Hello from my study,
I have been relegated to two things over the past 72 hours or so: grading and watering. Teaching technical writing in a four week block this summer has been a new experience, and I think the being remote before that, while it might seem to be good preparation, seemed to be counterproductive in some ways. Certainly, cramming 14 weeks into 4 is a tall order, but I am not sure either the students nor I were prepared for this. In other words, I do not believe this has been one of my best classes (and that is me evaluating me). I am grateful to the Baker’s Dozen who have hung in there over these three plus weeks. Watering has to do with my yard on one hand, but also my soul the other. I posted a number of pictures of the yard earlier this week and I have most everything done on the East and South sides of the house. There are some things I still want to do, but I am not sure if they will happen this year or not. The last few days have been a sort of Tale of Two Cities sort of world, but I am learning that is more the nature of what life offers than a mere sort of run-of-the-mill day, week, month, or year.
Certainly, regardless your political leanings, the world in which we all live and try to carry out our lives has been turned upside down: healthwise, economically, and now socially. I do not believe any of it is by accident and that is not a conspiracy theorist speaking, but rather we are too often unwilling to make the hard changes that we could (perhaps should) make if we are going to create a world that is equitable for all. Again, I know that is a loaded term, but step back for a moment, if you will. What do you hope for your children, your grandchildren, for those you love? What world do you want for them: environmentally (and I mean that inclusively – in terms of water, food, air, health,); what do you want for them in terms of economic opportunity (and again that is more than merely money; it includes education, employment, advancement, long-term viability as a reasonable life); and what do you hope for them in terms of social viability (which means a world where they are treated fairly, thoughtfully, and judged as Dr. MLK Jr. once said, but the content in their heart)? Over the past weeks, we (and that is an inclusive first person plural) are all confronted with who we are, individually as well as collectively. Confrontation of any kind is frightening. It bares the soul and can force us to be honest, if we will. More often than not, the fear evolves into anger and we shut down. I know I am guilty of this. It is hard for us to be accountable for our actions, even harder to be responsible for our attitudes. Attitudes are much more insidious things, as well as complicated.More importantly, what does it mean to understand our obligation, if I can refer to it as that, in terms of our societal responsibility to the world we live in? I turn to my seemingly- go-to person again, the Reverend Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When he struggled with the inaction of the church, or when a significant part of the church sold out to the Reich, Bonhoeffer was neither afraid nor silent at that point. I am compelled if you will to consider the obligation the disciples had when they chose to follow Jesus. I have gone back to reread and think about their calls. What does it mean to be called to do something? Being called, particularly when considered from a Biblical perspective does have an obligatory element because you cannot say no to the call. That is a frightening thing. I think about two things in Bonhoeffer’s theology that move us from the church to the world. Bonhoeffer lived in a time of hyper-nationalism as Germany had been crippled by the Treaty of Versailles, and in particular the Article 271, the article that placed the entire financial burden of WWI on them (btw, they finally paid it off in October of 2010, 92 years later). The decade that followed saw similarities to our America of the last decade. Those who had money in Germany had their own version of the Roaring 20s that characterized the United States. Yet the great majority of Germans suffered the extreme consequences of hyperinflation and struggles behind the scenes. Almost as a mirror image, America of the 20-teens saw the rich continue to move the stock market into on record high after another. In the meanwhile, while employment showed positive gains, the wages stagnated. Many more people than most realized were working multiple jobs to make it possible for their fading American dream find some degree of reality. Coming out of college with 10s of thousands of dollars in debt has made home ownership, mobility, or even marriage something to imagine later. Fareed Zakaria, an Indian immigrant and author of an incredible article on the reality of the American dream some years ago, laid out the disappearing reality of that classic understanding well.
The reasons for the impending extinction of the house with the picket fence, the garage, car, kids, and the pet, then-you-have-made-it are numerous, complex, but interrelated. As Zakaria noted, “For a picture of the global economy, look at America’s great corporations, which are thriving. IBM, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Intel and Caterpillar are all doing well. And they share a strategy that is becoming standard for success. First, technology has produced massive efficiencies over the past decade (which was the late 90s and into the 00s -parenthetical added). Jack Welch explained the process succinctly on CNBC last September. ‘Technology has changed the game in jobs,” he said. “We had technology bumping around for years in the ’80s and ’90s, and [we were] trying to make it work. And now it’s working … You couple the habits [of efficiency] from a deep recession [with] an exponential increase in technology, and you’re not going to see jobs for a long, long time.’ Welch gave as an example a company owned by the private-equity firm with which he is affiliated. In 2007 the business had 26,000 employees and generated $12 billion in revenue. It will return to those revenue numbers by 2013 but with only 14,000 employees. ‘Companies have learned to do more with less,’ Welch said”(Time 21OCT2010). This means that many high paying jobs have been swallowed up and what is left are jobs that do not pay as much. This is what we have experienced since the Great Recession. While job numbers are certainly up, the standard of living for the masses is not. “People who get paid a decent wage for skilled but routine work in manufacturing or services are getting squeezed by a pincer movement of technology and globalization” (Zakaria). Certainly, in the time since he wrote this article, we have tried to manage things by a more protectionist process and that is especially the case since MAGA has found its way into our vocabulary. But the consequence of this protectionism has been felt by every aspect of the workforce save the One-percenters, who have benefited from the tax overhaul of 2017. Zakaria (and others have noted the problem with that route. Again, he writes, “It would be pointless and damaging to try to go down a protectionist route, though polls show a stunning drop of support for free trade, even among college-educated professionals, its usual cheerleaders. But technology is a much larger driver of the hollowing out than trade. You cannot shut down this new world. How would you stop people from sending one another e-mails, which is what a lot of offshoring comes down to these days? Nor can you help a modern economy by shielding industries from world-class competitors, which just encourages greater inefficiency” (Time 21OCT2010). The reason for me to base my argument on this article is because I believe as an immigrant and someone who understands our culture from both sides, he is uniquely positioned as well as brilliant and articulate in his critique. What was incredibly telling, which makes the present administration’s disdain for immigration and the closing of borders for all kinds of things, was the comment by Alcoa’s German-born Klaus Kleinfeld, previously the head of Siemens: “I know the things that America has that are unique. The openness, the diversity, the dynamism — you don’t have it anywhere else. If you keep all these things, build on them, I still believe in the American Dream” (quoted by Zakaria). Unfortunately, the administration, and by extension, the Congress have both been remiss, which is an understatement, in managing this openness, this diversity. Congress needs to take today’s ruling by the SCOTUS and come up with a reasonable immigration policy once and for all. However, I do not believe that will happen unless there is a change in November.
I have taken the time in my classes to ask my students about things like hope, their aspirations, their understanding of the American Dream, and their responses would frighten most of you. They, for the most part, seldom believe they will be better off than their parents. They regularly find the idea of hope unrealistic at best, and flat out bullshit at the worst. They often question what aspirations might be out there, and certainly the last four months have done little to assuage that concern. In fact, the level of exacerbation is beyond measurement. The number of 2020 graduates at any level who feel they have been screwed is exponential. So where does that leave us? Again, the parallels I see in the late 1920s-1930s Germany economically (and possibly politically) are beyond the pale. The creation of scapegoats to blame for our arrogance and greed is nothing new. The reality is simple, trickle-down economic theory is a fallacy. Those with the money are unwilling to share the money with those who create their wealth. As we move toward the technological overhaul Zakaria notes, there are fewer workers to argue for higher wages. If 14,000 can do the work of 26,000, the 14,000 are happy to still have a job. Step back and think for even a moment. What is happening between the pandemic, the economy, and now the reaction to the killing of yet another black person has created a perfect storm. Yesterday the Republican legislature in my state of Pennsylvania has drawn up Articles of Impeachment against our Democrat Governor, Tom Wolfe. Today, the federal government held Pennsylvania up as an example of how to manage Covid-19. And yet, the Republicans have referred to the Governor as a dictator. The dissonance between between the two positions would make Bartok and Schoenberg seem like they composed tonal rather than atonal music. Dr. Brandes would be so proud that I remember that.
So what might our call be in this profoundly confusing world? I noted earlier there is a call that cannot be ignored. I will only begin to lay it out here and you can see more in the next blog. I believe if we are to overcome the division, the argument, the disdain for the other that is rampant, we will need to understand that what lies ahead of us is a call for patriotism that understands the difference between true patriotism, which goes well beyond ourselves, and nationalism, which is selfish, inward looking, and incompatible with our global economy. Too often we see patriotism and nationalism as synonymous. They are not. That is the case, not only rhetorically or definitionally, but also in how we live amongst each other, be that in my little area of rural Pennsylvania, in the urban area of Philadelphia, Milwaukee, or within NATO or the EU. This is a global issue. And certainly Nationalism is not just an issue in the United States. Brexit is an example of it. Hungary and Poland have witnessed it as have other countries. The reason it does not work is you cannot put a global economy back into the box it was pulled out of. The technology that has transformed our world into a global information highway is also not going to go backwards. Any such thought is so far beyond naive, I have no term for it. What I am arguing is most of our most significant problems today are not national problems, they are global ones. Certainly, the EU provides some idea of how difficult it is to get even a small group to work together. We see the same among our own 50 states. The United Nations has, at times, demonstrated an incredible sense of common purpose, but they have no authority to enforce anything. I think we are at a crossroads on a number of things. If we are to have hope and believe in the possibility of a world where our children and grandchildren are to thrive, it seems we need to work together for a dream that is larger than merely an American one. Certainly those of us who grew up in the 1960s believed America was unparalleled in goodness and opportunity. This song provides some sense of sometimes how I feel as I look out around me. It is one of the bands that reminds me of a so many wonderful concert experiences.
Thank you as always for reading.