Saturday, October 29, 2011

The carriage and the brakes

There is a scene in The Duke's Children, the last of Anthony Trollope's brilliant political novels, in which Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium and former Liberal Prime Minister of a coalition government, talks with his son, Lord Silverbridge, about the family's political creed, which Silverbridge has just violated by being elected to the House of Commons as a Conservative. (How a Lord can be a Common is one of those things that inveterate readers of British Literature come to understand.) A carriage must have brakes on its wheels, says His Grace, but it is surely more satisfying to be the wheel than to be the brake.

Silverbridge eventually comes around to his father's point of view, which is that of an aristocratic progressive in an era when progress was taken for granted. The one thing to be avoided at all costs was for it to go too quickly, sweeping old institutions and titles away in its haste. Thus, an aristocrat could acknowledge and welcome progress but also be grateful for the brakes that keep its pace measured and steady. The working relationship between liberals and conservatives thus defined is what allowed parliamentary democracy to flourish in the Victorian Era.

It has struck me in recent weeks that in our present society, the roles have been reversed. It is now the conservatives who see themselves as the carriage and liberals who see themselves as the brake. That's more or less what Chris Hedges argues in his recent book The Death of the Liberal Class, but with a twist: we no longer have a working brake, and are thus careening toward disaster.

It requires some historical depth, I suppose, to understand how the ideals of 19th-century liberalism—free markets, economic and social mobility, competition in place of charity—have become conservative rallying points in our own time. In the 1830s, Malthus was in vogue, with his brutal doctrine that human population will inevitably grow faster than its means of support. This doctrine horrified conservatives, who believed that charity could always provide for the poor, but appealed to radical free thinkers who wanted to see that ball and chain replaced by a modern ethos of personal responsibility and unlimited human potential. Thus, it was Britain's liberals who instituted the notorious Poor Laws that so appalled Dickens and other conservatives. (Trollope thumbed his nose at the distinction by insisting that he was an "advanced conservative liberal.") To be conservative in the later 19th century was to wish to place a brake on social change: change that, left unchecked, could easily lead to radical Marxism or equally unpalatable versions of progress that people like Trollope and his fictional liberal Prime Minister were also determined to hold in check.

What Hedges calls "the liberal class" is the 20th-century version of the brake, with capitalism and free markets still filling the role of the historically inevitable, and with even the feared consequences still largely the same. Hedges is simply endorsing the view of many historians when he says that Franklin Delano Roosevelt's main achievement was that he saved capitalism. If Roosevelt and others of the "liberal class" had not put in place the braking mechanism known as the New Deal, capitalism in America could have easily ended up being consumed by the socialist revolution that many were fervently hoping for, or by even darker totalitarian forces. The most progressive politicians of the 30s despised Roosevelt because he stole their golden opportunity out from under their noses. By applying the brakes, he showed that capitalism could still work.

That's why the heritage of the New Deal is so vitally important, and why those who have been trying to scuttle it for the last 30 years are playing with fire. It's why popular anger has boiled up to the point that well over half the population of this country now supports either the Tea Party or the Occupy Wall Street movement. I've already made it clear where my sympathies stand—I think the Tea Party is based on a fundamentally flawed understanding of reality that seeks to remove all brakes from a carriage already hurtling downhill at terrifying speed. Nevertheless, both groups are there, whether they know it or not, because they realize that something that defined America for at least half a century is no longer working the way it should. The liberal class is no longer recognized or valued for its braking power, and so, even with a Democratic President and a Democratic Senate, there is no real liberal voice in our government today.

That is what has to change if we are going to avert disaster. As Trollope so clearly recognized, no carriage can work safely without a brake. Those of us who are proud of being brakes need to regain our voices before it is too late to make a difference. We need to establish, once again, that the brake is not a luxury that can be disposed of, but a vital part of the vehicle that makes up our body politic. Remove the brakes and you are driving a death trap. That is where our country is at present, and I have enough historical depth to tremble at the prospect of what may follow.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"Liberals think..."

My governor is at it again. "Liberals think the American people can't be trusted to safeguard even a portion of their retirement dollars," he said on my car radio as I drove home today, wincing a bit at the pain that my recent hernia repair surgery can still set off in my lower abdomen.

It never ceases to amaze me what people are willing to assume that liberals think. I have a pretty sizable chunk of money stashed away in private retirement funds, but I supposedly think that my fellow citizens can't be trusted to do the same. In the imagination of people like Rick Perry (yes, that's who I'm talking about), liberals like me want to expand the government because—we want more government. We live to think up new ways to deprive the American people of their personal autonomy and freedom. We revel in the perpetuation of something that he is pleased to call "the nanny state."

I've got some news for you, Rick. You really don't have a clue what we think.

How do I know that? For one thing, you don't ask. For another, you don't seem particularly receptive. Does it occur to you that hyping an image of yourself as a vigilante who jogs with a laser-sited gun at the ready doesn't exactly make people want to open up and share? If so, and if you ever decide to take a break from the cowboy persona and listen, here are some things that might surprise you.

• I am a liberal, and I believe, deeply, in personal responsibility.

• I am no more fond of government bureaucracy than anybody else.

• I haven't needed a nanny since I was in diapers.

• I try very hard not to caricature the beliefs of vast swaths of my fellow citizens.

• I would really welcome the opportunity to have an intelligent conversation with somebody who doesn't make such broad assumptions about me.

So what do I believe? What makes me a liberal if I don't want government for government's sake and have no desire to reduce other Americans to a state of helpless dependency?

Are you stumped? All you have to do is ask.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

On unemployment

My last post went viral, in a kind of small-scale way. Since I started this blog in January, my posts have averaged just under 100 hits each. A few, like the one last March where I described testifying before the Criminal Justice Committee of the Texas State Senate, were linked to outside sources and got a few hundred hits. Some of my most deeply felt posts have struggled to reach even the 50-hit mark. Some are read when they first appear and then never receive any more visits. Others inexplicably continue to draw interest for months.

My line-by-line commentary on the sign held by a college student who claimed to be about to graduate completely debt free, however, behaved in a way I had never seen before. Within 48 hours of my posting it the Friday before last, it had received over 200 hits. It continued to be viewed regularly throughout the next week, and as of this writing it has over 600 pageviews, surpassing the all-time previous record by 50%. And it's only been up for 9 days!

Obviously this post is being read by people who go far beyond my normal Not Ready for Facebook constituency. When you search "I am a college senior about to graduate completely debt free" on google it is the third item to come up. Thus, anybody wanting to find out more about the sign and the claims it makes is going to be directed straight to my post. And so the hits continue to come in.

I have no idea whether this will lead to a broader readership in the long run. I am going to take the opportunity, though, to write a little more about my experience with un- and under-employment—the six years I alluded to in the last post. In an atmosphere in which the man who is now considered the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination can say that the unemployed have brought their situation on themselves and receive loud cheers—in which the very state of being unemployed is being viewed by some as an automatic disqualification for further employment—I need to explain that long-term unemployment is something that can happen to anyone, even if you play by the rules and jump through the hoops and pat yourself on the back and expect things to fall into place.

After attending the elite private college I alluded to in my last post, I went on to an even more elite graduate school. All right, it was the same Ivy League institution that four out of the last six presidents have attended. One of those places that trains most of the Wall Street bankers and other highly successful people who make up the 1% whose privileged, insular existence the Occupy Wall Street protesters have been complaining about. While there, I did everything I was supposed to do. I broadened my knowledge in many directions in order to prepare for the college teaching career I was anticipating. I got classroom teaching experience, first as a TA and then as an adjunct instructor. I won a major award for my teaching, and got reviews from my students that topped the charts. I wrote a dissertation that was quickly snatched up by Cambridge University Press and, after some revisions, was published as a book less than three years after I received my PhD.

And I still couldn't find a job. After four years of flitting from one temporary lecturer position (academic-speak for a dirt private with no rank or privileges) to another, I found myself unable to get even an interview for a tenure-track job (sort of the equivalent of a non-commissioned officer—you still have to jump through all kinds of hoops to get into the diminishing circle of those lucky enough to have tenure). It didn't matter that I had a doctorate from Yale (the name will out after all), a book published to warm reviews, and substantial, highly successful teaching experience. I couldn't even get my foot in the door, and that situation lasted for six years.

I soon discovered that I was "overqualified" for almost any other kind of job. It wasn't that I didn't look at or consider other careers. I simply learned that the fact that I had spent most of my 20s getting a PhD in the humanities made me practically unemployable. I was reduced to signing up with temp agencies and begging the local office of Princeton Review to hire me as a tutor. I found a church with a grand piano that was willing to let me use it to teach, and I developed a private piano studio that at its high point consisted of seven students. I decided to try teaching high school, which meant that I had to go back to school and take even more classes in education. One of the low points came in the middle of my semester of student-teaching. I had earned an Ivy League PhD, gone deeply into debt with student loans and published an acclaimed book, all to be paid $14,000 a year to teach part-time at a private school in the morning before going to my unpaid gig at a public school in the afternoon, where I tried to force-feed Shakespeare and Orwell to students who simply couldn't imagine that any kind of literature was not BORING!! It was hard and often degrading work, and I was being paid a pittance for my slave labor. I nearly broke down in frustration, especially after the experience with the principal that I described in my post last June titled "Dead Poets Redux."

I literally would not have made it through that time if my wife had not been able to find work as a registered nurse at the drop of a hat. It didn't hurt that she also received a substantial financial settlement over the death of her first husband. After my first child was born, I spent nearly two years as the custodial parent while Barbara worked. I did the shopping, cooking and house-cleaning as best I could, and bonded with my infant daughter in a way few men get to experience. That part of it was nice, although there were many times when I thought I could feel my brain cells disintegrating from lack of use. Then I finally got the phone call that led to the interview that led to the job that got me onto a tenure-track and, eventually, led to a tenured job, which led to another one, which led to my current position as a full professor at a major university.

Yes, I persevered when many people would have given up. Yes, I showed a willingness to do all kinds of things as needed, and refused to let my lack of professional success define me. (I had seen others fall into this trap, and saw how easy it was for them to become consumed by anger and frustration, which only made it harder and harder for them to get a job.) Nevertheless, I know beyond a doubt that where I am today was as much as result of luck as it was of hard work. I know beyond a doubt that there are many very good people out there who have never gotten a break, despite having played by the rules and done everything right. I know that unemployment is not a choice, that the unemployed are not responsible for their plight, and that anybody who thinks otherwise has simply never been there.

That's why, even though I have a good job, a lovely family, a nice house, thriving retirement funds and adequate health insurance, I stand with the people occupying Wall Street and not with the people looking down their noses at them. Nobody is self-made. Nobody succeeds without a great deal of help from others and a measure of good luck. Nobody. To the extent that our national mythology has bought into the idea that anyone can pull him or herself up by his or her own bootstraps, we are sacrificing community, compassion and mutual support on the altar of a false and soul-destroying individualism. Beware of this false idol, because it will tear our society to shreds without an ounce of regret. Then, like all idols, it will destroy its worshipers as well.

Friday, October 14, 2011

My statement

A picture of an unidentified person with no face, a skinny midriff and very large hands was all over Facebook yesterday.  He/she was holding up a sign that offered some pungent commentary on what he/she apparently believed to be the tone (I know, there aren't any goals) of the Occupy Wall Street movement. After thinking about that sign for over 24 hours, I've decided to offer a counter-commentary that describes my own experiences. Please note that I am not claiming to be more virtuous than the sign-holder, and that I am probably 33 years older. When I entered Oberlin in 1973, the cost of a year's tuition, room, board and fees was a little over $5000. They no longer have a "need-blind" admission policy, and I probably couldn't afford to send my own kids there now. Money market funds haven't paid double-digit interest for longer than most college students have been alive. I am downwardly mobile. Nevertheless, I am what I am.

I am a college senior, about to graduate completely debt free.

That's very good. I graduated from college debt free as well. My story is a little different, though, as you'll see.

I pay for all of my living expenses by working 30+ hrs a week making barely above minimum wage.

When I was in graduate school, I had a fellowship that paid a living stipend. It stipulated that I could not hold any other employment while receiving the fellowship. There was a reason for that. Colleges want their students to be focused on their studies. Having taught college now for most of my adult life, I can assure you that this was a good idea. If I had a full-time student who was working 30 hours a week outside of class, I would strongly advise him/her to cut back on work or attend school only part-time. The number of students I have had who can really do well in college while working that many hours is minuscule.

I chose a moderately priced, in-state public university & started saving $ for school at age 17.

17 was the age at which I started college. I went to an expensive private college because I knew my parents could afford it. (They told me so.) I had savings, but it was only because my family had been giving me checks to hoard away for college for years. My family was in pretty good shape financially, and that strongly influenced some of my other decisions, as described below. 

I got decent grades in high school & received 2 scholarships which cover 90% of my tuition.

I got excellent grades in high school. However, I was not eligible for financial aid at Oberlin because of their "need-blind" admission policy, which guaranteed that any student they admitted would receive as much financial aid as he or she needed. Since I didn't need financial aid, I wasn't eligible to receive it.

Here's something else I want you to think about. I turned down the chance for a national merit scholarship. I was a finalist, so I could have applied. I understood, though, that the national merit program was designed to help people pay for college who couldn't have afforded it otherwise. It never even occurred to me that someone in my position might apply. Simply having qualified as a finalist was distinction enough.

I currently have a 3.8 GPA.

I honestly don't remember what my GPA was in college, although I know it got better with each passing year. As a freshman I didn't get the kind of grades I had hoped for, largely because I entered with a semester's worth of AP credit (which allowed me to graduate early, saving my parents some money) and took all sophomore- and junior-level classes that year.

Since I've started teaching college, I've learned to be a bit suspicious of students who boast about their GPAs. The students I know who have the highest ones are usually the ones who play it safe, taking only classes they know they will do well in and avoiding exposing themselves to new ideas. I know this is a big generalization. I've also taught students who graduated with 4.0 GPAs who were truly brilliant. I have to say, though, that you sound more like a risk avoider to me.

I live comfortably in a cheap apt, knowing I can’t have everything I want. I don’t eat out every day or even once a month. I have no credit card, new car, iPad or smart phone – and I’m perfectly ok with that.

One of the apartments that I lived in as a student had a floor on which you could place a marble and watch it roll to the other side of the room. I learned to cook for myself to save money. Students couldn't get credit cards in those days; I didn't have one until I was 28. I also didn't have a car until I was 27. Up until then, when I wanted to go anywhere, I walked, or took the bus or train. Students at my college who lived on campus (which almost everybody did) weren't even allowed to have cars. In other words, I'm with you on this one—and then some.

If I did have debt, I would not blame Wall St or the government for my own bad decisions.

I did have significant student loan debt by the time I finished graduate school, although it was probably nothing by today's standards. I didn't blame anybody for it. In fact, when I got my loan check at the beginning of each year, I put it in a money market fund, which at that time allowed me to earn 17 or 18% interest.

I remember having a discussion with another graduate student who told me that he knew people who were doing the same thing and spending their earnings on stereo equipment. I assured him that the only thing I intended to earn from my investment was enough money to finish graduate school. I'm sorry you didn't have that opportunity. At that point, investment firms were still interested in helping people with limited means.

I live below my means to continue saving for the future.

Ah, so do I. However, I didn't expect my wife to go deaf in her 40s and have to stop working. I also didn't expect her loss of employment to be accompanied by medical expenses that nearly bankrupted us. That's the way life is. You try to plan for the future, but it has a tendency to blindside you.

I expect nothing to be handed to me, and will continue to work my @$$ off for everything I have.
That’s how it’s supposed to work.

See above. Until you actually fail at something, you will likely continue to carry around a severe compassion deficit that could make it difficult or impossible for you to sympathize with the difficulties that others experience. This is likely to poison your relationships with loved ones and coworkers. The best thing that could happen to you would be to have to spend a year or two un- or under-employed (I spent six), looking for work and unable to find it. You will emerge from the experience a much stronger person and a much happier one.

I am NOT the 99% and whether or not you are is YOUR decision.

Well, actually, it was my decision not to pursue a career that could put me in the top 1% of wage-earners in our society. Instead, I chose one that would allow me to give back to society with the skills that God gave me, and to do something deeply meaningful with my life. So I am definitely part of the bottom 99% of wage earners, and that was the best decision I've ever made. You, of course, are in the bottom 99% as well. Given that you could have invested all of your savings in an effort to win the lottery instead of going to college, that was probably a very good decision on your part too.

OK, that's pretty much it. I am still trying to make up my mind whether that was a real person in the picture (the absence of a face is kind of suspicious), and not a Koch brothers plant. Assuming that it is, though, all I'm trying to say here is that I'm a real person too, warts and all. I didn't do it all myself (nobody does). I have no desire to get rich. Life has thrown me some major curveballs. Most of the time I don't complain; some of the time I do, just like everybody else I've ever known.

I am the 99%.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Civility Crisis

I walked a tightrope for four years. Shortly after I got my first tenure-track college teaching job, I found myself caught between an administrator and a mostly tenured faculty who despised each other. I understood that when I came up for tenure, it would really not matter how good a teacher I had been or how much I had contributed to my field. Without the support of both my colleagues and the administration, I could not possibly get tenure, because both were absolutely essential. Because of the prevailing climate, though, earning and maintaining both was nearly impossible.

Somehow I succeeded. I did my job with unfeigned dedication and tried to stay out of trouble. Neither did I hide my opinions, and when called on to do so I expressed them. I refused to kiss anybody's you-know-what, but I remained civil and respectful toward all those I had to work with, understanding that the health of the entire college depended on others' and my willingness to do so. As a result, I earned enough respect to survive the tenure gauntlet.

Ever since Henry Kissinger said it, it's become a standard gambit to compare the vicious, feuding world of academia with the comparatively civil one of politics and international diplomacy. Even Kissinger must have to admit, though, that our national political conversation has come to resemble Harvard at its worst. Thus, I want to make my own contribution to the growing debate over what exactly the Occupy Wall St. (hereafter OWS) protestors might be trying to accomplish. I can't speak for anyone else, but I sense a growing frustration that people throughout our entire political culture seem to have stopped talking to each other. Civility—the glue that holds democratic institutions together and allows them to function—has stopped working. Nobody in Congress seems to be acting in good faith, willing to put the well-being of the nation and the survival of democracy ahead of the overriding goal of demolishing the other side.

This culture of dysfunctional name-calling has been building for decades. It would be sorely out of form for me, in an essay with this subject, to point fingers and assign blame for this situation. Let me just say that I don't watch MSNBC and I never have. The few times I tried to listen to Air America I turned it off in sheer boredom. Thus, I feel completely justified in asking people to stop watching Fox News. It was, in fact, my attempt to do exactly that which led to my voluntary withdrawal late last year from Facebook as a vehicle for political discussion. Looking back at what happened, I realize that all I was trying to do was persuade a few people who were clearly getting their talking points from Fox to talk to me as well and hear a different perspective. All refused. Several called me a bully and unfriended me. Incivility gained the upper hand.

So I set up shop here and seized it back. That's why I've been writing this blog and inviting others to join me. I sense a similar type of frustration, and a similar kind of initiative, in the OWS protests. These are people who have tried to work within the established framework, but have found that the framework no longer works because glaring, habitual incivility has completely destroyed it. There is no other place left for them to say what they know needs to be said. What they and I would love more than anything is for the public square to become open again to voices like ours. That, however, would require a commitment from everybody to the process of communication—to doing the hard work of democracy, which inevitably involves swallowing your personal pride and indignation so that the health of the entire country can be maintained and we can continue to function.

If OWS and I have a single message to convey—one that trumps everything else—it's this: you won't get anywhere if you let the conversation be controlled by people who won't talk to each other. This rag-tag coalition of mostly young people are currently the adults in the room. I take my hat off to them.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Other 99%

This is my first blog entry in a few weeks, since I am recuperating from my second abdominal surgery this year. As I have lain in bed timing painkillers and waiting for my hernia "repair" to heal, I have had lots of time to think but little energy to write. If I make it to the end of this post, it means my equilibrium is at least on the way to being restored.

This seems like the right moment for a brief retrospective. I am in my tenth month of recording here, with what now looks to me like astonishing prolixity, my thoughts that once seemed too "hot" to appear as Facebook notes. My "friends" there, including people I had known for a very long time and others I barely knew at all, had been taking offense, so I decided not to bother them. If you've started reading my blog since then, that explains the title.

I'm glad to say that my ruse has worked. I have gotten no complaints, even though I link every new post on Facebook and now on Google+ as well. I seem to have been accepted as harmless. I've taken advantage of that, and have written here, with what I hope has occasionally bordered on poetry, of the often unbearable tension that simply following current events can create within my American soul.

I am, as I have said before, an American liberal, who was born in the 50s, grew up in the 60s and came of age in the 70s. I have always understood liberalism to mean passionate advocacy of the greatest possible freedom for the most possible people. I have been happiest when our politicians have acted with the people's interest at heart, and most miserable when they have colluded with wealth and power to squelch opportunity and enforce conformity. I do not recognize myself in the mocking caricature of the "big government liberal" to be found frequently on Fox News and elsewhere. I am the real thing.

I have recorded here my ongoing disillusionment with being forced to live out my adult life in an America vastly different from what I expected it to become. But I have also expressed my hope that my fellow Americans are better than they often seem, and that we still have it within ourselves to continue to offer the world genuine leadership. If I'm wrong, we will simply become increasingly irrelevant, while continuing to be an active drag on the world's economy and physical environment. I hope I'm not wrong, and when I have expressed disillusionment here, it has been solely in the hope of reaching out. I know, based on many private communications I've received, that I'm not just preaching to the converted. I may not have a huge readership, but I am expanding people's minds.

Today I simply want to go on record saying that the current Occupy Wall Street protests, now spreading to other urban areas throughout the country, are the most hopeful and encouraging thing I have seen in a very long time. Like many, I have been confused by what exactly they are and what the protesters hope to achieve. I may be getting a vague idea of what 60s radicalism looked like to people who were my age when it began. I will be generous enough to assume that the mainstream media have been baffled too, and have not, as can easily appear to be the case, simply been ignoring the protests. I am writing this from my sickbed because I want to make it clear that they are too significant to be ignored. The onus will increasingly be on those who are baffled to justify their bafflement, and to search their souls to figure out just what they are missing.

There is no reason to be baffled. It's been a long time coming, but we finally have a critical number of people whose awareness of wrong, and whose hope for the future, wealth and power cannot control. Whether or not the rest of us have caught on yet, they are the other 99%. They are America. If this country meets its current challenges, it will be because of them. If it fails, it will be despite them. Fortunately, it looks like they're here to stay.