, it’s a chore to pick good and bad things out of it without blowing up the whole enterprise.

And so people throw up ad hoc, incoherent barriers for themselves and their children, from sex to tolerance of violence to where we do our shopping to the groups of people we commune with. For many this is not a reflective process; one just puts up personal barriers based on family tradition and a few life lessons. Others (here I include my own childhood) play around the fringes, consciously sheltered from mass culture to varying degrees. Those who have a solid counterculture (usually of a religious nature) to fall back on can stay there, but most people, lacking such anchors, will drift back into the center of the stream at varying paces, and with varying qualms. We’re all sellouts, but considering an alternative would be far too radical, far too disruptive of this comfort in which we’ve ensconced ourselves.

Same as it ever was? Perhaps; it’s only right that we have to negotiate many of these things for ourselves, learning as we go. It can be an edifying, educational process. But economic and social trends seem to suggest that the wealthy and well-educated are much better at this than those who are not, and this only leads to increasing divides and discomfort over the proposed paternalistic solutions. There’s also something particular about this modern age, with blurred lines between public and private life and the intrusion of technology into most every facet, that makes healthy separation from the dominant culture that much more difficult.

This reality eats at many talented and thoughtful people, forced to negotiate the schizophrenic relationship between mainstream culture and our ambitions. We want to do great things, but to do so, one has to play on the mainstream playing field—a realm that immediately imposes conformity and chokes off the most daring dreams. Abandon that center and you’re a fringe figure who can only speak for one little area, a provincial afterthought who will generate little more than a cult following. And for all your efforts to convince yourself that you’re not running away, that you’re cultivating something worth keeping here in your own little corner of the world, the center may still come knocking and swallow you up.

It’s an old critique of democracy, one that resonates from Aristotle to Tocqueville to Nietzsche, and it holds up because it works. Democracy requires room for minority rights and clean avenues from the bottom to the top, or else it will calcify into a tyrannical majority, perhaps even totalitarian in its reach. Bread and circuses may amuse the masses for a while, but there’s no escaping the hunger at the heart of human nature that will push people to hunt for something more. Unless we medicate it away with enough drugs, I suppose.

And so we are left with an achingly slow fin de siècle. The continued suburban sort broke down the illusion of a solid white middle class that was the core of the postwar consensus, and an increasingly diverse nation has growing numbers who, quite understandably, find fault in that old ideal. For now, at least, we lack the existential threats that inspired past spurts of national pride; sure, al-Qaeda and its ilk make for a decent foil, but they’re no Nazis or Soviets, and we can go about our business most days without worrying too much about them. American wars, when not fought by drone, are now fought by a professional class of (largely low-to-middle-income) kids who do our unfathomable dirty work and let us sleep at night without a second thought. Atomism triumphs, with everyone retreating to their own little like-minded communities and getting their news only from those who agree. Kiss goodbye any overarching ideals, any inspired movements beyond whatever is fashionable for the pro-liberty vanguard. We are all ants within the leviathan.

It’s a paradox: even as the mass culture swallows all, people find it harder and harder to bridge their gaps. The early field for the presidency in 2016 is a sign of this exhaustion. The frontrunners, two scions of political dynasties, are relics of an old era. Even if they succeed in the short run—if Hillary Clinton gives new meat to a liberal agenda that has lost its fight outside of the courts, or Jeb Bush re-unites the two wings of his party that strain against one another in the image of Ronald Reagan—they are the end of the road. We’re so out of ideas that the most “fresh” voices on either side include an old guard socialist and a real estate mogul who has cast aside the dog whistle for the bullhorn. It’s hard not to argue that they’re the politicians we deserve.

And yet we’ve been here before. “Every time they’ve confronted a great crisis, the United States has examined its conscience. The whole world whacks at it, even at its head…then they change,” writes Octavio Paz. The American meritocracy, for all its imperfections, on the whole fosters steady, healthy cycles of turnover in the ruling class. So long as it continues to function at a reasonable level and people believe it works, there’s no reason to expect a sudden crash.

Maybe I’ll shrug and join the machine, follow this nation toward its destiny, whatever that is. Maybe I’ll deem it all doomed and look to carve out my own, distinct version of the Benedict Option where I can live in peace with those who matter as everything crumbles around me. Most likely I’ll settle for the nuanced view and muddle through, at times working with the Dream, at times pulling back. It’s all a cycle, after all, and no one knows what the endgame will look like. We may not know where we’re going, but we can have some idea how to go about that journey, and we know why we must. Those two little facts make all the difference.

Whatever Happened to the American Dream?

21 Mar

Book Review: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam

For the past twenty years or so, Harvard professor Robert Putnam has been the most prominent scholar studying arguably the most important, and most worrisome, trends in contemporary America: the decline of civil society and the splitting of society along class lines. The point of the title, Putnam argues, is that we’ve stopped thinking of the children all around us as “our” kids; they are now just kids, and the only ones “we” own are the ones we raise ourselves. There is no shared inheritance or duty here, just each of us living out our isolated, atomized lives, caring for no more than our own progeny. For Putnam, the root of this separation in the fates of kids is not exactly income (though that is related, and very important) nor race (still a real issue, but the trends are slowly but steadily equalizing on that front). It’s parents’ education.

I buy this completely. I’ve lived it: I certainly don’t come from money, but I was fortunate to grow up in a very intellectual milieu, and my childhood, while far from idyllic in some respects, has much more in common with that of the privileged kids described in the book than those of the ones who have been left behind. These commonalities cut across race and region and parents’ professions, and they are self-reinforcing. In every case the gap between those who come from “upper-class,” backgrounds and those who do not grows more extreme, illustrated strikingly in “scissors graphs” that show two lines growing further and further apart. Neighborhood integration, most every financial measure, unmarried motherhood, single parenthood, family dinners, parenting time, school class and extracurricular offerings, college degrees, breadth and usefulness of informal networks, obesity rates, religious activity (which traditionally provides a community and a support network), voting…the list goes on and on. We’re splitting apart.

Most of the information here is not really new; the innovation comes in packaging it all together and intertwining the heaps of data with compelling stories. In each chapter, we meet children from well-off backgrounds who illustrate one particular trend (be it in family stability, parenting style, education, or community) and corresponding children with far less happy life stories. Using kids is a superb storytelling innovation, and one designed to draw out readers’ sympathy: we come to realize just how much things are stacked against the less privileged kids in the book, and how powerless we are to stop these trends (if we even accept our roles as that “we”). There is no one root cause, as everything is tied up in knots and feedback loops that are impossible to untangle. Neither the easy liberal narrative (it’s all the economy) nor the easy conservative narrative (it’s all culture and/or individual choices) hold up, though both are certainly true in places. It’s a master class in mixed-methods research for a popular audience, and most everything points toward a coming decline in social mobility: the death of the American Dream.

The book intentionally avoids blaming anyone for these trends, a choice which will no doubt frustrate some commentators, especially those on the left. The portraits of the upper-class people in the book are just as raw, and the fragility of their own lives, while better cushioned than that of some of the less privileged, is all too clear. Our Kids does propose some public policy solutions, most (but not all) trending toward the left: more mentoring, support for community colleges, parent coaching, greater maternal/paternal leave, daycare subsidies, incentives to get good teachers into bad schools, and expansion of the earned-income tax credit or similar programs. There is nothing radically new here, and most of the ideas are possible but not entirely likely in the current political climate. The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore, in her wide-ranging review of the book, makes a very valid critique when she says its desire to influence policy leads an unwillingness to call out institutional factors at play.

Our Kids even includes a rather daring attempt to make a moral case for action against this widening split, citing both a mildly liberal reading of American history and scripture. I’m not sure it’s robust enough to convince anyone who doesn’t already believe it. This might just be a symptom of my own unfortunate habit of always taking everything to the most existential plane possible, but I think it reflects the ambivalent relationship many Americans have with the American Dream, even as we all claim to believe in it. The most religiously devout among us may like the general ideas, but ultimately have a different endgame in mind, and this is where their loyalties lie. Many on the left like the idea in principle, but think the concept is too deeply caught up in some of the less savory aspects of American history, and place their loyalty in other ideals or groups first. The atomized among us, worn down by the very rat race that Dream creates and tired of the shrill voices around them, don’t really care if other people have it so long as they can guarantee it for their kids. By its very nature, the American Dream makes it hard to have time to care about the fates of others.

What’s the future of the American Dream? For all its troubles I’m still a believer, and may well spend my life fighting to make sure it remains reality, since this is the language most people speak. However, we also need a clear-eyed appreciation of its limits: it will never reach everyone perfectly, proffers no salvation, has historical baggage, and the relentless pursuit it implies grinds people down. It’s a sensible organizing principle for a plural society, but it pulls that off because it’s a base common denominator, not a creed for all to share. Moreover, I’m confident that, in a worst-case scenario, I can still carve out a good life for myself even if it does fail. Instead of lamenting the past Paradise Lost of 1950s Port Clinton or even the 2000s east side of Duluth, perhaps it’s time to come up with a more crisp idea of what “we” want for our kids. The wisdom of the past can be a helpful guide, but the language of the American Dream forgets other bits of wisdom that sometimes provide a more robust idea of what the good life truly entails.


As longtime readers know, I think about these questions often in relation to Duluth, because I think its east-west split captures the greater societal split perfectly. And sure enough, Putnam had much the same thought: his research team interviewed people in Duluth for the book. His work on the city got some mention in an August 2013 New York Times column that I blogged about at the time, and used as a basis for some of my points about the east-west tension that will decide Duluth’s fate. Sadly, however, all the Duluth material ended up on the cutting room floor in the final edition.

I’ve contacted Putnam and friends to see if they have any more information on Duluth that I might be able to share, and will pass it along if I do hear back from them. Also, for anyone who notices that line on page 272 that mentions the pseudonymously-named “Tyler in Duluth, whose dad is a college professor and who plays string bass and now studies at a leading Ivy institution” who was interviewed but didn’t make it into the final draft of the book—Georgetown isn’t in the Ivy League, so this is not me, despite the otherwise eerie resemblance. I did reach out to “Tyler” (an acquaintance of mine) for better understanding of the research team’s methods, though, and if the research team ever gets back to me, we can find out if our suspicions about their intent were correct.

A New World Disorder

3 Sep

Let’s take a step back from the Syrian intervention debate for a moment here, play some pop poly sci, and explore what the ongoing crisis means for world politics. Put simply, it could well be the end of the post-Cold War Pax Americana, and a sign of a much more complex world. Of course, some people have been talking about this for a long time. The most famous is probably Fareed Zakaria, who wrote a bestselling book about it five years ago. As early as the mid-1990s, Samuel Huntington was imagining creative new ways in which people might fight each other, absent any Cold War ideological battle lines to separate each other.

The people making these arguments usually framed them against the narrative of the hegemony of liberal democracy and capitalism, made famous by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. It was a great title for grabbing people’s attention, though it also led a lot of people to misunderstand him. We’ll save that argument for some other time and say that, quite simply, things looked pretty good if you were a proponent of liberal democracy and capitalism at the end of the Cold War. The communists were done for, and authoritarians were falling across Europe, Latin America, and even in a few other places. The European Union was taking the next step, NAFTA was in the works, and the Gulf War had shown that no one could really mess with the United States military. In an increasingly interconnected world, there were no obvious alternatives. Sure, there were some angry Muslims out there who weren’t too fond of liberal modernity who might blow a few things up, and yes, democratization would have to come in bumps and lurches in many places. But it was hard to conceive of another ideology that might be applicable to the entire world. The biggest questions were over how to make all that integration happen—would it simply be economic, or political as well?—and how to deal with the people and countries that didn’t take off on the right path right away.

Fast forward to 2003 or so, and the narrative still pretty much applies. Yes, some angry Muslims blew some things up, but the U.S. pursued them into Afghanistan and knocked off their patrons and made its message pretty clear. The rest of the world pretty much had the U.S.’s back. The E.U. had itself some shiny new coins. Democracy was lurching ahead in Latin America and in Africa; only in the Middle East were things not really showing signs of moving in the “right” direction. So the U.S. went in and tried to do something about it.

Ten years later, we know that didn’t work so well. Iraq is no shining beacon of democracy in the Middle East, and if anything, the invasion simply added to the regional instability. Though it did little to truly undermine global capitalism, the financial crisis was very disruptive for the countries that had been bankrolling the march of liberal democracy. This was especially true in the troubled Eurozone, though the United States had its own set of issues, especially as the country in the lonely throne atop the world order. The failures of the Bush Era now evident, Barack Obama was elected to usher in a new foreign policy; two years after that, voters decided they didn’t much care about foreign policy when the economy was still not moving much, and in came the Tea Party—which, whatever else one might say about it, by in large has little interest in the nuances of geopolitics. The global vision seemed to be collapsing in on itself, as everyone was too busy dealing with their own crap to bother with saving other people.

A few months later, though, there was reason for hope again. Finally, the dominoes were beginning to fall in the Middle East: spontaneous, popular protests began to weaken the entrenched autocracies, the most notable being Egypt, a regional power. Killing Osama bin Laden was a nice cherry on top, too. Hey, maybe the dream wasn’t dead after all. When it became clear the popular revolt in Libya was going to need a bit of a nudge to knock off its ugly autocrat, the U.S. and its friends were happy to lend a hand. Once again, freedom was on the march.

Fast forward again, and the hopes of the liberal democrats have again gone unfulfilled. The Libya intervention effectively destabilized Mali. Egypt’s “revolution” now looks more like a series of coups coupled with huge protests, and no one has any idea what the endgame will be there. Perhaps even more significant now, though, is Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has shown he is willing to fight to the death in his own civil war. The worldwide debate over how to respond shows just how troubled the world order is:

-Existing international institutions have no real mechanism to react. There is no way to punish chemical weapons users from some sort of international, objective position up on high. This position does not exist.

-No rising power yet has the power or the interest to lead its own effort, with one—Russia—actively opposing any action. If the world intervenes, it will be the U.S. (maybe with France tagging along) or no one.

-A war-weary portion of the American public—including Rand Paul’s wing of the long-united, pro-intervention Republican Party—has no interest in geopolitical questions, and thinks the U.S. should mind its own business.

-The neoconservatives—John McCain, Lindsey Graham—on the other hand, are obsessed with geopolitics, and want the U.S. to take the lead, knock out Assad, and set the Middle East on a course to peace. Failure to do so, they believe, will embolden the likes of Russia and Iran, and let an evil dictator stay in power. The word they repeat ad nauseam is “credibility.” If the U.S. says it will act and then does not, the American reputation will be tarnished forever, they say. (Of course, they never bother to mention what happens after the U.S. asserts its credibility by lobbing a few bombs at Damascus, unless they want an all-out invasion and occupation.)

-As of this writing, is hard to know what Barack Obama thinks. Has he called for a vote on Syria—something he did not bother to do with Libya—for strictly political reasons? It makes total sense from that perspective, as it exposes the rifts in the Republicans, makes them complicit in the march to war if and when things do go wrong, and gives him an easy out if Congress somehow actually rejects his proposal.

However, I suspect Obama is genuinely conflicted on this, which may be why he’s passing the buck and actually (gasp) following the Constitution instead of attacking at will. On the one hand, he does believe most of what he said back when he gave his Nobel Prize address; good liberal that he is, he wants to believe the world can punish evildoers and those who violate international law, and he knows the U.S. is the only country that can really do that. But this is also a man who ran as someone who’d learned the lessons of Iraq: that it will be difficult not to escalate from a “surgical” first shot, that this will inevitably be seen as taking a side in the conflict, and that a rebel victory could very easily bring hardline Islamists to power, creating a far bigger regional headache than Assad ever was. Given the difficulty of the question, some dithering is understandable; the problem is that the dithering makes him look at best indecisive, and at worst a total cynic.

And so it becomes clear that the new world order is anything but the hegemony of liberal democracy. It hasn’t been a clash of civilizations, a la Huntington: there have been hints of that, and there may be future threats of that, but Huntington’s worry about “Islam’s bloody borders” was misplaced. It was the bloody interior of the Islamic world that would make it all apparent. We’re left with Alawites and Sunnis and Shias and secularists all shooting each other (with Christians as the collateral damage), all tangled up in bizarre webs of alliances. (Here is a helpful chart that makes everything clear.)

This thing shows how laughable it is to imagine an overarching narrative here. Some people might lament lost chances: if only the U.S. had stayed out of Iraq, or gotten it right, or—to take a more hard-line stance—nipped off all of these disruptive Middle Eastern revolts before they upended a stable, if autocratic, region. I don’t buy it. Autocracies never last, and the allure of “freedom” is always there, especially in such an interconnected world. The revolts would have happened, sooner or later. Likewise, the U.S.’s window of dominance is going to end sooner or later: if not because of military defeat, simple demographics make this clear enough. (I’m not saying the U.S. will fall from its spot as the foremost international superpower anytime soon; given my doubts over the stability of autocracies, I think China has far more serious issues than the U.S. does that it will have to deal with sometime down the line. I’m simply saying that U.S. power for international military influence is shrinking, and will probably continue to shrink.)

And so we’re left with our new world order, which, it turns out, is not some sort of march toward destiny (be it of liberal or a communist or a religious variety), but a mess of regimes rising and falling all over the place and dragging people into webs of intrigue worse than my high school love life. It isn’t pretty, but no one can accuse it of being boring, and as horrible as conditions may be in Syria, this is also (by historical standards) a pretty peaceful time. That might last; it might not. Further integration and democratic advance remain a real possibility, probably worth supporting when they do not require extreme exertion. (See Myanmar, for example.)

But that also might not happen, and any student of international politics must understand that, for sanity’s sake. We’re left with a diverse world full of interesting messes, and while this shouldn’t cause us to give up all hope of changing it, we do have to respect its complexity. If that makes us traitors to this America messianic mission of converting the world, then so be it. We are not slaves to the fate of humanity: we are free to carve out our own little communities of contentment and choose only the battles that we cannot avoid or that we know will not consume us. We can only control so much.

Edit: Ross Douthat has come out with a good, measured piece that wrestles with some of these themes.

Realizing Dreams, 50 Years Later

28 Aug

Fifty years ago today, when several hundred thousand people marched on Washington, D.C., I wasn’t anywhere close to the world of the living. I grew up on the whitest end of a town that is over 90% white; questions of race were, by in large, something that happened somewhere else. Imagine my shock when I ventured into The Bronx during a visit to New York late in high school, when my father and I were the only non-black people on a crowded shopping street. It wasn’t fear or discomfort; it was simply recognition of being distinctly different. Perhaps because of that lack of experience with other races, I have never found dialogues on race easy. Indeed, I’ve read that white Northerners can often be cagy to the point of excess when confronted with the topic, and I am probably guilty of that.

Even so, it is hard to think of any Americans who inspired more reverence in my childhood than Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK is ensconced in America’s civic religion, complete with a monument on the National Mall and a statue that, while not without its controversy, does capture his deep, searing eyes. He is as much of a hero as we’re likely to find in American history, and deserves so many of the plaudits he receives. But in the worship of past figures, there is a danger of sanitizing people; of turning them into saintly icons rather than the human beings they were. MLK was a complicated man who stood for many things that went far beyond race.

Fifty years later, where is his dream? It’s hard to say. There have been monumental advances in some fields, and in simple, basic civility. But at the same time, African-Americans lag behind whites in any number of indicators, and some cities look just as segregated as they did fifty years ago. Things are more difficult to measure, however: blatant racism is much less common than it once was, and the forces complicating things are invariably more subtle than Southern segregationists of the 1960s. The public policy initiatives used to combat racial inequality in 2013—affirmative action, forced school desegregation, various education reform plans—tend to be crude tools that oversimplify the problem. Ending the single greatest contributor to systemic racism in the current U.S.—the war on drugs—will come with some serious trade-offs; and while I think the benefits outweigh the costs, the costs do exist, and will have to be confronted in a careful manner, if and when the war is drawn down. Rarely are racial issues as clear-cut and morally obvious as they were in the 1960s. From the Trayvon Martin debate to the case of a local black principal sloppily removed from her job, I struggle to believe the motives at play were as vicious as some claim: too often, they seem to assume the worst in other people, and seek to pass blame—something that does not strike me as terribly MLK-ish. (Admittedly, MLK’s willingness to forgive sets a very high bar, and it probably isn’t realistic to expect most people to meet it. We have to work with the world we live in.)

What we are witnessing here is the collision of American meritocracy with ongoing cycles of poverty and culture that leave African-Americans, as a whole, on unequal footing. King said his dream was “deeply rooted in the American Dream,” but as James Baldwin noted in a famed 1965 debate with Bill Buckley, for all its claims of equal opportunity, the future-oriented American creed is not well-designed to redress lingering legacies of the past. (I say this simply as a statement of fact, not as a call for revolution. I don’t know what a better alternative would look like.) No one encapsulates the tension between the American Dream and the past better than President Obama himself: whatever one may think of the President’s record, it is now clear he never had a prayer of re-orienting the national debate on race. Even though his election was a sign of racial progress and the possibility for anyone to achieve something, it didn’t erase the past. Ross Douthat’s Sunday column points out how the “post-racial” Obama era has seen more questions of race than most other recent administrations, with affirmative action and voting rights and  profiling issues coming back to the fore (to say nothing of the racial alarmism around the President himself). History prevents us from ever getting rid of these questions.

In a sign of the oddness of our times, Douthat’s column went on to argue that both parties have much to gain from a cross-racial coalition of working class Americans who have been left behind by the business and technology interests that are now deeply embedded in the political establishment. Yes, that’s right: the New York Times’ “conservative” columnist is making what is, essentially, a Marxist argument. Across the spectrum, political pundits are trying to find some source of a sustainable majority in American politics. Some have said the Republican Party will be dead unless it can increase its appeal among minorities, and while this is in essence true, I think it is also a horribly reductionist way of thinking. Aligning parties along racial lines is identity politics at its worst, and is not a recipe for societal health for either party.

Still, I’m skeptical of Douthat’s solution. One of the great lessons of the failure of Communism was that uniting the underclass against entrenched interests didn’t work particularly well. I’d be intrigued by populist candidates who try to lead insurgencies on behalf of Middle America, but even if those candidates should start to win, they would find a hostile environment in Washington. Reading some of the retrospectives on the 1963 March, it is astonishing to see how much the nation pulled together for such a display of collective conscience. Perhaps even more striking is trying to imagine that sort of rally in 2013 America, and failing miserably. Sure, there have been marches on Washington (Tea Partiers, Occupiers, and so on), and as a D.C. resident at the time, there was definitely something different about Obama’s election and inauguration. But the election alone was mostly symbolic in nature, and the militant political movements are a far cry from the unity preached by Dr. King and his fellow travelers.

This nation is deeply fragmented, and I’ve written on here with some sympathy for people who worry about this. Whether it’s the result of self-segregation in suburbs, the atomizing effects of technology, or the failures of the political system to inspire much confidence, some parts of this country seem further apart than ever before—a curious fact, considering how much more interconnected things are due to technology. The few forces that can hold things together—popular culture, national news networks, a handful of sporting events—often appeal to the lowest common denominator, and rarely offer us much in the way  of deep insights or patient reflection.

But, rather than bemoan our fate, I’m going to look for some bright spots in this apparent lack of national unity. The failures of the political class may lead people to hate national politics, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into complete alienation: as I’ve said before, politics need not go through formal institutions, and re-focusing on things we actually can affect can be quite gratifying. For the first time in a very long time, the American public is deeply skeptical of embroiling itself in foreign wars; whether due to the excesses of the Bush years or the lack of a real existential threat, that skepticism is a far cry from the blind patriotism behind past American military adventures. From localist liberals to communitarian conservatives, there are growing groups of people who find little to like in the crony capitalism/corporate welfare that has become so prevalent. At some point, they may even realize they have something in common, even if it never coheres into a national movement. Keeping political movements on a smaller scale allows for more nuance and attention to particular cases, rather than trying to slap a one-size-fits-all approach over a wildly diverse country of 300 million.

This doesn’t mean an end of attention to national politics: given the state’s power, it can’t be totally ignored, and there are some problems that can only be solved on a national level. Inertia is a powerful force, and the national media isn’t going to change the narrative anytime soon. It will be hard to limit ambition, and many successful local politicians will heed the call to climb the ladder in search of some “greater” opportunity. Still, the untapped potential in local energy for improving everyone’s lot in life is enormous.

Focusing on the immediate also keeps with a key tradition within the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King’s words in front of the Lincoln Memorial are what we remember most, but so many of the key moments in the Civil Rights Movement took place in towns and cities across the South, carefully coordinated by civic groups and churches confronting an ambivalent or hostile national political scene. We should remember 1963, but better societies do not come about just because some people decided to hold a march, or because of a great speech or two. The important work is far more mundane.

Legality as Morality

29 Jul

A few weeks ago, while writing some less-than-kind words about local businessman Jim Carlson, I used the epithet that he “is the sort of man for whom legality defines morality.” I’ve used that line before in places other than this blog, and I think it deserves a deeper explanation.

At the time, Mr. Carlson was trying to justify his shop’s sales of synthetic marijuana, and claimed that the city of Duluth’s plan to regulate his product amounted to an admission that he hadn’t been doing anything wrong. It isn’t a totally implausible stance, at least to the extent that one considers the law the arbiter of whether something is right or not. Mr. Carlson also has some defenders who don’t necessarily like his product, but fear the city government is being too heavy-handed in its attack on the Last Place on Earth (LPOE); I respect that concern, and the wrongness of Mr. Carlson’s actions does not give his opponents free reign to bring him down by any means they choose.

However, far too often, people such as Mr. Carlson use the law as a shelter from the need to exercise any moral reckoning. If something is legal, the theory goes, then who is anyone to judge them? I suppose it is possible for him to uphold a libertarian form of morality that claims he simply sells what people demand, and that it’s up to them to reap the consequences. And, in a legal sense, this is true: we cannot rob the agency from the people who line up outside of his store to buy his incredibly harmful product. (This isn’t regular marijuana we’re talking about here: it involves countless chemical additives that can be as damaging as cocaine.)

Lost in that worldview, however, is any notion of interconnectivity. Synthetic drug use doesn’t just affect the users. It is a burden for the community on a number of levels, from increasing crime and the need for added police to public health issues to driving away the clientele of neighboring businesses. Drug abuse tears apart families, and it’s not uncommon to see people standing in line at the LPOE with toting children in strollers with them. (Childhood never really jells well with strict libertine arguments.) And with drug manufacturers doing everything in their power to stay ahead of the law by constantly changing the chemical compounds in their product, it is rather obvious that the motive here is the maintenance of legality at all costs. It is a cynical scheme whose only defense appears to be an attack on those who oppose them instead of an attempt to articulate why they do what they do.

Partisans will throw the blame for this loss of moral language in any number of directions. The left will attack the market, and the profit motive that pushes people to forget their morals in the pursuit of cash flow. (Mr. Carlson has made untold millions off his synthetic drugs.) The right will attack individual moral failings and, on a more intellectual plane, the overuse of the language of “rights” in political discourse. We see it around us every day: people religiously defend their right to bear arms, their right to free speech, their right to marry whomever they would like. Many of these rights are hard-won, and emerged out of historical cases of oppression that would seem to justify a legal reaction. Still, the possession of a right does not make it right to exercise it. Amidst our pushes for liberation, it seems that some people have lost track of any sense of prudence. (How often does one even hear words like “prudence” anymore?)

It isn’t surprising, really. Rights have the convenience of being black-or-white: either you have a right or you don’t, and it is spelled out in law. Prudence, on the other hand, requires near-constant discernment, and while other people can influence it, at the end of the day, that burden falls on each individual. Moral agency is a legitimate burden that can—and, really, should—be very difficult to manage. Thankfully, there are some guideposts to fall back on. Maybe this means a religious or communal or familial code; maybe this means a sort of liberal humanism whose precepts you don’t feel the need to question. If you don’t have one of those you feel comfortable with, maybe it means spending your waking hours trying to write through it all in fiction or on a blog when you should be out doing things with your life. (Guilty, your honor.) There’s no guarantee of easy answers, but one can find some measure of peace without too much pain.

This isn’t necessarily an argument against government action—in fact, the LPOE case is a perfect example of one in which a coherent response requires at least some measure of a response from an authority. Clearly, there are cases in which oppression is so overwhelming that it would be naïve to tell people to forget about the laws and get on with living virtuously, and there are many rights worth fighting for. It only becomes a problem when the rights become ends to themselves, instead of means to a broader end; unfortunately, this way of thinking has leached so deeply into contemporary American thought processes that it sometimes seems like people sacrifice their moral agency to the state. This is especially curious given the general wariness of state intervention in so many other spheres of life. Legalism, we might say, emerges from the bizarre civic religion of American freedom: in some circles, the mystique of the Constitution or some other interpretation of the nation’s founding principles seem to have replaced the exercise of moral inquiry.

Assuming legality defines morality isn’t the worst sin on earth. I’d rather live in a society where most people accept legal definitions of morality than one in which there is no morality at all. But forming one’s worldview with respect to what is legal is an impoverished view. On a fundamental level, no one’s moral reason for not doing something should be “because it’s illegal.” (I emphasize the word “moral” here because there are, obviously, practical reasons to do or not do things that have little to do with morality.) In many cases laws are based on perfectly rational precepts that practically no one would dispute, and it’s not worth expending much thought on them. But laws do not bear any moral weight in and of themselves; they simply convey the moral judgment of the governing body that produced them. They can be a starting point for moral thought, but never the end. That task lies with each of us, including Mr. Carlson.

In Which I Wade into the Trayvon Martin Affair

25 Jul

I realize the George Zimmerman trial has been beaten to death in the media over the past few weeks, and that I am rather late to the party. But this blog is, after all, a patient cycle, so I think that gives me some liberty to weigh things over the course of time. So, here are a few bullet points on the whole affair. They are complicated and will probably not satisfy anyone who has a set opinion on the Trayvon Martin saga. I offer them in the spirit of further healthy debate.

-I see no great injustice in the jury’s verdict. They had more evidence at their hands than any of us do, and from what I have seen, we have very little idea of what happened in the few minutes leading up to Martin’s death. I would not be shocked to learn that Zimmerman erred in his conduct, or even to learn that he acted on a racial bias, whether conscious or unconscious. But there seems to be too much ambiguity here to render a guilty verdict, and he is innocent until proven guilty of second-degree murder beyond reasonable doubt. There is plenty of reasonable doubt here. Much as we may want to turn Zimmerman into a cause celébre to highlight the very real ongoing racial tensions in the United States, this case isn’t that black-and-white. (Pun intended. Sorry.)

-I also do not support trying to launch a civil suit against Zimmerman. That strikes me as a vindictive show trial that would give both sides in this debate another opportunity for a lot of shrill self-righteousness while still ignoring the more important underlying debates. Martin’s supporters need to ask themselves this simple question: is their cause best served by an effort to lock up a single man, or is there perhaps some better way to make sure some good comes out of this whole sad affair?

-All of that said, President Obama’s remarks on the whole affair were well-measured and on target, and did constitute a real effort to focus on those more important underlying debates. A few critics tried to attack the President for making such remarks when he had a rather privileged upbringing. This completely misses the point: he has encountered some prejudice—not of a seriously life-limiting sort, clearly, but prejudice nonetheless. Obama lays out an agenda that deserves to be questioned and further explored in future debate, but I also think his words were sincere, and I do not think he did much (in this particular address) to further politicize a tragedy that has already been politicized to the point of excess.

-It is true that a disproportionate amount of crime in this country is committed by African-Americans, and I certainly do not believe their higher incarceration rate is simply the result of white racism. There are very real pathologies of crime and violence and poverty and broken families that afflict many African-American communities in this country, and until they are resolved, the statistics are going to be skewed. However, telling “black people” to go clean up their act isn’t going to do anyone any good. There is no one “black community,” except to the extent that it has been manufactured by people with political agendas (both with the intent to help and hurt the prospects of African-Americans in the United States). Instead, there are many, many communities, some of which happen to include lots of black people. We never hear public cries for wealthy white people to clean up the trailer parks of Appalachia out of racial solidarity, and it is no less absurd to expect middle-class African-Americans to do the same for inner-city ghettoes. Sure, people with certain cultural traits share certain bonds, as our President noted in his remarks, and many people do admirable things for the disadvantaged with whom they share a cultural affinity. But the vast majority of people do not feel the need to act on these identities on a day-to-day basis, and try to get on with their lives, few of which involve heaps of free time to go “save” people one has never met.

Thinking about these things strictly as “black problems” is an impoverished view, and only gets at a tiny bit of the problem. We can argue about whether the solution is economic or moral or some combination of the two, but it is not just racial. Without getting into an argument over causes and effects, the economic destitution of inner cities and the collapse of marriage within those communities are the most powerful forces behind the racial achievement and well-being gaps. And while racism is still a problem, I do wonder if invoking it in all but the most blatant cases really serves a constructive purpose. There is no more charged topic in the U.S. today than race, and nothing is more likely to bring out predictable responses. We all argue for a while, call people racists or counter-racists, and demand more “dialogue,” as if there weren’t already a lot of yelling going on. And then the issue fades from the news, and we go back to the old normal. Perhaps combatting the vestiges of racism requires a little more subtlety; a different mode of dialogue.

-There may not be a single black community, but there is a shared black legacy dating back to slavery. This remains America’s original sin, and I have my doubts about any salvation from it on this earth. By in the large, white Americans (and most non-black minorities as well) do not have a history, so to speak; their identities as Americans are founded upon some version of the American Dream, an embrace of the U.S. for its supposed opportunity while discarding the past. For African-Americans, being an American means something much more complicated, and has given rise to a culture that cannot forget the past. That culture need not be determinative, and I do not doubt that some people invoke this culture for cynical purposes. But it exists, and can’t be wished away. Nor should it: history is a valuable thing, and while it can chain people to the past, it brings with it a wealthy cultural inheritance. Hence, in part, the outsize contributions of African-Americans in a number of artistic realms, from high art to pop culture.

-I haven’t agreed with everything Rod Dreher has written about the case, but this piece on how we all profile raises some worthwhile questions. I am guilty of this. For all my belief that I am a fair-minded person, I’ve reacted to the way some people look, especially when I lived in Washington DC. While I did not cross the street to avoid anyone, I would certainly cast a wary eye on people who dressed in certain ways, and perhaps reach for my keys in my pocket. I don’t think this is necessarily racial, mind you; I do the same thing when I walk past the horde of almost entirely white people lined up outside of the synthetic marijuana-dealing Last Place on Earth here in Duluth. Presentation matters, and it is rather naïve to claim people can dress however they would like while at the same time expecting that dress should not provoke reactions. Obviously, this is no defense for Zimmerman if he did indeed take the initiative and hunt down Martin. But while I think we should fight it when we can, a certain degree of prejudice is probably inevitable.

-Somewhere at the root of American liberalism there is a fascinating contradiction between the desire to respect all cultures and the wish that everyone be treated equally. One strand demands that we take notice of the things that separate us and remain in constant dialogue about these differences, while another tries to flatten all differences between people and claim they are only superficial accessories to a shared humanity. I don’t say this in a nasty way to point out some horrible hypocrisy; I think it simply reflects those wonderfully contradictory realities of human nature that make it impossible to boil us down to a static essence. They aren’t always in tension, and it certainly makes more sense to build a legal system in a modern state around the second strain of thought. But culture will always divide us, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. 

In Praise of Hypocrisy

5 Jul

Earlier this week, I read (via Rod Dreher at TAC) a sprawling, absorbing piece entitled “No Self-Mockery, Please, We’re American” by British professor Terry Eagleton. Eagleton is an interesting figure; he is generally known as a Marxist, but has also garnered attention for trashing Richard Dawkins, and in this piece he speaks highly of a rather aristocratic mindset. He isn’t easy to pin down, and to the casual observer, he may seem like a walking contradiction. As the essay shows, Eagleton is undoubtedly proud of this fact.

This piece, as any reader will notice, uses some broad-brush generalizations—the sort of thing that often gets called “pseudo social science,” and not without reason. The article speaks to general senses, not to anything with much empirical backing, and it’s very easy to find counterexamples or debate its points in some absurdly intellectual cloud. In fact, I think the generalizations about Americans and British and Europeans can distract from the more profound message here, even though I sense that many of his insights have some grounding in truth. (The bits about American students compared to those of other countries in particular seem to line up exactly with my observations during a semester abroad.) Some readers will doubtless be offended by the generalizations in this piece, and will ignore the author’s witticisms as they harp on his bias against or ignorance of certain groups or people. Eagleton would most likely laugh at these people and say they prove his point, and I appreciate his plug for irony in the piece. But irony certainly has its limits; when writers go too far down into that realm, they risk burying the actual value of their argument.

Moreover, Eagleton’s observations are not entirely new; he cites Henry James extensively, and Octavio Paz nails the same points on Puritanism’s effects on WASP/American “elite” culture in the 1992 interview with Sergio Marras that I referenced on here a few weeks ago. But that isn’t really the point here. As with Paz, Hannah Arendt, and some of the other brilliant minds whom I think are often misunderstood or marginalized, the greatest value in Eagleton’s piece is not in its attempt to define things such as an “American” mindset. It is, instead, the keenness of insight that leads to the conclusion. There can be glimmers of wisdom everywhere, even if the ultimate point isn’t entirely convincing.

So, with that mindset, here are some of my favorite nuggets from the essay:

[T]he familiar American insistence [is] that what matters about a person is what is inside. It is a claim that sits oddly with a society obsessed with self-presentation. There is no room here for what Lenin called the reality of appearances, no appreciation of just how profound surfaces can be, no rejoicing in forms, masks, and signifiers for their own sake.

In The American Scene, James writes of the country’s disastrous disregard for appearances. For the Calvinist, a delight in anything for its own sake is sinful. Pleasure must be instrumental to some more worthy goal, such as procreation, rather as play on children’s television in America must be tied to some grimly didactic purpose. It can rarely be an end in itself. The fact that there is no social reality without its admixture of artifice, that truth works in terms of masks and conventions, is fatally overlooked.

Throughout my childhood, it was beaten into my brain (not by any one person or group of people in particular, and mostly just within my own mind) that what was inside was all that mattered. And, to be sure, there are a lot of people who take presentation too far and fixate only on the superficial. But presentation does matter, and trying to pretend that it didn’t led to feelings of guilt and shame that probably didn’t do me any good. This so-called puritan mindset can be draining, even when it does have a sensible point behind it. Perhaps even more importantly, there is an interplay between what is on the surface and what lies beneath, and neither one quite makes sense without the other. Puritanism, while admirable in its clarity, oversimplifies.

Now, contrast that puritan mindset with the vision of the English gentleman here:

For a certain kind of English patrician, by contrast, irony is less a figure of speech than a way of life. As a highly Europeanized American observes in James’s The Europeans, “I don’t think it’s what one does or doesn’t do that promotes enjoyment. … It is the general way of looking at life.” The gentleman’s amused, ironic outlook on human existence is a way of engaging with the world while also keeping it languidly at arm’s length. It suggests an awareness of different possibilities, one beyond the reach of those who must immerse themselves in the actual in order to survive.

The aristocrat can savor a variety of viewpoints because none of them is likely to undermine his own. This is because he has no viewpoint of his own. Opinions are for the plebes. To have a point of view is to be as uncouth and one-sided as a militant trade unionist. It would be a threat to one’s sang-froid and thus to one’s sovereignty. To find the cosmos mildly entertaining has always been a sign of power in Britain. It is the political reality behind Oxford and Cambridge wit. Seriousness is for scientists and shopkeepers.

I like this passage because it sums up much about my way of looking at the world. Obviously, I do have opinions, just as the British aristocrats did and do. But, largely because I know there’s a lot that I don’t know, I don’t like to put those opinions front and center, unless they come after a lot of careful thinking—and even then, they’ll probably be qualified with any number of asterisks. I’d rather just observe it all, be amused by it, and offer the occasional sage point where I can.

The problem here is that there is an inherent, unapologetic elitism in that attitude. Still, I think this mindset can be rescued from its aristocratic trappings and have plenty of use for us moderns. Sure, there is a conscious rejection of militant opinions, but it isn’t something haughty or based off of resentment for those people—on the contrary, it merely involves having the self-assurance to be able to laugh at them (and oneself, too!) because it recognizes that life can’t be distilled down to a narrow political screed. It is also actually quite tolerant, because the gut reaction is never “you’re wrong,” but instead “maybe, but it’s probably more complicated; let’s dig a little deeper.” And unlike some theories that recognize the world’s complexity, it doesn’t run away from that, or despair; it laughs at everything and finds a way to enjoy itself.

It’s not flawless, certainly—being able to enjoy things from this distance is something of a luxury, and there are almost certainly some things that do deserve an immediate, serious response. It also poses some obstacles for people who, in addition to musing ironically about world affairs, also need to make themselves a living—quite possibly in one of those frowned-upon “professional” fields. But I think the two can be reconciled reasonably well, and that this worldview could use a lot more adherents.

Now, to the crux of the piece:

The problem is that consumer values in the States have not simply taken over from productive ones. For one thing, the consumer industry itself needs to be produced. For another thing, puritan values are far too robust to yield to strip joints without a struggle. They continue to flourish side by side with liberal and consumerist ones, which is what makes the United States such a chronically schizoid culture…

The centered, repressive, self-disciplined ego of production and puritan values is at war with the decentered, liberated, consumerist self. The two cultures can negotiate compromises from time to time, but there is no possibility of a perpetual peace between them. In some ways, their respective inhabitants are as alien to each other as Borneans and Berliners. No wonder the politicians keep loudly proclaiming that there is only one America.

These two mindsets may be at war, but I think they are more interrelated than Eagleton suggests here; they share a common ancestry that Borneans and Berliners do not. A better comparison might be the Civil War era American North and South, which were bitterly opposed and often unable to communicate to the point that they nearly tore apart, but still were faces of one nation. After a lot of bloodshed they stuck together, but that doesn’t erase all that old enmity, and I suspect that being torn between a rigid “productive” morality and liberal consumerism is at the root of many a person’s malaise. To some extent that is probably just human nature, and we have to live with it. Human nature is contradictory; “hypocritical,” according to Paz, and it only makes sense that the earnestness Eagleton associates with Americans would bring out that hypocrisy. We are simply honest about our competing desires, even if we don’t recognize it.

Now that the hypocrisy is out in the open, I doubt it’s going anywhere—much as it may pain our puritan moralists, consumerism taps into a long-repressed part of the human psyche that would be near impossible to shove back into a box, yet I also don’t think it is strong enough (yet) to alter human nature and take down our desire to live by a moral code. The hypocrisy is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as we recognize it for what it is. Recognizing the contradictory forces at play opens us up to the value of looking at things through different lenses. As exhausting or repressive as puritanism may be, Paz points out that the examinations of conscience that come out of it can be superb. While it might not have the most robust philosophical arguments behind it, I do enjoy a good dose of hedonism from time to time, and am skeptical of the incessant moral jeremiads we hear every day. The more reflective, ironic stance praised by Eagleton is a much-needed antidote to the more prevalent puritan and consumerist alternatives, and is well-positioned to embrace and work with our hypocrisy. None of these views alone can guide a person to a good life, but holding them (and others not mentioned here) in mind can contribute to a much richer understanding. And, given its smaller profile when compared to the other two lenses, Eagleton is quite right to plug the ironic mood.