Thursday, November 24, 2016

Popping Bubbles

This past week, Saturday Night Live had a quite funny, yet poignant mock advertisement for The Bubble...
After a wild and crazy election season, I know we are all taking inventory of our political fragmentation. I was not as surprised that Trump won the election as many of my peers, but I was surprised as to how surprised they were that he did win.

Several years ago I read Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 to better understand the shifting patterns in American working/upper class culture. It was not as obvious to me at the time, as I assumed like everyone else that the general working class was always slanted toward more traditional Democratic values (the one exception being the Reagan years where there was a slight counter shift). But in respects to Murray's work, which compared the two communities of Belmont, MA and Fishtown, PA, there is a different story as to an increasing divergence that begun to emerge for several decades between the college-educated elite living in the super-zips (a la bubble) from those with little education, eking out a meager living in more rural areas. Much of this points to economic shifts, but Murray highlights more the cultural underpinnings that created this mess.

One Amazon reviewer says, in 1960 Fishtown was a very Catholic neighborhood in which the men worked, the women stayed home, and the kids went to Catholic school. My ex-wife was one of them. What they considered to be social problems were excess drinking, quite a bit of it, fistfights and a bit of philandering. Young people, however, knew what was expected of them. They got married, before or after becoming pregnant, and provided families for kids. It was a moral expectation that was generally observed. People had responsibilities and took them seriously. They did not accept welfare, they answered the call when they were drafted, and they participated in church and civic organizations. Fishtown in 2010 is a very different place. People simply don't feel an obligation to either work or get married. There are many never married people, and many out of wedlock children. A lot of the guys are just bums - don't work, don't want to work, don't want to get married, and waste their time watching television. An inordinately large number have figured how to game the system by qualifying for Social Security disability. Their attitude is that work is for chumps. Quite a few of them have drinking and drug problems, but Murray does not consider these disabilities to be nearly as important as the lack of any of the four foundations in their lives. No more religion, no social connections with the community, either no marriage or an unsatisfactory marriage, and no vocation.

Yet in Belmont, the picture is quite different. Murray claims that the state of affairs in Belmont is much better. People work hard, get married, stay married, are resolutely and obsessively concerned with their children, and are involved in community. More than that, counter-intuitively, they are more involved in church than are the people remaining in Fishtown. They may not believe the dogmas, but they understand the social value of belonging. What has changed in Belmont is the conviction that the set of virtues they practice really ought to be preached. Belmont now believes totally in moral relativism. If somebody else doesn't want to remain married to his kids' mother, doesn't want to work, or spends all of his money on drink and drugs and all of his time watching TV, they're not going to be judgmental. That's somebody else's life.

Murray sums it up best when he says, the hollow elite is as dysfunctional in its way as the new lower class is in its way. Personally and as families, its members are successful. But they have abdicated their responsibility to set and promulgate standards. The most powerful and successful members of their class increasingly trade on the perks of their privileged positions without regard to the seemliness of that behavior. The members of the new upper class are active politically, but when it comes to using their positions to help sustain the republic in day-to-day life, they are AWOL. 

Where once there was a time when people of any class admired the upper classes in America, now there is little to admire as having an ideology of non-judgmentalism does little to help a working class with a decaying moral and social fabric. Such frustration could only lead to the desire for a outside statesman with strong convictions that could rattle the current system to its core.

Moreover, the new upper class non-judgmental stance is not without its hypocrisy, as there is a contempt the bleeds from the top-down. Locked into their value-laden bubble, they can't even relate to working class America anymore. Murray showcases this through a quiz in his book... 
  1. Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American neighborhood in which the majority of your fifty nearest neighbors probably did not have college degrees?  
  2. Did you grow up in a family in which the chief breadwinner was not in a managerial job or a high-prestige profession?
  3. Have you ever walked on a factory floor?
  4. Have you ever held a job that caused something to hurt at the end of the day?
  5. Have you ever had a close friend who was an evangelical Christian?
  6. Do you now have a close friend with whom you have strong and wide-ranging political disagreements?
  7. Have you ever had a close friend who could seldom get better than Cs in high school even if he or she tried hard?
  8. During the last month, have you voluntarily hung out with people who were smoking cigarettes?
  9. During the last five years, have you gone fishing?
  10. How many times in the last year have you eaten at one of the following restaurant chains? (Applebee’s, Waffle House, Denny’s, IHOP, Chili’s, Outback Steakhouse, Ruby Tuesday, T.G.I. Friday’s, Ponderosa Steakhouse)
  11. In secondary school, did you letter in anything?
  12. Have you ever participated in a parade not involving global warming, a war protest, or gay rights?
  13. Since leaving school, have you ever worn a uniform?
  14. Have you ever ridden on a long-distance bus (e.g., Greyhound,Trailways) or hitchhiked for a trip of fifty miles or more?
  15. Have you ever watched an Oprah, Dr. Phil, or Judge Judy show all the way through?
So I was able to answer yes most of these only because I grew in a working class town in southern Maine. However, in my current living situation, I would have failed this miserably. And I never cared to fish and I never wore a uniform. C'est la vie, in a bubble.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Hamilton and Elitism

I finally finished the terrific Hamilton biography by Ron Chernow. Since this book inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda and I may never get to see his Broadway musical, I have to get what I can from this delightful read.

So when I read a long biography like this, there are just a couple big takeaways I can absorb beyond some fun facts and dates (which I will eventually forget in most cases). So a theme that came to me as I was reading was this notion of elitism. Why Alexander Hamilton and elitism? From the following excerpt it would seem Hamilton held a somewhat pessimistic view on the citizenry and our fledgling nation. Chernow says, 
The intellectual spoilsport among the founding fathers, Hamilton never believed in the perfectibility of human nature and regularly violated what became the first commandment of American politics: thou shalt always be optimistic when addressing the electorate. He shrank from the campaign rhetoric that flattered Americans as the most wonderful, enlightened people on earth and denied that they had anything to learn from European societies. He was incapable of the resolutely uplifting themes that were to become mandatory in American politics. The first great skeptic of American exceptionalism, he refused to believe that the country was exempt from the sober lessons of history.
Human nature being what it is, Hamilton did not get lost in rose colored glasses. He understood we have two natures, and as such, he valued the need to cultivate the rarity of excellence rather than take it for granted as a given. After all, that's why we fought for freedom from the Redcoats, as freedom is fundamental to our nature and necessary for exceptionalism to flourish. But Hamilton also knew this would not come without industriousness, perseverance, and sacrifice.
Hamilton, a poor immigrant from Saint Croix, rose to prominence based on own merit. Ironically, he was villainized in American history textbooks as an apologist of privilege and wealth, when he was a fervent abolitionist unlike many of the slaveholding populists that occupied the presidency those first several decades of our nation's birth. Chernow states, It was no coincidence that the allegedly aristocratic and reactionary Federalists contained the overwhelming majority of active abolitionists of the period. Elitists they might be, but they were an open, fluid elite, based on merit and money, not on birth and breeding— the antithesis of the southern plantation system.

Hamilton lived a mostly dignified (as well as sometimes flawed) existence through his duel with Burr that abruptly brought his life to an end. Taking his life as a whole, he exemplified an excellence that gave elitism a respectful aspiration. 

So what can learn about Hamilton's notion of elitism that we have seem to have lost today? The elitism that Hamilton espoused is not the same elitism that antagonizes today's alt-right. While some of the outrage toward institutional cronyism does have merit, it does not negate the fact that some established experts do bring an excellence to their craft. After all, an elite is simply someone is better at doing the sorts of things within their respective peer category. They are not just better, but deservedly better, and should be respected as such. Hamilton, often labelled a monarchist by his adversaries, did acknowledge the need for elitism in government. This is also one of the reasons the founding fathers set up our governmental structure as a republic (representative democracy) over being a pure democracy. The latter would have brought on too much risk that the rule of majority could overtake the rights of the minority. Having representative elected officials would mitigate governing by mob rule. 

On the other side, the left has been guilty of marginalizing accomplished elitism by giving short shrift to liberty over equality. Equality, emphasized as outcome and not opportunity, can oppress success for the sake of a strict egalitarianism. In the end, this brings down the best in order to raise the "oppressed." The cost to culture is immense, as this creates its own form of state totalitarianism that stifles creativity and innovation. Moreover, institutions that emphasize equality will do little to allow those in power to be held accountable. Ultimately, that undermines any of the benefits brought to bear by elitism and creates a culture where mediocrity prevails.

Both sides of the political divide could learn from Hamilton's pride in true elitism, sans contempt from above and envy from below, so the desire to strive for and support excellence can bring about the best in a nation.

Speaking of a talented elite...

Friday, November 4, 2016

I Vote for God

“Politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs that properly concern them.” — Paul Valery

There is not much I can add to this election season, except for more fodder for the burnout. I have become more adept at avoiding the noise in order to hone in on the signal. My question as to where I want to focus my attention is: will it matter in 10 years? I have probably seen hundreds of newscasts and clickbait stories over the years that have completely left the memory banks and had no lasting impact other making the monkey mind more manic at times. While I have books that I still point to from a decade ago that mean something to me and have left an imprint in my soul. Sure, I can’t remember much detail from some of those reads, but that’s why we highlight the high points.

I suppose politics does matter to a point; but it is always downstream from culture; and that is downstream from metaphysics (which shapes our values and virtues); which is ultimately downstream from Divinity. So that’s why I am going with the flow of this election season, and will only endorse what matters. I do not believe a Clinton or a Trump will matter in the greater scheme of things, even if I do have my unenthusiastic leanings. 

Most people, myself included, can be reductive with their thinking as to how we solve worldly problems. We can’t even agree on the problems: where one side views ISIS as the greatest threat, the other side sees it as climate change. Truthfully, our secular solutions won’t solve our spiritual problems, and I think most of our problems are of a spiritual nature. This doesn’t mean I am not interested in how the world works (I am very interested in that!), but I am not very interested in how it should work. Who am I to say what would be best? Sure, I have some preferences and principles. But I realize that there is danger in concretizing either. Preferences are my own subjective whims. And my principles are an aid to my reasoning, but not a replacement for it. My principles can guide my thinking, but once I believe that they must be rigidly applied in any context without further thought to all circumstances, then all I have done is transformed any redeeming wisdom I may have into an ideology. And most political discourse these days is ideology mixed in with some dog-fighting.

So, what essentially would I like to see happen beyond what policy could offer? A spiritual revival with mystical/metaphysical rigor would be a good start. It seems we have lost the desire for a relationship with the Divine, and therefore man has to do all the heavy lifting himself. But mass culture doesn’t even take responsibility for the lifting these days, but now relies on the state to do it. And once the state screws it up, we then look to the next leader to steer the ship. The currents continue to flow, but we resist hoping to arrive at some utopian end state that will never be. 

As Bob said, “the trouble is, no one looks at things from a cosmic perspective, so trivial things appear huge while massive objects are rendered invisible.” What will it take to render the invisible visible? I’m not sure, but I’d vote for it.