The mathematics of politics: US is always greater than THEM

I would like to preface this post by noting that some of the people who know me in person might suspect that this was inspired by a recent very emotional conversation that followed a similar thread (well, to the extent that it followed any threads at all given my state at the time). In fact I began writing this post weeks ago, though the recent conversation did inspire me to try to actually finish pulling my thoughts together. This is, however, still a very general set of ideas I’m trying to flesh out, not a response to any one particular conversation, comment, or experience.

Ah, it’s time for another presidential election, and with it come my least favorite parts of politics: the name calling, the self-satisfied claims of superiority, the rancor. No, I’m not talking about the political ads, though there’s enough of all of the above coming from the various campaigns to fuel its own rant. I’m talking about the mudslinging done by ordinary citizens toward anyone who doesn’t believe the same things they do. It’s no secret that I’m extremely liberal so you might assume that I’m specifically talking about the trash-talking done by conservatives. But I’m not. I’m talking about the hate that spews from liberals and conservatives alike. I am simply sick to death of hearing how one side is so much better than the other. How anyone who votes for the other candidate is either stupid or just plain evil. I’m going to talk here specifically about the things I hear from fellow liberals. This is not because I necessarily believe that liberals are worse about their mudslinging but because as a liberal who travels in pretty liberal social circles (both in the flesh and online) I hear a lot of things that make me sad, angry, and a little sick.

I will be the first to agree that a lot of political decisions are made with too little information, or information that is just plain wrong. But let’s be clear that just because one is ill-informed or poorly educated does not make one stupid. Many liberals are quick to paint broad swathes of the country with the stupid brush. I’ll admit that when you watch the various cherry-picked videos of idiocy on youtube it’s very easy to think that perhaps stupidity is the explanation for all the nation’s woes. Of course since the formulation is generally put forth in the form that some THEM out THERE is STUPID, it does leave one wondering a bit about how stupidity became so geographically concentrated. Perhaps the non-fluoridated rural water is to blame?

Formulating the problem as ignorance manages to side-step the question of how some sort of inherent stupidity might have such a dramatic geographic component (without even having to throw in words like “in-bred,” which yes, I have heard at least once this fall). Pointing to THEM and saying THEY are IGNORANT allows the blame to be spread to culture, to education, to the environment that surrounds THEM. To a certain extent I am willing to accept an argument about the perils of an ignorant population. What I’m not willing to accept is the formulation that suggests that WE are knowledgeable while THEY are ignorant. The skills involved in weighing evidence and using it to come to logical conclusions are not easily learned, nor are they the focus in much of the education system. If you want to argue that politics are negatively influenced by the state of our education system I’ll gladly agree with you, as long as you recognize that the problem doesn’t just affect the people who vote differently from you.

There are those, though, who do not think that ignorance and inability to reason is an affliction that crosses demographic or political lines. And it is with them that I take issue. Continue reading “The mathematics of politics: US is always greater than THEM”

hitching bath-chairs to boats

There is something fascinating to me about the way certain things stick in one’s memory where they are pulled up to the surface by strange unrelated things.

As a freshman at UW I took an honors comparative literature class that focused on Kafka, Beckett, and Borges. It was intense, strange, and wonderful. The class itself often felt a bit like a Kafka novel in that we were required to write responses each week and a final paper on one of the three authors, but what the professor expected these writings to contain was a mystery. I’m sure I would have found that less weird later in my academic career but at the time the intellectual freedom to do what I wanted with the ideas was a bit scary.

For the final paper I focused on Kafka, reading his letters and some of his stories that we did not read for class. Meanwhile my friend Chris wrote her paper on Beckett. In the course of doing extra reading for her paper she came upon the line “Doubt, Despair, and Scrounging, shall I hitch my bath-chair to the greatest of these?” She used this line in the subject line of an email she sent me (I don’t recall what the email was about but I’m willing to bet that it was related to our uncertainties about the academic work at hand, paired with our relative uncertainties about various romantic entanglements). This line has stuck with me, despite not actually knowing what a bath-chair is nor how this line fits in with the rest of the piece from which it comes (it’s in More Pricks than Kicks, which I seem to recall was even more confusing to me than even the rest of Beckett).

Years later I began listening to Sleater Kinney. I was a late-comer to much of the cool stuff on the Kill Rock Stars label, picking it up long after it was new and hot. I think it was 2004 or so when I began listening to Hot Rock, a good nine years after release of the album and seven years past my semester of immersion in Kafka and Beckett. Still every time I hear the song “The End of You” I find myself jolted into thinking about that snippet of Beckett when I hear the verse which includes the lines:

Tie me to the mast
of this ship and of this band.
Tie me to the greater things
the people that I love.

I seriously doubt this is actually a reference to Beckett. It’s more clearly (taken in the context of the rest of the song) an allusion to The Odyssey but still every time I hear it I think, even if only for a fraction of a moment, of that line and the way I was back then.

I miss the intensity of classes tackling things so unfamiliar they pulled me far out of my comfort zone and made me think things I swear it would never have occurred to me to think on my own. How do you capture that outside the university? Certainly reading widely is one way, but how do you recreate the intensity of classes? Perhaps the only answer is to build a time machine and go hang out with Gertrude Stein and Picasso in Paris.

The United States government's valuation of higher education

I was just reading something about the state of the union address last night that quoted the line:

“We have seen how Pell Grants help low-income college students realize their full potential. Together, we’ve expanded the size and reach of these grants. Now let us apply that same spirit to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools.”

This inspired in me a brief moment of hope that perhaps in the years that I haven’t been paying attention to the state of need-based aid for college undergrads we’d made some progress in funding higher education for poor students. Of course that moment of hope melted away when I looked at the current numbers. As an undergraduate at University of Wisconsin I was a work-study student worker in the financial office for two years. During that period I came to understand that, though my background disadvantaged me in certain ways, I was very lucky that my parent’s economic situation wasn’t ever so slightly better. Lots of students coming from families with incomes in the $40,000 and above range were eligible for very little federal or state need-based aid. Combine that fact with the fact that the limits on stafford loans were lower than tuition at UW and the school had almost no aid available above what was available from the government, and there were a lot of people for whom the question of how to pay for their education wasn’t an easy one.

Continue reading “The United States government's valuation of higher education”

And now my high school has a wikipedia entry.

I’m not sure how much news coverage this is getting outside of Wisconsin. But this morning John Klang, the principal of the Weston school district, was shot by a student. Klang was ultimately taken to University Hospital in Madison and died this afternoon at 3:30. A fifteen year old student came into the school with a shotgun and a concealed handgun. A janitor got the shotgun away from him but when the student appeared to be pulling another gun out of his pocket both the janitor and the teacher who were in the hall at the time took cover. The principal confronted the student and was shot three times while struggling to disarm him (which ultimately he apparently succeeded in doing).

I graduated from Weston ten years ago. Klang wasn’t principal yet but he had been on the school board for years. His three kids were quite a bit younger than me but we were on the same school bus route, so I knew them reasonably well. I also knew the janitor who wrestled the gun away from the kid. He was a janitor when I was still a student. And he worked with my father while my father was still a janitor at the high school (a position he left when I was 14).

I’ve been reading the news coverage. I feel a detached sense of grief and horror. I haven’t been back to the school in years. I don’t keep in contact with anyone in the area except my parents. I always felt like an outsider there. And I was. My parents moved there when I was a toddler. They’re happy there and fit in well enough but they aren’t strongly tied to the community. Still it is the place where I spent almost my entire childhood (certainly all of it that I remember). So this feels tragic and shocking in precisely the way things feel tragic and shocking when they hit close to home (literally, in this case).

I am shocked because it is always shocking when tragedy strikes. But I am not shocked that it happened in rural Wisconsin. The same things happen in rural Wisconsin as anywhere else. There’s drugs. There’s violence. There are weapons. All of it is on a smaller scale because there are so many fewer people. Although I suppose it’s worth noting that per capita weapon ownership is probably highest in rural areas.

I am sad about John Klang’s death. My heart goes out to his family, to his children who are adults now but who I will always remember as the children I knew on the school bus. I have the utmost respect for the janitor who acted so quickly to try to disarm the student.

I am full of anger and grief. Of course some of that grief is related to the death itself, but most of it is grief over the way our society fails large groups of children. When I heard the news I thought of my fellow classmates at Weston when I was there. I thought of the troubled angry outcasts struggling to deal with bad family situations, failure in school, ostracization. Often all three at the same time. I thought of the students I had actually been afraid of. And I thought of the ones who were intensely lost in their own pain but nonetheless sweet souls.

I look at the pictures of the shooter. He’s just a kid. He’s 15. My senior year there were a couple of eighth graders who used to hang out in the band room during their study hall, which overlapped with my lunch hour. I knew them both well. They were sweet boys but intense and sometimes prone to deep anger. One was in foster care and had a string of discipline issues following him. The other mostly stayed out of trouble but you could see clouds of trouble in his eyes, nonetheless. I thought about the two of them this morning when I heard the news because I imagined that the shooter might not be all that different from either of them. I’ll admit I wasn’t surprised when stories this afternoon identified him as a special ed student (Weston shunts all the students with discipline problems into special ed, which I think sometimes only causes them to feel more isolated). And while I was deeply saddened, I was not surprised to find that he was a victim of child abuse.

I’ve known too many children in situations that no child should have to bear. And it breaks my heart to think about the long-lasting effects those situations have. How does a fifteen year old child reach the point where they show up at school with a shotgun and a pistol? Inevitably these sorts of incidents lead to a condemnation of the media. And I won’t argue that there is no effect of violence in movies, TV, and video games on children’s behavior. But I think those effects are utterly and completely trivial compared to the effects of physical and emotional violence in children’s day-to-day lives. Of course the questions that will be asked in the wake of this is how we can be sure that children are safe in school. Perhaps greater security in schools will be proposed. How many people will ask how we can be sure that children are safe in their homes? How many people will ask what sort of emotional support and mental health care this child had after his father was charged with felony child abuse and allowed no unsupervised visits for a year and a half?

I have read a number of comments various places that essentially come down to “what is wrong with people?” In most cases that blame seems directed toward the shooter. It’s sort of a “what is wrong with kids these days?” sentiment. And while I can understand that thought process, it’s not where my mind goes first. The first though that comes to my mind is “how did we manage to fail these children so completely?”

The Ivory Tower, Bastion of Privileged Ignorance

Once upon a time I was an idealistic undergrad with great intellectual curiosity who longed to spend her life in the academic realm. At the time I hated the term “ivory tower.” I hated the people who implied that academics were locked away from the world and clueless about the lives of real people. I have since changed my mind. I still think the common sense vs. book smart distinction that comes up so often in anti-intellectual critiques is a crock of shit. But frankly, I can’t argue with the tower metaphor. Not all academics are clueless about the reality of the world, of course. But enough are that if you invoke the broad-brush generalization I no longer feel any need to correct you. Perhaps the problem is less pronounced among less elite academics. But that poses little threat to the ivory tower image since the “ivory” part implies the very eliteness of the institutions in question. My experience is with academics in the big research universities. Indeed my experience is with academics in the big research universities who study inequality. And I will say without batting an eye that in nearly all cases they have absolutely no clue whatsoever what it is really like to be outside the realm of the well-educated elite.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t claim the problem is limited to intellectuals employed in the academic domain. Arguably the vast majority of the world’s economically privileged have no real clue what it’s like not to hold that privilege. Indeed, the vast majority of the world’s privileged have no clue whatsoever what it might be like not to hold whatever aspect of privilege it is they hold. So why do I feel a bit betrayed that the academic elite, taken as a group, seems to have no clue what it is like to be a have-not? Simply because I think they should know better. In particular I mean that if you are a sociologist or an economist who studies families, or inequality, or really anything other than the white upper-middle class, you really ought to have some clue about the subject at hand. I don’t mean you should be able to volley around statistics. I mean you should be able to bend your mind in such a way that you can actually see what life is like. And the image you get should not be some sort of Picasso-esque distorted tangle in which your frame of reference is the only right one and everything else is seen as inferior or weird. Apparently I was foolish to think that the research community as a whole had moved significantly away from the old anthropology attitude of studying the curiously strange native.

My first year of graduate school I took a class on forms of capital. We studied human capital, social capital, and cultural capital. The professor made a big deal about how important social capital and cultural capital were in reproducing class status across generations. More than once he made claims about the amount of social and cultural capital we had access to. His evidence for our privileged status was our presence in his classroom. Of course if we were well-educated, with strong social networks, and lots of cultural knowledge pertinent to middle-class life that must mean that the same was true of our parents. If our parents weren’t well-educated, with strong networks, and cultural knowledge there’s no way we could possibly be pursuing PhDs at UCLA. At the time I chalked his attitude and explicit assumptions about our privilege up to individual pomposity and ignorance. Since then, though, I have come to understand that though the assumptions are not phrased as directly as he phrased them in that classroom, the assumption is still there.

It is painful to feel that your background makes you alien. It is painful to experience this feeling of difference that you must choose constantly whether to mark or ignore. But more painful is the rampant and often offensive ignorance about the realities of day-to-day life for people with whom you strongly identify. I’m going to focus on the concept of poverty, because it is most salient to me. But I think what happens in these discussions happens elsewhere too. I don’t think the “othering” that occurs is particularly unique to the economic realm. It just feels most like a punch in a gut to me personally when it is focused on economics. There are two ways of thinking about poverty that I find particularly repugnant. The first I will call the romanticization of poverty. The second, I will call the fallacy of impossibility. I encounter examples of both all too often. And as the examples of each pile up higher and higher I become angrier and more disillusioned. I become more convinced that the tower is real, and maybe even intentional (after all, god forbid “they” try to interact with “us”).

In the case of romanticizing poverty, certain aspects of day-to-day life are drawn on to highlight how great being poor must really be. Here the simplicity of being poor is exalted. Poverty is equated with rejection of consumerism. Poverty is equated with strength and resilience. Being poor gives you something that you just can’t get if you have money. Not having money helps you realize that money doesn’t matter. Being poor makes you strong and noble and creative.

The most grievous example of offensive ignorance I have yet to experience from an academic falls into this category. I was at dinner gathering with a group of faculty members from a number of universities and disciplines. (I’m not going to go into specific details of what the dinner was, or who was there, as I would like to keep this anecdote and the players as unrecognizable as possible) A sociologist was talking to an economist. Let’s, for simplicity call the sociologist S and the economist E. S told E that she had grown up in Ohio. E asked her if she grew up in Appalachia. She said no. He asked if she was sure, since sometimes the boundaries of Appalachia were weird and some very wealthy zip codes ended up being counted as Appalachia. She insisted that she was quite sure that she did not grow up in Appalachia. E then commented that S seemed like she could be “white trash.” S was, understandably, somewhat taken aback by this comment. E assured her that he meant it as a compliment. He explained that he had once had a student who took great pride in being white trash. She was even born in a trailer. She was very vocal about her background. She was very proud of it. I interjected at this point and noted that your choices were either to proudly proclaim your background or to hide it. My comment was virtually ignored. E then went on to say how great he thought Appalachia was and how much he enjoyed going there. He insisted that the people there were just so ingenious. They took old car tires, filled them with dirt, and planted flowers in them. He extolled the virtues of this, noting how amazing it was that they could take something ugly and make it beautiful.

I could forgive E for his ignorance, his wild-eyed innocent “oh gosh being poor just makes you so strong and creative” though patterns if it weren’t for the fact that he is an economist in a powerful position in a good university. Even then, I could probably forgive the ignorance if he studied something unrelated. But, given that one of the things he studies is the economics of Appalachia and another is welfare use, I can’t help but think he should damn well know better. At the very least I would think that he could be counted upon to be smart enough to know that “white trash” is almost universally not a nice thing to call someone.

The other side of the coin from the “oh ain’t it great to conquer adversity” romantic image of poverty is the “oh it must be impossible to be anything but miserable constantly” school of thought. In this case the poor are persistantly “other.” This is very much like the school of thought that decrees that all mothers on welfare are lazy good-for-nothings that deserve their fate. The difference is that this line of thought is less negatively value laden. The thoughts aren’t framed as “the poor choose to be poor.” Rather the thoughts are framed as “being poor is horrible, miserable, all-consuming, and virtually inescapable.” Essentially the thought is that any life besides the middle-class life is really no life at all.

My most recent example of this fallacy of impossibility is framed almost literally as any life besides the middle-class life is really no life at all. I was at a talk given by Katherine Newman. The focus of the talk was on a follow-up study that she had done on the lives of the fast food workers in Harlem that are featured in No Shame in My Game. She described what happened to the original research participants over the years after the time period covered by the book. Though fast food work is seen as a dead end, she showed that a sizable number of the workers actually were able to find stepping stones to better things. She reported some of the incomes of the respondents. Many of the success stories she cited were making around $30,000 per year. During the question and answer session a member of the sociology faculty who studies income inequality raised his hand and asked “do you really have any success stories here; after all, what kind of life can you live on $30,000 per year?” I give Newman a lot of credit for responding “what kind of life can you have on $30,000 per year? A lot better life than you can have on $12,000 per year, I’ll tell you that.” She then put the numbers into a bit of perspective. For a family of four, $30,000 is about 150% of the poverty line. This, of course, assumes that there is only the one income. Many of her respondents were able to become more economically secure through marriage or cohabitation. She points out that the respondents with income in the $30,000 range had an easier time meeting their basic expenses. They could pay the rent. They could buy food.

It is useful to put numbers into perspective, to recognize that at $30,000 a year a family is far from fully economically secure. Nonetheless it angers me to have someone who studies income essentially put forward the notion that you can’t lead a happy life on $30,000 per year. It is important to remember that a $30,000 a year job does not solve all the problems of these Harlem residents. But to imply that getting from a minimum wage job to a job that pays more than twice is not success, to my mind puts too privileged a lense on success.

In college I had a classmate once say “you can’t raise a family on $30,000 per year.” I wanted to drag him to the side of town where people regularly do just that. I wanted to respond “funny, my parents did.”

Being poor does not make you strong and noble and creative. Being poor also does not doom you to unrelenting, inescapable misery. The truth is a much more nuanced something in between. And if you need a tired, disillusioned graduate student to point this out to you, then maybe you need to get your ass out of your protective tower and actually talk to someone whose name is not followed by a string of letters. Either that or you need to start calling yourself an “expert” on something else entirely. Because tires with flowers planted in them don’t make everything all better. And are you really willing to pay enough for the services you consume to pay all those workers more than $30,000 a year to support your privileged lifestyle? The fact that my parents pays all their living expenses for less money than some of you pay for your children’s private school tuition does not make them better than you. But it doesn’t make them worse either.

As a final note, to put my anger at E’s comments about Appalachia into a bit more perspective I will offer a few details of my own background. My mother’s family comes from the hills of Ohio, which is to say Appalachia. My family tree is populated by genuine hill-billies, not the quaint, struck oil and now live in LA kind you can see in reruns. Plus, growing up my grandparents (who I always saw as the very archetype of middle-class since they owned a house with a swimming pool) had at least two tractor tire planters in the back yard.

Let’s just say that, a year later, I still can’t find the words for how I felt sitting in that conversation. I remember trying to find the words to answer the things that he was saying. I remember spending the rest of the night wondering if I should pull him aside and explain to him that nowhere is “white trash” a compliment. And I remember crying the entire drive home because it hit me during the course of that night–while eating fancy catered food in a house nicer than anything my high school self could ever have imagined affording, in a neighborhood where houses cost more than my father will have made in his entire work history–that I will likely spend the rest of my life making the calculations I made during that conversation. Can I afford to challenge this? How do I explain the degree to which I am offended by this without seeming rude, reactionary, or otherwise unprofessional? Ultimately, someone tactfully changed the subject before I could offer a rejoinder. Notably everyone else in the conversation seemed uncomfortable. But no one challenged E on his statements. In that night it became clear to me that the off hand problematic comments I heard and the offensive assumptions about the poor that are dropped into talks and sometimes even into research papers weren’t just idiosyncratic pieces of personal ignorance. In that night it dawned on me, much the way that the pain from a punch in the gut dawns on you, that what I was looking at was a trend.