Friday, August 26, 2016

The Different Narratives We Have in Our Heads, And the Hardships that have Shaped Them

Mother Jones has recently run a piece by Arlie Russell Hochschild, a professor emeritus of Sociology at University of California-Berkeley, that gives a sense of what life feels like for a region of bedrock Republicans in Louisiana. It is a wonderful piece of investigative journalism that I urge all of you to read. I say that because it puts a very human face to folks whose views, and values, we might not fully appreciate when we disagree with how they express them politically.

In particular in this piece is featured a single mom who has made her way, successfully for the most part, despite some significant hardships. Doing it in a state not only economically depressed, educationally disadvantaged, but one who seems to have been one of our nation's primary chemical toilets for a good number of decades now. And when you read about this woman you can't help but have a great deal of respect for her. She's made her way by dint of grit and determination that you can see in her eyes has cost her no small amount.

I can't help but contrast this with my own story. Different region. Different development history. Abundant hydro power attracting aerospace, and other technical industries, but still having its own difficulties in funding schooling, as well a mental health, or counseling in general for folks in need. In that I had to deal with a severely mentally ill mother, and self medicating alcoholic. A father who was hardly ever home enough to be involved in my growing up because he had to work so much as a salesman to make ends meet for a family of five kids.

My sisters and I grew up having to be not only co-mothers, but significant care givers to our severely handicapped younger brother (cerebral palsy). In this, the only way to get much time with my father was to start working for him at the age of 14, driving fork lift, and keeping his ever growing stash of aerospace surplus organized. And with the difficulty with my mom, I was out on my own at the age of 16. From that point on, I've gone through a significant list of shit jobs (fast food burger boy, restaurant dishwasher, brick stacker in a brick manufacturer, and restaurant cleaner).

I went to school nights to get my first two years of college (at one junior state junior college), and then benefited, later on, via the CETA program, in getting an associates of science degree in data processing at another state junior college (which, I hasten to add, only cost the government for barely one year of schooling because I already had transferable credits from my first two years of school). This then allowed me to eventually secure a living as a successful IT professional, that I then spent 20+ years at. All along the way here, other than the CETA program, a brief receipt of food stamps my first wife and needed to get when my son was born, and then a brief receipt of unemployment when, after the the "Great Depression," getting further IT work became more difficult (both because of the economic downturn, and my age in the early sixties), I have never taken any other handouts.

I mention all of this because it is just so striking to me just how different my life narrative has been compared to the woman described in the Mother Jones article. And by narrative I mean the way I would describe my social view of how life works. And to understand this better you first need to hear the narrative from the folks in Louisiana:
"You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you're being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He's on their side. In fact, isn't he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It's not your government anymore; it's theirs."
My view of life is more along these lines:
Economic life is setup to separate and isolate all of us from each other. It does this not only because we have to specialize, and thus work within an industry group that mandates its own set of things that are important, but also because, even when industry groups in different regions are the same, they are likely in competition with each other. This economic life is also set up to create an environment that saturates us with want, 24-7. Want that is seldom healthy, or self improving. This is absolutely mandatory because it is the only way consumption, which is the only thing that makes a job possible, can keep up with an ever increasing ability to produce. And because markets, as well as competitive advantage, are both always fluctuating, job stability, and security, is questionable at best. As such, the stability of any family can become equally questionable. Without stability, the ability to pass on values of any kind, let alone a disciplined attitude towards delayed gratification, also becomes questionable. And so, generation after generation, we have more and more folks unable to make good choices.
One of the other things about my region, of course, that sets it apart is that it has had a significant history of anti Capitalist fervor. You add that to a school system that, whatever other shortcomings it may have had, did manage to pass on one very important thing: the ability, as well as the desire, to not only read, but to understand and integrate the things you've read into logically consistent sets of ideas. And for that I will always be very greatful. That being said, however, it is also a formula primed to produce people who are going to question things in general, as well as how power works in particular.

You might think from all of this that I would still tend to think quite critically of folks like the woman in the Mother Jones article, but that really isn't the case. I certainly don't agree with all of their view of life, but I do understand it. If I had grown up living there, dealing with the poison dumped on them, the lack of economic stability, and the near absolute lack of viable social infrastructure (good schools, decent health care, etc) I am pretty sure I'd feel the same way. The thing is, though, despite the differences in how we see things, I still think there is room to find common ground here.

What I would hope that we have to realize here is that it is not the various other players in economic life that are our opponents; despite what may seem like advantages or disadvantages, or fair and not fair receipt of same. As Clint Eastwood said in the "Unforgiven" a few years back, "deserving's got nothing to do with it." This is so because the game itself, that we all find ourselves forced to play in, is not only rigged, it is fundamentally flawed. It is rigged because the powerful can flaunt the rules pretty much any time it suits then. And it is seriously flawed because technology has rendered its basic assumptions meaningless; as in, for instance, that human skill is still a viable commodity.

I would further hope that, even as we keep to the values we feel are the bedrock of who we are, we can still see our way holding on to this common ground, even if some of those values seem to differ between us. After all, we don't have to like each other to cooperate. We just have to see the common self interest involved so that we can both prosper as we see fit. Must that really be such a hard thing to do?


How Donald Trump took a narrative of unfairness and twisted it to his advantage.