Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Can America (and the Democrats) find their better angels in the 'sacrifice zones'?

Just precisely when Joe Biden is being showered with laurels of commendation for his persistent choices of highly competent, highly professional, and also highly experienced administration leaders, (and not a moment too soon, hard upon the cluster of incompetents who bowed and scraped at the altar of trump), we are prompted to reflect on the tectonic divide between 73 million who voted for the incumbent and the 80 million who voted for Biden.

The irony of the adulation for meritocracy, however, cannot be allowed to linger like a silver lining in the Democratic party, irrespective of how satisfying such honorifics are. The divide between what has been dubbed meritocracy and ordinary people, a division upon which trump rode to the White House, begs numerous questions, and fewer solutions.

In the late 1950’s in small town Ontario, the prospect of going to university was considered akin to grasping the ‘brass ring’ of rising out of the lower middle class and potentially being granted the keys to the upper middle class. Other opportunities included nursing school and teacher’s college. There were no community (junior) colleges back then. In 1959, upon graduating from high school, I had never even heard the word “journalism” and considered the local paper and radio station as repositories of local ‘water cooler’ conversation. Both provided coverage of the occasional highway traffic accident, the list of obituaries, the local track and field results, the hockey news, and the infrequent story about a new business opening.

High school teachers were, for the most part, university graduates as were local clergy. Lawyers and doctors, too, had a similar halo of both intellect and social status. The retail sector, highly dependent on the summer American tourist invasion, competed with the large Toronto department stores known then as Simpson’s and Eaton’s, both of which published glossy catalogues that gilded the lily of fashion, home decorating, children’s clothing, footwear, and household goods like linen, bedding, drapes (and the necessary hardware).

Merit, then, was something to which young people could and did aspire, almost literally unconscious of the divide we were generating between ourselves and our classmates who turned to the world of work, wages, cars and, sooner than the rest of us, marriage. It was not so much that we considered ourselves ‘better’ than those in the labour force; we did not give them or their situation more than moment’s notice, unless we had already fostered a friendship prior to leaving. We were unaware of the struggles those young men and women faced, and most of us were not engaged in anything like the current tidal wave of altruism especially among young people that reaches into every corner of our culture, on both side of the 49th parallel.

Over the next few decades, in both Canada and the U.S., the embedding of the “learn-to-earn” cultural theme into the classrooms and the kitchens, the arenas and the movie theatres took root. Climbing the ladder to a reasonable living, including a decent wage, healthy working conditions, professional accreditation, family honour and respect as well as local endorsement all seemed to flow like a natural river through the lives of our generation, the first in almost all of our families to attend university. We entered various professions including teaching, nursing, medicine, law, accounting, business management, and journalism. A very small number ventured into the church, and an ever smaller few joined the military.

Universities extant during our undergraduate years would never have been regarded as ‘skill-development-training-institutes’ as many have become in the last two or three decades. The social and cultural hierarchy of academic subjects, while virtually level, nevertheless, continued to hold medicine and law a little above the average, along with graduate school, on the strength of the length of time required to complete all requirements. There was no Masters program in Education, for example, and the need for teachers in the mid-sixties was so great that many of us completed two or three summer programs as passport to eventual licensing and certification by the province. There was then no College of Teachers, as there is now in Ontario.

Our cohort of university students remained untouched and unmoved by the growing divide between the have’s and the have-not’s, given that much of the street talk as that decade went on focused on the war in Viet Nam. Draft dodgers from the U.S. were welcomed in Canada, and the Canadian political theatre was taken over by the charisma of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Trudeaumania. Beatlemania was a parallel social crush of adulation for a quartet of Liverpool pop idols.

The rise in the number of university graduates and the accompanying rise in the standard of living, based on higher salaries, enhanced benefits, a new health care system (in Canada) new housing developments, the rise of suburbia near the large cities all coalesced in a social, cultural, political and economic urge (and urgency) to provide similar opportunities for the children of those late-fifties-early-sixties grads, latterly known as baby-boomers. University expansion blossomed, as did enrolment, graduations and the rise in enrolments in grad schools. Driving much of this ‘ship’ was the lure of high personal incomes and new programs like those in finance, marketing, executive leadership, corporate law, and even a beginning of a trend toward international law and trade.

In the U.S., Wall Street became the golden ring, (graduated up from the ‘brass ring’) for many bright, ambitious, determined and highly strategic graduates. Profits in the financial services industry spiked, and like the magnet they were intended to be, attracted thousands, so many that even one auto executive (Lee Iacocca) was provoked to write to the presidents of both Yale and Harvard, pleading with them for answers as to why it had become so difficult, if not actually impossible, to attract American university grads into the executive positions in the auto industry. Both university presidents responded that they believed their schools had been teaching the wrong ‘things’ to their students, generating a societal shift from a balanced approach of looking after workers and earning a profit, to the pursuit of personal self-aggrandizement.

This exchange, while not accounting for the totality of the social shift from learning for its own sake, to learning as a means to another end (personal wealth), exposes one of the cracks in the erosion of the formerly stable social order that regarded the public good as an integral component of the social order. The rapid and somewhat turbulent growth of the labour movement, while essential for those in the then-frenetic manufacturing sector immediately following WWII, fuelled another growing set of expectations among those aspiring to generate products while earning a decent living, new worker benefits, weekends, and enhanced holidays.

“Rise-up”, whether spoken, written or even whispered was an integral and necessary component of the optimism that flooded the minds, aspirations imaginations and industrial executives across North America. New military technology was being designed and produced, following the awesome and historic power (? And risk) of the atomic and hydrogen bombs. The moon shot was metaphoric for the ambition, the muscle, the assertiveness or rather aggression of the new American political theatre of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In Canada, in the late 50’s, the Avro Arrow airplane, although scrapped by Diefenbaker, was considered the prototype of the future of air travel. Science, and the pursuit of scientific knowledge, experimentation, and the accompanying rising incomes served to magnetize more than a single generation of young people in Canada and the U.S.

Trends, pursued with vigor, including their belated endorsement by the political class, have a way of extending far beyond their initial propitious beginnings. What started as a reasonable, conventional, political, economic and social agenda, to enable as many young people to secure university degrees, and then employment consistent with that education, gushed forth as an almost uncontrollable “logic” that witnessed an explosion of university growth, including capital projects, laboratories, new athletic stadia, now emblazoned with the names of corporate benefactors. Riding statistical data points like employment and unemployment figures, new housing developments, GNP and GDP snap-shots and projections, enrolment figures in engineering and scientific programs, and the emerging flow of new technological innovations offered a wave of political opportunity, optimism, hope and even inflated expectations. In America anything and everything was considered possible, attainable, and regardless of how difficult or costly, worth the effort. As Kennedy famously said, “We do these things (in his ‘moon shot proposal speech), not because they are easy but because they are hard!”

At the same time, there was another more bleak narrative beginning to emerge that cast a darker shadow over the glossy promise of invention, creativity, new management skills and theories. The Cuban Missile Crisis, the insurgent and urgent drive to achieve racial integration in the schools and universities, and the divisive public debate and protests against the Viet Nam war, while commanding the headlines during the sixties, could now be seen to have thrown a cover over public consciousness and debate over the interior, social, family, domestic economic struggles that confronted many families, especially those of colour, and of immigrants and refugees.

In specific communities, for example, among blacks, browns, immigrants and refugees, real daily struggle as a measurable social and political crisis prompting debates over programs like how to feed the poor, how to ensure safe communities, how to manage the military (with or without the draft), in a context of a cold war. And if, as Jon Meacham suggests, the political conversation that book-ended the last half century from Eisenhower/Kennedy to Clinton/Bush/Obama saw the preservation of a pursuit of global order and institutions, then the same period in the development of young minds and bodies and careers witnessed an explosion of talent, training, transformational status and value-seeking (much of it camouflaged in family values) as well as a growing chasm of inequality that has now surfaced like a raging bull in the consciousness of America, especially in the middle of a pandemic. And while the tradition of foreign policy in America holding for that half-century-plus, that political party differences at the ocean shores, when dealing with foreign nations, the question of how to perceive, diagnose and then prescribe political platforms on domestic issues suffered from a deep division that has continued to today.

Republicans, conservatives, who have stood firmly on the concrete floor of small government, low taxes, strong military, and few corporate regulations, few if any social-safety-net provisions have made vivid comparison with the Democrats who believe that government has a significant role to play in offering what they call not a hand-out, but a hand-up, to those in need. Following the lead of FDR, on the heels of the Great Depression, Democrats have been the party ‘with a heart’ (in their own mind and advertising). Increasingly, however, the Democrats have been engulfed in another social, political, economic and cultural wave that has been severely impacted by the political and societal shift (drift? push? purchase? take-over?) to/by and for the right-wing capitalists.

Championing entrepreneurialism and the participants in that new, technologically-based, informational behemoth, both parties have espoused a political agenda that eschewed social programs, social safety nets. Both political parties also endorsed strong anti-crime agendas that, during the nineties, saw another pendulum-swing toward privatized prisons, the three-strike rule on drugs. The forces of enhanced skill training, enhanced law enforcement against drug abuse (heavily waged in minority communities where unemployment, and social unrest were/are more prevalent) and political opportunism, by both parties, saw some overlaps in agendas, with barely whimpers of difference, both continuing to increase their dependence and support of the big-donor financial cadre.

Shortened school careers, lower skill levels, eroded employment opportunities,  especially ensuing from the corporate outsourcing of jobs in order to capitalize on tax policies, and profit rainbows from lower production costs (based on the absence of worker rights, environmental protections and lower hourly wages) all conflated into a social and political and cultural cocktail that seemed to boggle the imaginations of both political parties.

Obama’s attempt to level the playing field with the Affordable Care Act, barely passed in the Senate, whose Republican majority blocked all of his reasonable and politically compassionate attempts, for example, to ensure the acceptance and safety of undocumented immigrants, to bring limited gun control into effect, and even to replace Justice Scalia with a moderate appointee, Merek Garland. Rising to the peak of the Democratic Party, Obama himself incarnated both the best (and potentially the worst, depending on one’s perception) of what has become known as the “technocrat, bureaucrat, the effete, intellectual, rhetorician” considered by Democrats as the epitome of political leaders, and by the Republicans, the devil-incarnate.

Historically, supporting the ordinary working “Joe” of the then-rising middle-class American worker, the Democrats have been painted, willingly and enthusiastically, by Republicans, as having abandoned that segment of the electorate. And while Republicans, under trump, have taken advantage of that perceived neglect, and retained some 73-4 million voters in 2020, Democrats are left scratching their collective heads in angst as to how to regain the needed support of the disaffected, less highly educated, even less appreciative of those with advanced degrees and their perceived ‘arrogance (superiority, indifference, hubris!) among the hinterland.

Coastal superiority among the highly educated, highly economically successful, technologically literate and sophisticated, environmentally sensitive and protective, globally engaged, internationalist-inspired-and collaborative….these are well-seeded perceptions of the Democrats, sewn by Republicans at all levels, among the hinterland of farmers, industrial and factory workers, some in law enforcement and many whose work generates minimum income, provokes the need for multiple jobs, especially among single mothers.

“Connecting with ordinary Americans” is a cliché that Democrats will utter and hear echoing in the next few months and years, while Biden and his administration will attempt to reconcile tow heads of a single beast. Janus, in ancient Roman religion and myth, is the god of beginnings, gates, frames, and endings. Usually portrayed as having two faces, looking to the future and the past simultaneously, he could become a symbol for Biden’s administration.

It will have to reconcile with the history of the Democratic Party’s and the nation’s past, including how to ameliorate the anger, the angst, the rage and the disaffection of the millions of those who continue to cling to conspiracy theories, like the primary fallacy of the fraudulent election being trumped by a hollowed-out and defamed trump. The Administration will also have to provide an intellectual, emotional and a cultural bridge between the second-tier “have’s” whose own hubris, like the mug-wump straddling both parties through self-interested, narcissistic cheques, precludes an authentic empathy for the socially struggling and the sanitary workers, the restaurant service workers, the ambulance attendants, the postal workers, the firemen and women, and many in law enforcement.

Celebrating a law that protects the privacy of judges, following the death of the son of a New Jersey jurist whose private identity was publicly available, while necessary, serves only as a thin pin-head light into the darkness of detachment, objectification and intellectual assessment by the Democratic leaders about the needs, aspirations and significant, yet untapped, potential of the masses. Can the new administration roll up their individual and collective sleeves, take off their erudite, technocratic, detached and policy-wonk glasses, and put on a pair of jeans and sneakers and take many walks into the areas where real people struggle to find hope in their daily routine. Can they then begin to listen, and to empathize, and to begin to embrace the truth of the millions of untold stories when they are formulating government policy.

Recommended reading for all members of the Biden administration for a starter, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco. A portrayal of a suffering nation, the back cover holds this introduction:

Having worker alongside one another in the blood and barbarism of global conflict regions, Hedges and Sacco set a new course. Together they introduce American’s sacrifice zones, those areas that have been offered up for exploitation in the name of profit, progress and technological advancement. They who in words and drawings what life looks like in places where the marketplace rules without constraints, where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize profit…

From the western plains, where Native American were sacrificed in the giddy race for land and empire, Hedges and Sacco move to the manufacturing c enters and coal fields that once fueled the Industrial Revolution, but now lie depleted and in decay. They follow the steady downward spiral of American labor into the nation’s produce fields and end in Zuccotti Park where a new generation revolts against a corporate state that has handed to the young an economic, political, cultural and environmental catastrophe.

Philip Meyer, in The New York Times Book Review, is represented in these words:

Sacco’s sections are uniformly brilliant. The tone is controlled, the writing smart, the narration neutral; we are allowed to draw our own conclusions. This is an important book. 

No comments:

Post a Comment