Saturday, October 4, 2008

Factories, Nostalgia and the Intellectual Elite

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I have never understood this antagonism towards intelligence. One, I think there is a disconnect when people vote for people "like them" and then complain about the poor quality of elected officials and two, I think Americans have a giant intellectual inferiority complex, complicated by a diminished set of expectations for themselves that developed during their experiences with education.

I have met many people who do not think of themselves as intelligent who are in fact, intelligent, but simply because they do not have the confidence to believe in their own abilities, they tend to defer to those who seek power. And that deferral sets them up for a cycle of belief and betrayal that further diminishes their expectations.

On the other hand, when I taught a class on the Renaissance, I took my college students to the Phoenix Art Museum. After walking through the exhibits and showing them the PUBLIC research library in the museum, one of my students turned to me and said, "That was really cool. I didn't know that we were allowed to come here." I thought at first she meant the research library, but then I realized she meant the entire museum itself. This was a smart kid, a good kid, and she didn't know that she was allowed to go to a PUBLIC art museum.

I think the careful erosion of quality education by conservative (I won't say Republican, because that's not correct) entities in this United States has led a lot of people to feel like there are a lot of places they are not allowed to go. They are not smart or cultured enough. Because education funding has been continually gutted, people without extra financial support or academic traditions already part of their family's resources had mediocre instruction in school: it wasn't interesting, it didn't serve their needs, etc. And as a result, their only experience with the place where many of us gained a solid sense of our intelligence and developed a reasonably healthy and reliable relationship with it (as opposed to Homer Simpson's relationship with his intellect - "Brain, I don't like you and you don't like me...") was unsatisfactory and unfulfilling. At the same time, the educationally under-served are smart enough to see that having that solid relationship with intelligence is the membership card for doing a lot of really desirable things in this world.

I think the conservative degradation of education funding has its source in an antiquated idea of labor, and what is a suitable expenditure on education for the labor force, based on labor price and expectations. This antiquated idea still clings to a split educational path where workers work and the intellectuals lead. In short, no one believes more in an intellectual elite than the conservatives who use it as a rhetorical pry-bar on those who might otherwise vote against their designs.

In the old USofA, the people who now feel denied this membership card by a lackluster educational experience would have then gone into industry and worked in an auto plant or other factory work where their skills and intelligence that were not perhaps measured well by books & grades could be developed, giving them a sense of honor, identity and self-worth. But conveniently for the captains of industry, they were still undereducated, and therefore their wages would never be more than a certain level, assuring industry a ready supply of labor at a good price to profit ratio.

But those jobs are gone. We don't make anything anymore. We are now a country where the two industries are retail and Wall Street. And there are very few opportunities to develop a sense of honor and identity if you are working in retail or service. The wages required to make a profit for the retail industry are so low, they are insulting even to the worst educated. We have people discussing minimum wages as living wages when the minimum wage was originally meant to be like the minor leagues in baseball. It isn't supposed to be comfortable, because you are supposed to go to the major leagues. You weren't supposed to stay in the minors for your entire life. Now we have way too many people stuck in the minor leagues.

Where the frig am I going with this - just that I can see where a candidate like Palin is the backlash to the death of the industrial revolution in this country, just like the defeat of the bail-out package is a denial of the new central role of the investment industry to our national economy. We are going through a major transition in national identity, very similar to some of the adjustments that people in Eastern Europe had to go (and are still going) through when the "new" international economy arrived after the Wall went down.

Those people in Eastern Europe who have language skills, who are resourceful and resilient are doing really well. They are the burgeoning middle class. Those people who have no language skills, who are conservative in their ability to shift with the times, who are middle-aged or from families whose identity is linked with industry & mining, are having a tremendous difficulty. As a result, there is backlash of conservatism and ultra-nationalism, along with a tremendous amount of nostalgia for a system that was proven to be economically bankrupt in the 1980's. In Eastern Europe, this means communist parties get perhaps 20-30% of the vote in elections on nostalgia & backlash alone. Here, it means that candidates that espouse conservative recidivist ideas like "family values," traditional simplistic responses to new multiplex issues, and maintain a belief in fundamentalist power structures, probably get about 20-30% of the vote in elections from a group of people who are totally under-served by an economy in which factories no longer have a place.

I think that's Palin's role here. To make solid a 30% of voters that McCain can add 21% to by convincing a few slow-moving moderates & paranoid senior citizens and thus eek out a win. And I am going to bet, that it will be McCain, not Palin, who will fail to hold up his end of the bargain.

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