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Archive for February, 2009

Books Without Content

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So, it’s been a week, and the situation is nowhere nearer resolved than it was, bu I seem to have reached a point of emotional exhaustion where I just can’t stress any farther past where I am, so I can read again.

Sort of.

In terms of this level of not being able to read, I’ve been there before–there come times when maybe I’ve just been doing too much of it, and it all feels stale, or I have a cold and I’m not thinking too well, or I haven’t been able to sleep.

When II’m at that particular stage, the best thing for me is polemicist nonfiction of about a middlebrow level–linear thought, clear writing, straightforward exposition, interesting subject.  I can find these books on both the right and the left, but whichever side they’re on, I always argue with them.  Most of the “new atheist” books fit into this category, but so do James Hitchcock’s What is Secular Humanism? and Mary Pride’s Coming Home, both of which are, well, let’s just say they’re not in favor of attheism.

It used to be easy to find books like this.  All sides of the political spectrum regularly put these out–Thomas Franks’ Whatever Hpappened to Kansas, Bruce Bauer’s While Europe Slept–although the right tends to be more diligent about producing books for a “broad general audience” than the left does these days.

What gets to me is that, over the last few years, I’ve been running more and more into books that seem to be of the sort I want, but that are instead exercises in repeating platitudes with little or no content involved.

A satisfying book of the kind I’m talking about often has a predictable thesis–Islamofascism is going to take over the world by stealth; the working classes of America have been hoodwinked into voting against their best economic interests; the welfare state is causing crime, illegitimacy and homelessness in the inner cities–but it takes this thesis and does something with it.  It provides extended arguments.  It presents evidence of various kinds. 

The new kind of book, the one without content, does none of these things.  It states its thesis, and then it states it over and over again.  What there is otherwise than the restatement tends to come down to repeating varoius kinds of “conventional wisdom” without attributing it to anybody or anything, as if we all knew it, the way we know the earth is not flat.

Back at the beginning of h is career, Dinesh D’Souza wrote one of the best of the books of the kind I like in these moods, Illiberal Education: The  Politics of Race and  Sex on Campus.  Anchored on D’Souza’s experienes as a conservative undergraduate at Dartmouth, it was a partisan but extremely interesting approach to a subject I am always interested in, and it provided me with lots of information I didn’t have before.

Contrast this to another book, also by a staffer at National  Review, Ramesh Ponnunu’s The Party of Death:  The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the  Disregard for  Human Life.

When I say this book is thin, I don’t mean it’s short, although it’s that, too.   I mean it’s literally thin.  There isn’t a single thing in it that I didn’t already know, in the sense that I’d already heard it a hundred times on television.  

These books always get me going on some point or the other, because, being partisan, they always get some things wrong, but in this case the wrong items were also all over television, so that it felt sort of silly to be yelling at them. 

I can’t imagine a single person anywhere on earth who would have been informed about anything by reading this book.  It’s a book for people who already think and know everything in it and just want a rehash, although why anybody would want that, I don’t know.

As I said, these books have begun to appear all over the political/religious/philosophical spectrum, so just to show that I don’t mean to be one sided, I give you The Christian Right and the Rise of American Fascism, by Chris Hedges.   If the Ponnuru book sounds as if he’d “researched” it by watching television, the Hedges book sounds as if he’d “researched” it by spending a couple of weeks smoking dope with the University of North Carolina chapter of the Very Indignant Indeed Left Wing Students Association.

Nobody who knows what the word “fascism” actually means, noone who knows the first thing about the history of the twentieth century, can read Hedges’s book without getting a headache.  It is one screed after another based on a set of assumption Hedges apparently doesn’t realize that most of his fellow citizens don’t share.  A lot of it is what I call the “shock! horror! grass is green!” school of journalism.  You know what I mean.  “Do you realize,” the writer asks breathlessly, “that they’re actually mowing their lawns in Dutchess county?”

The tone of voice, narrative or actual, is of someone delivering the news that the sherrif’s department is running a sex slave ring out of the town jail, but the actual content is more on the order of “cats breathe air.”  To the fifteen or twenty people for whom cats breathing air is a scandal, the announcement is probably very satisfying.  For the rest of us, the exercise is just confusing.

Here’s my problem–I don’t get the point here.  Why do people write these books, and why do people read them?  I understand the middlebrow stuff I do like–you can in fact get information from those books, and a window on a point of view that may not be your own.   Besides, looking at the evidence from the other side is a good way to understand the issue more fully than you do. 

But this second kind of book seems to me to be a complete waste.   If you know nothing about the issue in question, these books will not convince you.  They don’t provide enough information, and they don’t provide much in the way of logical argument.  If you already hold the point of view they favor, you’ll do nothing but hear it repeated in a way you can get from many other sources without spending money for them. 

Cheryl says she can’t read Ann Coulter because of the toen, and I sympathize, but I think that what got me started on this entry is the fact that  Coulter has written both of the kinds of books I’ve been talking about.

This latest one is, alas, of the second kind.

Written by janeh

February 28th, 2009 at 9:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Checking In

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I’ll admit it.  I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to think of something to say.  Part of it is The Thing, which is ongoing as we speak, and still in a very bad place, but it’s also that it turns out that I respond very badly to stress physically.  The cold, or whatever it was, is back, or half  back, and I’m so tired most of the time I can barely think.

And I can’t read.  I actually lost the Milosz book.  I was only about half way through.  I’ve tried some other things, but I keep sort of drifting–I gave a shot to Ann Coulter’s new thing, and I keep forgetting to put a bookmark in it.  It’s the oddest thing.  I don’t often agree with Coulter, but she tends to be easy to read and a big fan of linear thought, so it shouldn’t be difficult, but it is.

So I just thought I’d say I’m sorry for being out of the loop for so long.

Written by janeh

February 26th, 2009 at 1:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A Reflection, of a Sort

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This has been a long, bad week-end, possibly one of the worst in my life, and I’ve had a couple of doozies.

And at some point, I will write about this in detail–in fact, I fully intend to, in escruciating detail–but at the moment I’m not sure I should, and even if it doesn’t matter, I don’t feel like it.

But thtere’s something I  can’t stop thinking about that has been going through my head for all this time, and I want to say it.   The only problem is that it’s going to sound very cryptic.  

I’m going to say it anyway, because what the hell. 

I tend to become deeply and thoroughly committed to people, places and things–well, organizations, that kind of thing.

I tend to love things absolutely or hate them absolutely.  And when  I love something, I’ll do pretty much anything for it. 

I have come to the end of my relationship to a place and an institution, one I’ve spent the last fifteen years of my life putting in considerable time and effort, blood and sweat and tears supporting.

In doing this,  I’ve known a small set of people connected with this place on an ongoing basis, some of them since before the fifteen years.

I was thinking today about the first time I saw it, and how incredibly overjoyed I was to find a place that was so perfectly suited to who and what I was, and Bill was, and our then only son Matt was–how perfectly suited, after months of looking at places that weren’t suited at all.

And the thing is,  I’ve known for several years now that this place is not the same as it was when I first got there.  People whose involvement there was near the top of my list of what made this place great got fired, and the people who came in were of a type and a set of personalities I’m not very comfortable with.

Possibly the worst thing has been the change in the avenues of communication.   When I first got to this place, if there was somebody I needed information from, I went and talked to them directly.  If there was somebody who had something to tell me, he told me, also directly.

For some years now, this procedure has changed so that, if there is something somebody needs to say to me, he says it not to me, but to an administrator, and the administrator relays the message.

But the administrator doesn’t necessarily say anything to me about who made the comment, only “concerns have arisen” or “several people have come to me.”  

Sometimes I get the feeling that there are no such concerns and that the “several people” are actually just one, or maybe two.   And this feeling has not been diminished by the fact that the one time  I did manage to make an end run around the administrator to talk to some of the people possibly expressing the latest “concern,” those people did not back up the report of their feelings the administrator gave to me.

The result of all this, added to a natural shyness–I’m about the least social person you will ever meet–has resulted in the fact that, with all these new poeple coming in, I’m known as an actual person to nearly none of them.  It’s possible to say anything about me to anybody at this place these days, because nobody knows me well enough to counter the portrayal.

And that gets down to something I can never quite get over–and that is the extent to which some people are willing to simply, bald facedly lie.

I’m not saying I never lie at all.  Of course I do.  It was worth my life to tell my mother what I really thought of her taste in clothes, and I’ve made enough polite little noncommittal noises to get out of things I haven’t wanted to do. 

But I find it absolutely startling that there are people out there who will say things about other people that they know are untrue, that are damaging to reputations and more, and that they intend to cause such damage.   I can’t imagine doing it.

And I keep thinking about that line from T.S. Eliot I quoted near the beginning of this blog, “All bad things are caused by people trying to be important.”

Or something like that.  I keep forgetting the exact wording.  But at the base of what has just happened is a woman whose only driving force in life is her rock-hard determination to be the most important creature in any room, or situation, or organization.  

I wish I could write a character like this–write it so that the full fury and meanness, the depth of arrogance, the endless sense of entitlement-to-power would come through, a character who would be as thoroughly frightening as this woman is in real life.

Well,  I’m really not a genius.   I can’t seem to do it.  I always make the character more rational than the person is.  I always fail to anticipate the ingenuity of the cruelty.

Whatever.  It’s not the woman I’m minding so much, as it is the fact that the institution of which she and I are a part has apparently bought into the entire game she’s playing, or at least decided that it wasn’t particularly important to stop her.

Ten years ago, I would never be sitting where I am now, becuase half a dozen people would have come up to me to report onf what they’d heard and ask me what the real scoop was.  I’d have known anything, and nobody would have considered it acceptable to assume that what I thought and what  I did was what somebody else said it was.

Last year, a set of incidents occured that, had they occured at any other place, would have sent me straight for a lawyer.   As it was, I came very close to making what would have had to be a criminal complaint against this woman, and then I stopped myself. 

It seemed to me impossible that I would ever involve this place in a lawsuit, never mind a matter for the police–my God, what would something like that do to its repuation?  How could I do that when it had been so good to me, and to mine?  I could destroy the place, or seriously hinder its continued existence.

Now that entire mental pathway seems quaint to me–I’ve been looking through the window at an Ebola virus and thinking it musts be a fawn.

I’ve got no idea how many of the people in this place know what’s going on, how many approve or disapprove, but I find myelf not really caring.  There are limits beyond which decent people do not go, and this is well past it.

So I’m sitting here, you see, mourning it–mourning this place, and what it was.  There was a time when it was one of the truly great places I had ever known, and one of the truly great organizations,  and truly great at what it had set out to do.

And now it’s not.

Requiescat in Pacem.

I have to get lawyered up.

Written by janeh

February 22nd, 2009 at 7:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Narratives in their Place

with 5 comments

I still think the most interesting thing, to me, about this blog, is finding out what conclusions people jump to, and what assumptions they hold, that would never have occurred to me in a million years.

Let me start by saying that I was not talking about giving high end writers “a place” in the sense of giving them a job–the issue is not some official position somewhere, paid for by taxpayer money or otherwise. To an extent, we already have that, and I’d say it’s worse than useless.  It combines all the bad news about the capitalist response to high end writers with all the bad news about the Socialist response to the same. 

No, that isn’t what I was talking about.

But let me get to Lymaree first, who said that she didn’t know who was creating our narratives now, but it wasn’t literature, etc.

First, no single person creates a narrative, at least not usually.   I can think of one or two exceptions over time, but by and large a society’s narrative is a compendium of many things and many sources.  A novel, a film, a television program embodies such a narrative, but it does not in itself invent it.

That said, to the extent that a society’s narrative is shaped by its high end writers–and it always is–the process is indirect.   You may not read Gore Vidal, but the professor at the local community college does, and he passes Vidal’s ideas on to his students, who recognize them in the Bratt Pitt movie they see this week-end, and transfer them to the news story they read afterwards.

Narratives are the great example of trickle down economics.  No society anywhere has had a mass base with an interest in, or even glancing acquaintance with, high culture, but every society’s mass culture is shaped by its high culture. 

So literature is shaping our narrative today, and it is shaping it in ways consistant with the history of the liberal democracies in the West in the twentieth century.  That is, it is shaping our literature in a direction that tends to attack those very liberal democracies, to expose them as flawed and worthless. 

And it does that because large hunks of high end writers across the Western world, in the US and out of it, need liberal democratic culture to be worthless.  They need it to b worthless because it treats them as worthless, and what we’re looking at here is a fight for survival.  If it’s a question of us and them, we tend to pick us, if only to go on breathing.   In a world in which the present social order seems to promise nothing but contempt and indifference, we tend to want a new social order.

Several million posts ago I complained about a subgenre of the thriller field in which the Big Bad Corporation is the cause of all the troubles in the world, despoiling the environment, contracting murders for hire against its critics, stealing the public blind.   As trite as that plot is, it has become part of our national narrative, so much a part that my students often make such assumptions about large businesses even though they’ve never been in contact with such businesses and really know nothing about them.

My students are not reading Gore Vidal, to go back to the most important present example, nor are they reading Noam Chomskey–but their professors are, and the people who make the movies they see are, and the ideas trickle down in forms that are far more palatable than a plow through Chomskey’s Manufacturing  Consent could ever be.

High end writers–the most technologically accomplished, the most intellectually rigorous, the most educationally broad–always write our narratives for us, even though what they actually write is often difficult to read and therefore reaches few people.

It’s which people it reaches that matters, and the biggest bang for the buck doesn’t come from admirers in academe.  Being turned in to a CAT (course adoption text) is very nice, and can be lucrative, but most college students these days don’t bother to do half their reading and even the ones that do forget most of what they hear in class before they’ve gotten their first pay check.

The biggest bang for the buck comes with the influence of high art on popular art–readers may reject James Joyce as experimental, but a generation of detective novelists and horror novelists loved him, and now his techniques (and many of his attitudes about people) are so much a part of the mainstream we no longer recognize them as experimental.  Maybe they’re not experimental any more.

Certainly a book that is sufficiently popular can, if it’s popular long enough, drive a general narrative in the population at large. That is definitely what has happened with the novels of Ayn Rand, and they spawned a political movement that has had significant results across the US.

But Ayn  Rand is a popular writer, not a high end one, and her ideas have had little or no impact on the broad range of movies and television that we see.  The ideas in those are almost always a reflection of the high art their writers loved but coldn’t produce themselves–the  Rod  Serlings of this world are almost always people who start out wanting to be Hemingway and Faulker and then find that they have to settle for less.   They import as much as they can of what they love into the popular work they do, and their audience takes “their” ideas and move them into the culture at large.

The primary narratives of the Western world have, at least since 1900 or so, been increasingly shaped by what Paul Hollinger called an “adversary culture,” a high art culture in direct revolt against the very basis of the societies it exists in.

And this antagonism, this adversary culture, filters down.   It gets into our music, our movies, our popular novels, our television shows, even our fashions.   People pick it up automatically, whether their schools teach it or not. 

The antagonism comes, I think, because this group of people not only sees no place in these societies into which it can fit, but because, to the extent that it is recognized at all, it tends to be ridiculed and insulted.  “Eggheads.”  “Pointy headed intellectuals.”  Even the “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

The solution isn’t to install official jobs for high end writers.  As I said earlier, we already do that, to an extent–writers in residence programs operate on most elite campuses, there are foundations with grants, etc–and the result is predictably dismal.  

It’s dismal, in the first place, because such arrangements are counterproductive to writing on any level.  The French film industry has not been helped by decades of  French government support.  It’s been largely hurt, because government support has made it possible for those filmmakers to avoid the work of figuring out how to actually communicate with people. 

The writer in residence racket is similar.   A writer installed at Edenic University has a nice office and can often afford a nice house in the area.  He’s got health insurance.  He’s got money in the bank.  What he doesn’t have is any incentive to make himself understood, or to himself understand the culture in which he lives.  

Writers in the high art tradition almost never have huge sales figures, and wouldn’t even outside writers in residence programs, but in the long tradition of intellectuals being outside academia, not in it, there was a discipline imposed by the little magazines and the publishing companies that said the writer had to participate in the world in which he was living in order to write about it.

So no, I’m not talking about giving writers official government-paid positions, or even more university positions.  If it was up to me, I’d get rid of the writers in residence programs entirely and get these guys out into the world.  You can complain a lot about Gore Vidal, but he’s a writer, not an academic.

When I say that this society needs to find a place for its high end writers,  I mean it needs to learn to understand and value what they do.  In a society in which the watchword is the old anti-intellectual “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich,” where the arts are considered matters of “taste” with no objective standards of good and bad to judge them by, where knowledge and art and the Great Conversation are just “hobbies” with no particular importance to the world at large–

Well, the people who engage those things are likely to show us just how every important those things really are, if only by kicking us in the ass with them.

Written by janeh

February 20th, 2009 at 6:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Sometimes, It Just Gets Two Depressing

with 2 comments

Here are a couple of snapshots, from the week.

The second one:  I was trying to show a class how to structure a standard compare and  contrast essay.  Forget the fact that this is the sort of thing they’re supposed to learn in middle school, I was slogging away at it, doing my best, and trying to think of pairs of terms they’d both recognize and find it interesting to compare.

I’ve got it, I said.  Britney Spears and Albert Einstein are similar and different in many ways.

Okay, it was silly.  But I was right, everybody in the room seemed to have heard of both Spears and Einstein.  Or I thought they had, until I called on a girl to ask her to read her paper and got,

“Albert Einstein said that people were descended from monkeys, and Britney Spears looks like a monkey.”

And then–this is the kicker–when I tried to untangle her problems with both Einstein and evolution, she was mad at me, because announcing her mistakes in front of the class like that embarrassed her, and what did it matter anyway?

But here’s the thing.  She’s eighteen or so.  And she at least knew Einstein was a scientist, which is better than I sometimes get.  The really depressing thing happened before class, while I was waiting to get into the room.

That was when I overheard part of a lecture by the professor who had the room before I did, a tenuted PhD teaching a management course for kids definitely not academically disadvantaged in the way mine are, who told his class that:

Seven million American boys went to Viet Nam AND

More than three hundred thousand died there.

Now, I’ll admit that I’m not really all that good with numbers, but even I know that 300,000 is more than the number of American casualties in WWII, and that war had a somewhat higher rate of service than Vietnam did.   But just to make sure, I went and checked the VA, which keeps a list of these things–7 million is almost twice the number that saw service in Vietnam, and deaths “in theater,” combat or otherwise, totaled fewer than 60,000.

And this is only part of what I heard all the time.  I heard a professor tell a student she ought to self publish her poetry–a friend of hers self published, and his book was right there in Barnes and Noble. 

Of course, your local B an N will definitely carry your self published book, but the B and N national buyer won’t touch it, you won’t be eligible to join any of the professional organizations (because they don’t consider self-publishing legitimate professional work), you won’t get reviewed by any of the national organs–in other words, it’s a really bad idea.

Before some of you jump up and down on my head, I want to point out that the professor with the silliness about Vietnam is militantly pro-capitalist and economically right wing–the first mistake I ever caught him in was in a lecture on just how awful socialized medicine is, using England as an illustration, except it was clear in no time at all that he had no idea  how the English National Health Service actually worked.  He thought it was a form of health insurance, sort of like Canada’s.

I complain about students a lot, and I should, but it’s becoming more and more clear to me that nobody knows anything anywhere anymore.  We all seem to live in our little coccoons of “facts” that aren’t really facts.  We all, as Will Rogers said, know things that ain’t true.

And once a popular teacher has said it, it can be damned near impossible to convince a student that the bogus information is wrong.  Which makes the increasingly frequent existence of professors who hold conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination, insist that vaccinations cause autism and silicone breast implants cause breast cancer, and a whole host of other nonsense more than disturbing.  It’s downright frightening.

I am, as I’ve said dozens of times, all for challenging authority as much as possible–but we’ve come to a point where people feel entitled not only to their own opinions, but to their own facts. 

And what gets me about that is this book I’m reading, called The Captive Mind, by a Polish writer named Czeslaw Milosz.  And if you want to know how to pronounce that, good luck.

I first heard about Milosz back in 2002 or so, when his essays were released in book form–he had defected from Poland in the 1960s and spend the rest of his life as a professor at Berkeley, but he’d always written, both poetry and prose, in his native language.  There’s  no indication he could not speak English.  In fact, from all reports, he seems to have been able to speak fluently.  But he wanted to write in Polish, for Poles, and he did.

The Captive Mind is a book about how and why intellectuals in the Eastern Bloc ended up supporting Communism, in spite of the fact that it was obvious to them that it was different from Naziism mostly in rhetoric and not in action.  And the first interesting thing about this man is that he managed to get a Nobel Prize for work saying that Communism and Naziism were pretty much clones.

There’s a lot that’s interesting in this book.  At one point, Robert said that the Communists had no trouble teaching the literary canon–The Captive Mind contains a ton of information on just how thoroughly the Communists censored the works of the Canon, how they manipulated what they did allow, how people went to enormous lengths to get hold of such banned works as Wordsworth’s poetry and James Joyce’s novels.

But it’s the way Milosz tries to get inside the heads of the different kinds of “party writers” he knew before he left–including the kind of party writer he was, since he was one–that I find fascinating.

It confirms me, however, in a feeling I’ve had ever since I read an essay by George Steiner called “The Archives of Eden”–the big mistake capitalist societies make is that they find no useful place for their high-end writers. 

If narrative is important to all of us, if we can’t live without it, then brushing off that segment of your population that’s going to be writing yours is probably not the best idea.

I have no idea if I’m making any sense here.

Written by janeh

February 19th, 2009 at 12:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Just A Note

with one comment

So here is  Theodore Dalrymple on “ideology,” which sounds a lot like what I was calling narratives


And that should make up for the fact that my week has gotten a little complicated.

Written by janeh

February 18th, 2009 at 8:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Classes In America

with 8 comments

So, here’s the thing–I sort of agree with Robert that source of income is more important than amount in determining political commitment, but I don’t agree with his source.

First, let’s be clear–there are definitely classes in America, and  I’m not talking about economic classes, although they exist, too.

It’s the cultural classes that matter in the long run, and in more ways than we realize.

There’s the American upper class, to begin with, which consists of people who have money, but don’t make it.   Or, if they make it, they hide the fact as well as they can.  The culturally upper class have no use for work, and they tend to have nothing but amused contempt for people who “slog away” at things.  Up until the last fifteen or twenty years, most of these people were guaranteed a place in the proper Ivy, Seven Sisters or  Little Three schools on the basis of family legacies alone, so they didn’t bother to study a lot to get the grades to get in.  And once they got there, they didn’t bother to study a lot then.  George W. Bush is culturally upper class–a gentleman’s C was good enough, and the real things to concentrate on are certain specific kinds of sports (tennis, downhill skiing, horses) and, very often, a lot of serious drinking.

The American upper middle class consists of “educated professionals”–but only certain kinds of educations and certain kinds of professions “count.”   These are the people who, if they went to one of the national prep schools, got their on stellar grades and  SSAT scores, and who ran into the upper class with a kind of shock.  “There are two kinds of people here,” a tour guide at Taft told my older son when he was looking at high schools, “Rich people and smart people.”

To the  American upper middle class, intelligence and education are everything.  They’re doctors, lawyers, accountants with the big national firms, psychologists,  professors at certain universities (Yale, yes, Mattatuck Community College, no), research scientists, journalists in the national media, and a few other things.

At sixty, they’ll still remember their  SAT scores, and their rank in their high school class.   Most of them have postgraduate degrees–again, from only a certain set of schools and only in a certain set of professional areas.  An MBA is fine if it’s from Wharton or Harvard, but a  PhD in education is  ALWAYS unacceptable even if it does come from Harvard.  

Most of the educated upper middle class works in the private ssctor–the public sector doesn’t pay enough money–but in specific parts of the private sector.  They don’t run widgets factories in New Jersey.

Almost all these people vote Democratic, and they do it for two reasons–because social issues are far more important to them than economic ones, and because the Republican Party has done a bang-up job of marketing itself as the Party of the local yokels, all those people these people happily left behind when their grades bought them a ticket into what they consider to be a far better world.  

The American middle class consists of white collar workers, people who work in middle and low level management jobs in offices and are paid by the year instead of by the hour.  These tend to be the swing voters, because in fact what they want from politics is practical approaches to immediate problems.

Also included in this group are the owners of mid-sized businesses.   You can tell the difference between them and the upper middle class in the emphasis they place on education–the middle class wants its children to go to college “so they can get a good job.”   There is little understanding of or even acceptance of the idea that knowledge is important for its own sake or that the purpose of education should be something other than practical training.

They use the local public or parochial schoolsand send the kids to the state unversity, but usually to the flagship campus to spend four years “living away,” which is an experience they think everybody should have.

The American lower middle class and working class are largely the same, but they’re divided by source of income–the lower middle class owns small businesses, the working class works for an hourly wage.

Both public school teachers and nurses tend to belong to this category, even though public school teachers get paid salaries and, in some places, those salaries can be quite large.  

Education degrees, however, are notorious for being intellectually vacant and academically useless.  Education majors typically have the lowest entering credentials of any students on any university campus.   These are the people who tormented the hell out of the people who are not part of the upper middle class, especially since they were almost always stupider than their students and not good at handling it.

The lower middle class, including those public school teachers, tends to be sociall conservative.  In fact, every working public school teacher I know–and I know a couple of dozen of them–is a Republican. 

On the local level, of course, they vote for whoever will vote for more money for schools, but on the local level that doesn’t shake out by party as much as it might on the national level.  On the national level, they hate the No Child Left Behind Act, but they’d hate anything that required them to meet a prescribed standard.  These are people who generally did not do that well in school, and who think intellectual demands are largely “unfair.”

The lower class, of course, consists of people on welfare, or the street, and that’s a complicated issue on its own.

But the American upper middle class gets shafted big time by Democrats, if what you’re looking at is economics.   When Clinton raised taxes, he didn’t raise them on “rich” people.  He raised them on those doctors and lawyers making 250,.000 and then dropped the rate again after half a million–he targeted educated professionals precisely. 

What’s more, an incredible number of these people are philosophically libertarian.

They’re just not going to vote for a Party that makes Sarah Palin–dropped g’s, just-folks demeanor, sketchy knowledge of just about anything she’s asked–a national figure.

Written by janeh

February 16th, 2009 at 7:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Little Light Housekeeping

with 3 comments

It’s interesting what gets people worked up.

First, a note–Mab,  I think, said we were talking about why there was so much resistance in some places to “a decent life for all.”   That wasn’t what I thought I was talking about.  I  thought I was talking about whether the outcomes in your life depend on work or luck, and taking the position that they always depend on both.

Second, yes,  Robert, of course, what  I’m saying about lack of knowledge and going to the Ivies would, even if the knowledge were thoroughly distributed, mean change for only a very few people.  That doesn’t negate my point, however, which is that whether or not you go the the Ivies does not depend entirely on your ability or willingness to work for it.  You can work your butt off, and in the end you still have to get lucky–at the very least, you have to have somebody in your environment who understands the finances and knows why it makes sense to go for it. 

Third, grade inflation is system-wide.  There’s grade inflation at Harvard, but there’s also grade inflation at  Oklahoma State and Herkimer County Community College.  So yes, the Ivies still glitter, because their inflation starts from a much higher substantive base.  Of course, along with the Ivies there are other first -tier universities that get close to the same kind of name advantage (Georgetown, for instance, and Duke).

Fourth, the move to “need blind admissions” and the promise that if they admit you, money won’t be the reason you don’t come started in the late  Sixties or early Seventies at the top end of the Ivy League (Yale,  Harvard, Princeton) and spread from there over time.  But this is not the system at every private college and university.  Harvard has an endowment larger than the entire economies of several small countries, and it only spends 4%–no, that’s not a typo, I said 4%–of the income from that endowmen every year.   A number of these schools could eliminate all student fees inclusive–tuition, room, board, lab fees, you name it–and not even notice the financial bite.

In general, however, indepedent small colleges with regional reputations tend to be the worst financial deals in the system.  Their endowments are often small, which means they don’t have much money to give away.  I don’t know about  St. John’s, since Matt’s thing about not going anywhere that didn’t accept  ROTC pretty much made that a moot point in this house.  

Fifth, I’m with Lymaree–the reason there’s so much resistance to government financed health care in this country is the deep seated perception that with it will come h ealth care managed by “experts” who will get to tell you how to live, and how to die.  The biggest issue now in the discussion is the fact that Oregon’s state-based plan, although it won’t cover certain emerging cancer treatments (still “experimental”), will cover assisted suicide.

Robert suggested something that I’ve actualy thought a lng time–we don’t really have a health care financing crisis in this country, we have two.  We should uncouple catastrophic and long term chronic care from routine care, for one thing, because those are not the same problems and in many ways solving them requires contradictory answers.

Sixth, I know what happened to good old fashioned working class liberals–social liberalism.  FDR and company were very careful not to associate themselves with things like ending segregation or the emancipation of women, never mind gay rights or abortion.  That was the old Democratic Party  compromise–in order to get support for large scale government social programs, states and municipalities were left to do what they wanted to about things like what went on in their school systems and whether or not they had laws on the books criminalizing promiscuous fornication. 

Social issues are more important to people than economic ones–they’re more important no matter where you are on the economic scale.  The upper middle class votes for the Democrats in droves, even though Democratic tax policy hurts them even mor than it hurts the upper class, because the Democratic Party delivers pro-choice, gay rights, and (increasingly) anti-religious policies.  The lower middle class votes for Republicans in droves, even though Republican tax and services policies hurt them more than anybody else, because the Republicans support religion, oppose abortion, and (and this is a BIGGIE), are the only ones that look like they might try to get rid of affirmative action.

On the subject of illegal immigration, the working class is  screwed from both sides, because the upper echelons of both parties have more to gain than to lose from continued waves of illegal immigrants. 

But FDR was a smart man, and he knew that there was only one way to get his economic policies through–and that was to make sure that the people who benefited from them did not have their way of live significantly disturbed.  Whether he should have done that or not is debatable, but that we won’t see working class support for social programs as long as they have to swallow abortion and gay marriage with them is not.

Seventh, I, like Lymaree, know a lot of plumbers and carpenters and other small contractors who are not longing to be working for banks, but my concern is with people who literally do not have the capacity, mental or otherwise, to do anything but what they are already doing.  I’m not talking about plumbing contractors so much as I’m talking about convenience store clerks, and the people the n on-numeric cash registers were designed to help:  just bunch a picture of the Whopper, no need to know the math.

I still say that luck plays an enormous part in all of our lives.  No, it’s not the whole story, not by a long shot, but it’s there, all the time, and it cannot be ignored. 

And to think, I was going to talk about this odd and wonderful Polish writer today, because–yes, yes–I’ve finally dug out a book that I can use to ditch Little Women.

Written by janeh

February 15th, 2009 at 8:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 10 comments

I found the comments to yesterday’s post interesting.  There are some subjects out there that people are so convinced they know the details of, it’s as if they don’t hear what doesn’t comply with what they think they know.

Let’s start with  Cheryl’s comment that it wouldn’t make sense for a middle class or working class family to “stake all” on the hope that an Ivy education would mean great success for their child.

But such a family WON’T “stake all” on an Ivy education–in fact, if the family makes $60,000 or less a year, and the kid is good enough to get in anyway, the chances are that his total outlay for tuition, room and board for four years will run at most between $6000 and $8000–less, if he can get into Harvard. 

That same kid will pay $68,000 to spend four years at the University of Connecticut at Storrs–close to ten times as much.

So why would this family be “staking all’ to take the Ivy deal and being sensible to send the kid to UConn?

Like Mab, I also have one of those fancy degrees from a fancy college.  And the advantage doesn’t lie in the “old boy network.” 

Statistically, the bottom half of a Ivy class does better, financially, that the top half of a second tier–but the real issue isn’t the money.

Let’s say you’re an editor at Big New York Publishing House and you need an ediorial assistant.  An editorial assistant is a glorified secretary, but nobody gets to be an editor without being an EA first, so what you’re trying to do is hire somebody who can b promoted in two years.

You advertise–the pay is God awful, and the hours are worse, but lots of people want to get into publishing, and you find yourself with 7,000 applications on your desk.

How do you sort through them?

Picking out the ones with Ivy or other top-20 credentials makes sense on two levels:  first, the standards  for academic work at such places are much higher than at the competition and second, if you ever have a discrimination complaint that first part will cover your ass–yes, we turned down Ms. Murecki, but not because she’s a Polynesian woman. The guy we gave the job to has a degree from  Harvard and Ms. Murecki went to Oklahoma State.

In all my years in this business, I’ve known exactly one person without such credentials who managed to make it into the system, and the same thing is true of the national magazines.

And this is not a minor issue if you want to end up making your living as a writer, because the usual path to that is NOT to write things in your room at home and send them out to editors in hopes somebody will buy one.

The usual method is to take a job at a national magazine or an important publishing house, work for a few years, get to know all the editors and agents you can, and then, after a promotion or two, pitch a project. 

Most of the books and articles you see for major publishers and publications are contracted for before a single word of the project has been put on paper.  When I was still doing a lot of writing for women’s magazines, my usual process was to work up fifty or so one-sentence article ideas, e-mail or FAX them, and wait for the editor in question to pick what she wanted.   She’d take anywhere for six to fifteen, send me out a contract that covered the lot, and then, and only then, would I go to work.

Do people do it the hard way, from that room at home?   Sure.  Some very successful writers have gone about it that way, especially writers of fiction.  But if you want to make sure you can write for a living, you go the editorial assitant route.

The issue isn’t privelege or the old boys’ network, it’s access.  And it works for people who come from nothing to attend these schools even better than it works for the legacies, because the people who come from nothing have to be very, very, very good to get admitted.  Harvard has an affirmative action program, but it won’t do you any good unless your grades are already good enough to get you into Georgetown.

There are plenty of people who might make good lawyers in international firms, good bankers in international banks, who never get invited to an interview, because the sifting process dumps their applications out long before.  This is, as I said, not a matter of snobbery or privilege but merely one of logistics.  Lots and lots and lots and lots of people want these jobs.  There’s got to be a way to make an initial cut in your applicant pool to get it down to a size you find it possible to handle.

I’m with Cheryl, too, by the way, on the fact that being born into a family with money and privelege is a form of luck.  But I’m aware that it’s not just that that’s luck–there are a lot of accidents of birth going on here.   Most of my kids could work their butts of for decades and not achieve much in the way of material prosperity, not because they’re lazy or spendthrift but because they’re not very bright.   And I am more and more convinced that there is a significant proportion of intellectual ability the potential for which is set at birth. 

I don’t think it’s entirely determined at birth, by the way–I think that, given the raw material, what becomes of it is a result of environment.  But you can only work with the raw material you’ve got.   And no matter how perfect you make the environmental conditions, some raw material will limit the outcome.

I could read before I was three, I got stellar college boards in math even though I hated the subject and refused to study for it, I’ve got a phenomenal memory–and I did nothing to earn any of this.  It’s just me.  I’m very grateful for it, too, but I don’t see why the fact that I’m the fourth or fifth in the family line to be able to read a book and then remember it–actually, project the page on the back of my eyelids and read it off again–should mean that what success I have is entirely earned while my student who cannot do simple addition no matter how many times you explain it to him is being lazy and feckless because all he can get is a job at Wal-Mart.

Okay, the thing with the memory starts to go away when you’re about forty.  But my memory for what I’ve read is still far and away superior to almost anybody around me.  Want to guess what kind of an advantage that was in college classes?

Yes, of course, it’s not enough to be born with advantages if you want to achieve something significant, but that doesn’t change the fact that some people, maybe most of them, aren’t born able to achieve something significant.

And yet these are people we need.  I live out in the country, and in order to do that–in order not to have to live in New York City while doing what I do–I need a lot of help.   I’ve got to have somebody to do my lawn, my plumbing, my electricity–I’m not physically capable of the lawn, and don’t know enough about the other two to be safe.  I need people who deliver things, because packages have to go to publishers.  I need service personnel at telecommunications companies, people to collect my garbage, police and firefighters, the guys who do the sewers.

There seems to me to be something fundamentally wrong with looking at all those people and going, “well, it’s their own damned fault they’re in dead end jobs.  Let them go hang.”  It seems even more fundamentally wrong that the level of at least some of the services they need should be held down to their ability to pay.

It’s to my advantage for the public schools to be first rate.   It’s even more to their advantage.  I don’t get the bit where, with jobs that offer no benefits, it’s okay to strip him of everything he’s managed to save as soon as anybody in his family gets seriously ill.

A guy who works hard, who takes on three jobs, who does his best and goes on doing it, but who simpl doesn’t have the mental capacity to do much better than a job as a clerk somewhere (or three), should not be left out to hang.

I’m not looking to give “handouts.”  I’m looking to make sure that anybody who works hard and follows the rules actually gets to have a decent life, even if he’s never going to be able to wrap h is mind around how to make change, or what a sentence with a subordinate clause might mean.

Written by janeh

February 14th, 2009 at 6:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Work and Luck, Luck and Work

with 6 comments

Okay, let’s start here:  the night before last, my older son was hit by a car.

You can calm down now.  It wasn’t a bad hit.   He wasn’t seriously injured.  He was stepping off the curb as the walk light went on and this guy in a parking space pulled out without looking, and Matt got clipped in the knee.  This was not fun, and he had to take a bunch of prescription ibuprofen, and I called him  at weid hours for the next 24, just to check up on him, but he’s fine.

None of you out thre would deny that what happened  to my son in this instance was luck–he wasn’t jaywalking, so he didn’t bring it on himself, it could have been a lot worse, and all that kind of thing.

But Robert and I have discussions every  once in a while about whther we should call the people who make more money people who are “more fortunate” or people who work harder than other people do, with Robert seeming to insist that the rule would be the people who work harder, and me saying that it isn’t that simple.

It also occurs to me that richer parts of the country tend also to be the most “liberal” parts of the country, with “liberal” here defined as people who think it’s a good idea to have higher taxes for higher brackets of income and to be in favor of the government giving money to the “less fortunate.”

I want to make a suggestion–those of us on the coasts tend to be more “liberal” not because we despise conservatives or the middle class values of hard work and thrift, but because we live every day with the very people who do in fact have the money.  We are forced to confront the impact of luck head on, and we see a lot of it.

Inheritance and marriage are the two most common ways in which any individual will enter the Fortune 400 list of richest people in the country.   Yes, of course, there are plenty of top earners on that list, but just go down and check off  how many people have “inheritance” as their source of money.

But the impact of luck goes much farther than this.  Cheryl said she was surprised that upper middle class parents wouldn’t want their children to study something ‘practical” in college–and a mountain of luck is implied in whether or not your parents understand that she’s misunderstanding the situation.

Culturally upper middle class parents want their children to major in philosophy at Yale rather than accounting at Ball State not because they oppose being practical, but because they know that a philosophy major with a C average from Yale will get a better job (in finance, even) after graduation than an accounting major with an A average from Ball State.

In fact, most large compaines have tiers of job recruiting drives–they go to Ball State to hire middle management, they go to Yale to hire the guys they think may one day end up as CEOs. 

And it gets even worse.  Want to go to law school, med school, grad school?  All the first rate ones weight grades from different institutions, so that 4.0 from Western Connecticut State  College is probably viewed as a C next to Bs from Harvard and Cornell, which, with the weight, will b treated as As. 

And it gets even worse than that.  The chances are good that the kid at  Ball State will in fact pay more for his education than the kid at Yale, and have more loans when he leaves.  Why?  Because the top tier or uninversities have huge endowments and hand out lots of money to students they want to recruit.  Ball State, not nearly so much.

Hell, Harvard made an announcement a while back that it will no longer charge any tutition at all–none–to students from families making less than $60,000 a year.

Information like this is incredibly valuable, and not having it can cost you a career.  My husband turned down Harvard because–God help me–they didn’t have a major in broadcasting.  He had nobody to explain to him that he’d find an easier time getting an actual job in broadcasting if he went to Harvard, majored in English, and then went looking. 

Guidance counselors should fill the information gap here, but they don’t.  I don’t know what qualifies somebody to get a job as a high school guidance counselor, but I can tell you, from having dealt with the money problems of lots of kids, that most of them don’t have the faintest idea how the financial aid system actually works. 

How many kids do you think have given up the dream of going to Vassar to go to the local community college instead, because the  CC is “affordable”?  How many have given up the hope of becoming a lawyer, or a doctor, and signed on for nursing or paralegal studies instead, because—well, they just “couldn’t afford” the right school?

The offices of international law firms, the staffs of famous hospitals, the buildings of famous banks are stuffed full of people who, if their parents had been other than they were, would have ended up at that community college.  The nursing rosters of local facilities, the middle management cubicles of small local companies, the paralegal bullpens of mid-sized state law firms have a sprinkling of people who do in fact have far more in the way of raw talent, dedication and drive than the low end of the big deal.  Except that the low end of the big deal is making nearly ten times more money.

I could go into other ways in which luck counts, but I think I’ve hit it right when  I say that the difference between red states and blue states isn’t any of the values/lifestyles/whatever that we’re always talking about.  It’s that states are blue when lots of first-tier people live in them, and the population can get a good, day to day look at what that first tier does and does not consist of.

Yes, the best of the best are as good as it gets.  They work hard.  They learn more and do more than any of the rest of us. 

What’s right below that, though, is mostly luck–at $250,000 a year, a full benefits package, and the kind of Christmas bonus that makes your teeth hurt.

Written by janeh

February 13th, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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