I Want to Tell You a Thing

I want to tell you a thing: a political thing, a cultural thing, a thing about America from my perspective.  First, some context, because context is important. I am the spawn of the generation known as the baby boomers, though my parents would probably never describe themselves as such. Similarly, I would not usually label myself a millennial, but the internet tells me that I am. The point of this is that part of the reason that our government is such a flaming ineffectual shit-storm, and has been for a while now, is because of the historical context regarding intellectualism and academia.

First, personal context: I grew up straddling the line between blue collar and white collar. I’m from a rural county in a traditionally blue state. My dad is a college-educated farmer. He has a bachelor’s degree in agronomy, thinks diction is important, and would be pretty upset with the tone of this missive. My mom did well in school, but her parents didn’t have enough money to send her to college. I grew up both stowing hay bales and reading every book I could get my hands on. The point here is that I've got a little more perspective than someone entrenched in only one side of the invisible fault line. I know a little of what I’m talking about when I say that our current government is a shit-storm of our own cultural making. From the financially elite to those scrounging to make ends meet, we are all to blame, and I’m going to tell you why.

Second, historical context: in the 20’s the stock market crashed, the economy tanked, a lot of people lost so so much, and the poorest oftentimes couldn’t feed themselves much less get ahead. Then you have World War II and our economy picks back up again. (And yes, yes, I know. I am usually the last person to take war and Nazis and hate and genocide and say “whelp, shrug, that happened,” but you guys, that isn’t the point of this dispatch). You have people coming back from the war, thankful the nightmare is finally over, and they have lots of babies. Those babies are raised by people who had learned to scrimp and save and live with less. And then those babies grew up strong in the rhetoric of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps and making better lives for themselves and their families. They worked hard, they often worked menial jobs, and that whole time they told their kids (this is where my generation comes in) that yes, they sometimes had to deal with literal shit, but it was all for them. They worked in gross, smelly, underappreciated conditions so we didn’t have to. They told us to go to college, get degrees, get jobs, and be successful.

That rhetoric was goddamn everywhere. Stay in school, get good grades, go to college. Those AND ONLY THOSE were the keys to being successful, making them proud, and having all of our parents’ sacrifices not be in vain. And so we did. We filled out the FAFSA, took out tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans, and got those degrees. The result was half a generation with degrees, mountains of debt, and all fighting for the same few jobs. The other half ended up gainfully employed in blue collar or service industry jobs, but with culturally-created shame for having “wasted their chance” because they never got those magical degrees.

And then, the result: Surprise surprise, this breeds resentment. You tell people they are lesser for things beyond their control and they’re going to hate you for it. Well, this time the thing doing the “telling” is society and those doing the “resenting” are the people who actually make our country run on a daily basis. The problem is that it is pretty damn fruitless to resent “society” or “cultural norms” or “decades of economic bias.” It is much easier to resent the people who society deems successful because they have the thing that you do not have. In this case, that is a college education.

Here’s a fact: education and intelligence are not the same thing. They are not inherently dependent on each other. But we’ve done that in this country. We’ve said “oh, you aren’t more highly educated, it must be because you’re less intelligent.” We ignore means and opportunity and circumstances and we’re back to blaming people for shit they have no control over or blaming people for making the right choices for them personally. And they got pissed about that and now we have this anti-intellectualism movement.

We have huge swaths of people who assume that everyone who is college educated looks down on them because every source of entertainment or media and a lot of personal experience has proved just that. We have people who have this idea that “educated” people think they and their neighbors are lesser and they’ve internalized that so much that they stereotype the people that they believe are stereotyping them. So all of these people vote people like themselves into office. You have folks running on the platform of “I’m not like those college educated intellectuals, I’m just like you, I know what you need, vote for me.”

And there is nothing wrong with people with different types of learning and experience being in public office. We need that diversity. We need that broad perspective. The problem happens when those officials in congress and the senate and the state legislatures get so wrapped up in equating learning with things that they refuse to be a part of. What happens is that these officials are asked to make decisions on so many things and there is no way for them to know about all of them. Instead of educating themselves, they take pride in their lack of knowledge. And their constituents are happy that they have someone representing them who is, in essence, just like them.  They are happy that there is someone taking pride in the thing that they were told should bring them shame.

Conclusion: The whole system is stupid and has led to the aforementioned shit-storm that we have today. We have a governmental system filled with people who ran on the idea of “I’m not one of those people who has studied these issues and that is exactly why you should vote for me.” This didn’t start with our president, but he has epitomized it and brought it even more into the mainstream.

Is there an easy fix? Hell no.

But thankfully there is a "but." There are things we can do as a culture, as a people. There are baby steps. We can stop vilifying manual labor and service jobs. We can stop telling high school students that they have to go to college or they are a failure for the rest of their lives. We can start paying people living wages for the work they do that literally makes our country run. We can stop shaming service positions and canonizing anyone with an advanced degree.

We’re all just folks doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Is that good enough? Should we stop there? Hell to the no. But a presidential change doesn’t do jack shit without a shift in cultural norms and priorities. Donald Trump and his cabinet could disappear off the face of the earth right now and it would not fix the quagmire we find ourselves in as a society. We created this shit-storm and now we’ve all got to be willing to get down and dirty together to clean it up. 

Final take away: what does that mean? It means admitting that none of us are squarely in the right or the wrong. We're all products of a series of events that lead to today's seriously warped cultural priorities and values. This means that each of us fuck up and contribute to this shit-show everyday. Yes you. Yes me. All of us. We need to pay attention to every time we judge someone based on what they're wearing, how they speak, what job they currently have, or so many other factors. Every day, we stereotype and assign credence based on arbitrary factors that have no bearing on a person's worth. Pay attention, call yourself out on your own bias, and try to be better.

Oh, and please don't tell my dad that I cursed this much. Thanks bunches, asshats.