Monday, September 12, 2016

Revisiting the Sixties

            A few days ago, I volunteered to help encourage Penn State students to register for the vote.  At the start-up meeting, a young woman next to me asked if I had done this sort of thing before.  I answered that my wife and I had gone door to door to promote George McGovern's candidacy.
            "Oh," she said, and then, "I've never heard of him."
            "It was 1972," I replied.  “He was the anti-war candidate against Nixon.”
            "Oh," she said.  "That was before I was born."
            It reminded me of how little people--of any age--talk about the sixties and seventies these days.  When I was in high school back in the early sixties, what did we watch on television?  To be sure, we had our own generation’s icons; there was Star Trek and Twilight Zone and Gunsmoke.  But we also watched movies on TV and, typically, they were movies from the 1940s.  We knew, from television, a lot about our parents' music, their cultural icons, and, of course, their war.  The sixties, though, are different.  They are, for many young people, an unknown place. 
            It is not just politics, of course.  In those days, politics, Vietnam, civil rights, the Great Society program, the youth movement, sexual liberation, music were all intricately inter-connected.  And, as a result, they are all a mystery to many younger people.
            In her new book, Witness to the Revolution,  Clara Bingham notes that “from the start of the academic year in 1969 until the beginning of classes in September 1970, a youth rebellion shook the nation in ways we may never see again.  It was the crescendo of the sixties, when years of civil disobedience and mass resistance erupted into anarchic violence . . .  And yet, the school year of 1969-70 has gone largely overlooked.” (It was, parenthetically, my senior year in college, when student protests brought an early end to spring term at Penn State.) Bingham notes that, in our cultural memory, there is a “mental jump from ’68 to Watergate” (p. xxvi) and, ultimately, to the Reagan Revolution and the nation’s abrupt turn to the right.  Bingham, who herself was born in 1963, notes that “the turmoil and passion of the 1960s was a hazy memory, and even hazier was the understanding of what could possibly have mattered so much” (p.xxxv).
            That may change next year when PBS broadcasts Ken Burns’ new ten-part documentary series The Vietnam War.  The series, according to Burns' website,   "sheds new light on the military, political, cultural, social, and human dimensions of a tragedy of epic proportions that took the lives of 58,000 Americans and as many as three million Vietnamese, polarized American society as nothing has since the Civil War, fundamentally challenged Americans’ faith in our leaders, our government, and many of our most respected institutions, and called into question the belief in our own exceptionalism."
            It should be an interesting year for conversations across generations.  It will be good to see if we, as a society, are able to have an open discussion not only of the war, but of the cultural, social, and political turmoil that was part of the times—a social conversation that we have largely abandoned since the 1970s.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Lesson from Jane Addams Revisited

I first posted the following item back in 2013, at the beginning of President Obama's second term in office.  I am posting it today for two reasons.  First, it is Jane Addams birthday.  Second, the lessons we can learn from her are as relevant today--if not more so--than they were in 2013:

Back in 1919, at the end of the first World War, Jane Addams published an article called "Americanization" in the Publications of the American Sociological Society.  She focused on the different ways in which the idea of "Americanization" was perceived before the War and after it.  Before the war, she wrote,
"Americanism was then regarded as a great cultural task, and we eagerly sought to invent new instruments and methods with which to undertake it.  We believed that America could be best understood by the immigrants if we ourselves, Americans, made some sort of a connection with their past history and experiences."   
However, after the war, she notes, "there is not doubt that one finds in the United States the same manifestation of the world-wide tendency toward national dogmatism, the exaltation of blind patriotism above intelligent citizenship . . ."

There is a lesson here for our times, when our national politics on almost every front (including, still today, immigration) has become weighed down by dogmatism, leaving us little space to find the middle path that makes democracy work.  As Addams herself noted,
"When we confound doctrines with people, it shows that we understand neither one nor the other.  Many men, not otherwise stupid, when they consider a doctrine detestable, failing to understand that changes can be made only by enlightening people, feel that they suppress the doctrine itself when they denounce and punish its adherents."
 Too often, these days, our elected representatives feel themselves morally bound to adhere strictly to a dogmatic vision, either the one they campaigned on or the one held by the people who funded their elections.  As a result, we have seen a virtual paralysis of government.  American democracy is performed through argument and discussion, but ultimately achieved through negotiation and compromise--finding a common ground on which we can all agree to work together as a community.

As a first step, we need to ask our elected representatives to see their colleagues not as adherents to a different dogma, but as fellow citizens.  In turn, they need to educate the public--and lobbyists--that their job is to advance the total community, not just their partisans.   One place where that job can be engaged is in the news media.  Too often, as has been said before in this blog, the news media serve to reinforce the differences in dogma rather than to help viewers find the middle ground where good policy can be developed.

We just began a new four-year political cycle.  Let's hope that Congress and the Administration can find a middle path and that the news media, rather than simply inviting the dogmatic extremists to butt heads on every issue, will foster a fair analysis that will help everyone educate themselves about what can truly be done to find common ground solutions.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Policy Lessons from "Hillbilly Elegy"

I just finished reading Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.  It is an amazing book and, I think, and important one.
            I had imagined that Hillbilly Elegy would be a kind of social culture study of the Scots-Irish who came to the U.S. and settled in Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia.  However, I was surprised—and then delighted—to see that it was not that.  Instead, it was a very personal memoir by Vance, who grew up as part of a hillbilly clan who had migrated from Kentucky to the steel mill town of Middletown, Ohio.
            What hit me first was Vance’s personal story.  Like him, I grew up in a fractured family without a father and with few male role models, but with a nearby extended family.  My mother, my brother, and I lived with my grandparents in a little one-bedroom house that had been meant as a temporary residence, but which had been the family’s home for a couple of decades already when I was born.   My grandmother’s brothers and sisters had all bought lots up and down the same street when the local farmer decided to sub-divide, so I was rarely out of earshot of a relative.  Down the street was my best friend, whose aunt had married my uncle.  It was all family.   We were also poor—in the midst of an otherwise healthy middle class neighborhood— something we didn’t talk about.  So, it was rewarding to see someone else talk honestly and in detail about growing up in a similarly complex environment.
            Vance, who escaped the poverty of his youth to go to Ohio State and then Yale Law School, gives us an insight into the inner workings of this group of Americans—descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants who came to the U.S. in the early 1800s and settled in the coal mining area of Kentucky and whose descendants migrated to the coal and steel towns of what is now known as the Rust Belt.   The strong multi-generational family culture, the willingness to fight “outsiders” who threaten that culture, and the traps that tend to keep them from more fully integrating into society are all explored as Vance tells his own story.
            Vance also takes time to analyze the white working class culture.  He notes that the decline of the blue-collar economy has increased cynicism about the position of working people in American society, but that “there was something almost spiritual about the cynicism of the community at large, something that went much deeper than a short-term recession” (p. 188).   Herein lies one timely lesson of Vance’s memoir.   It is a culture, he observes, that feels increasingly isolated from the core of an American society that has rejected a commitment to its working people.  “If Mamaw’s God was the United States of America,” he writes, “then many people in my community were losing something akin to a religion.  The tie that bound them to their neighbors, that inspired them in the way my patriotism has always inspired me, had seemingly vanished” (p. 190).  
Vance asserts that the news media and conservative politicians have encouraged working people to look not to themselves but to government to blame for their inability to succeed in today’s economy.  “There is,” he writes, citing a Pew Economic Mobility Project study, “no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites” (p. 194).
That pessimism is very likely—and ironically—what has drawn working white men and women to the radical right-wing views expressed by Donald Trump and the “alt.right.”  In the mid-twentieth century, labor unions had given steelworkers, miners, and many other occupations a level of financial and social stability that they had never seen.  The very term “redneck” comes from the red bandanas of pro-union coal miners in West Virginia.  The 21st century, however, has seen a weakening of the labor movement as corporations take jobs out of the country in order to avoid reasonable wages for American workers.  Government has chosen not to fight the corporations, leaving workers without support.  While it is very strange that workers would turn to one of the most opportunistic corporate leaders in this election, they clearly hear his pitch, however insincere it may be. 
The question for all of us must be:  how can we provide real opportunities for working people to succeed in the new global information society that has sprung up around us?  This was the message of Bernie Sanders.  Elements of that remain alive in Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Politics aside, what should we do?  Some thoughts:
We need to move beyond the current Affordable Care Act to a true national health system that guarantees all citizens access to medical services.  The issue should not be to make health insurance more easily accessible; it should be to make access to health care a right of citizenship.
We need to tax corporations that move jobs overseas or that move corporate operations out of the country in order to avoid taxes.  Corporations that benefit from the American economy must contribute to its health, pure and simple.
We need a minimum wage that allows anyone who works full time to be able to support his/her family.
We need to explore a modern counterpart to the Civilian Conservation Corps to ensure that all Americans have access to work that feeds their families and contributes to the community.  The military must not be the only refuge for people who cannot find employment.  This might also serve as part of a “year of service” expectation for young people between the time they leave school and when they become full-time workers or move on to college.
Finally, we need to make some level of postsecondary education available as a right of all citizens.  This may be a two-year period that would allow someone to gain a license or an associate degree or make a start toward a baccalaureate degree. Today’s economy requires that workers have greater training.  Ensuring that our workforce is prepared for the economy is, ultimately, a national security issue.
These solutions are reminiscent of FDR.  The key, as I read the implications of Hillbilly Elegy, is to empower people rather than put them on the dole.  Underneath it all is the need for government—“of the people, by the people, for the people”—to  respect the needs of citizens rather than cater to corporations.  It is a “build up,” rather than “trickle down” approach to creating a healthy economy.