Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Elephant in the Living Room

Driving in this morning, I listened to a lot of talk on NPR about the shooting of a Congressman yesterday.  Law makers from the GOP and Democrat parties made essentially the same points:  the rhetoric has become toxic.  We need to be more moderate in our speech.  We need to be more collegial.  Senator Tim Kaine claimed the cause of the shooting was a combination of gun access, mental illness and toxic (that's the new buzz word) language.

Sure, there's something to that.  But is there an underlying, more fundamental cause?  Let me suggest that the word everyone should be looking for is "class."  In America we have been in denial about class for generations.  It isn't supposed to exist.  That's why politicians (such as TIM Kaine) like to be called by their nicknames: Bill and Mike and Chris.  (Although always Donald and not Don or Donny, I note.)

It was a lot easier to maintain that illusion back in my salad days.  As Robert Reich pointed out in The Work of Nations  some 25 years ago, in the 1950s and 1960s, the CEO of a major manufacturing company, after paying his taxes, took home only about 12 times the net pay of the men and women on the assembly line.  A high school graduate with a good job and a good union contract could call him/herself middle class and plan to send the kids to college.

I've mentioned Joe Bageant's 2006 Deer Hunting with Jesus several times in this space in recent weeks.  The author retired from journalism and moved back to his home town in rural Virginia, where he wrote about his friends and neighbors.  For me the most telling chapter involved the Rubber Maid plant that was the town's chief employer.  Joe recalled how, when he was young in the 60s and 70s, good jobs and a good union contract provided a middle-income lifestyle for the Rubber Maid workers.  Then along came Wal-Mart, which demanded that Rubber Maid cut its costs of production by 30 percent.  Out with the union... out with good wages and benefits... in with ongoing fear of losing the plant and the jobs to an offshore operation.

In Joe and my salad days, guys like us had to work hard at failing.  It was just so darn easy to find a good job... even without a college education.  If you were a white boy --- even the son of a coal miner/bricklayer, such as myself --- you really did have to consciously choose to "tune in and drop out," if you wanted to be poor.  Poverty was a lifestyle choice.

Today, the good news is that our society is much more embracing of diversity then when Joe and I were young men.  Women and people of color are much more likely to have an equal chance alongside Joe and my progeny.  The real question --- the elephant in the living room --- is " a real chance at what."

My children and their friends --- college graduates one and all --- feel the challenges acutely.  One young colleague, aged 34, who holds a Ph.D., told me that he will be 60 when his student loans are finally fully paid off.  A young woman, who graduated seven years ago with my daughter and now has an MA from NYU, worked as a shop girl after getting that degree.

Robotics and AI, globalization, the decline of organized labor, the cost of a college education, the gutting of home equity in the Great Recession... all these have contributed to the decline of the great American middle class of the 50s and 60s and the widening gap between rich and poor in the US.

And, as Joe Bageant documented ten years ago and Donald's victory ten years later confirmed, the late, great American middle class is feeling the pain.  Should we be surprised if some of them --- perhaps the mentally ill ones --- lash out violently?  Yesterday's shooter, I hear, was a homeless man and former Occupy activist living out of his van.

If you are worried about easy access to guns by such folks, read Joe Bageant's chapter on firearms; it'll make you worry even more.  If you are worried about mental illness, then rethink healthcare reform; ask what policy changes put so many homeless, mentally challenged people on our streets.  And if you are worried about "toxic" rhetoric, maybe rethink the mean-spirited, insensitive and just-plain-greedy policies that underly that rhetoric.

If the elephant rampages, no one's living room will be safe... not even in America's gated communities.

No comments:

Post a Comment