Monday, July 17, 2017

Stories and Fears

The dog, Sally, is scared to death of flies.  One got in the house yesterday, and she spent the better part of the day cowering behind the couch or under a bed.  This is the same dog that wandered around the forests of New England for 17 days a few years ago and emerged relatively unscathed.  I don’t know why she’s afraid of flies -- she can’t tell us -- but I have to assume there’s a reason.  It probably means something, though heaven only knows what.

I’ve been reading lately about the shift in the American political economy from the postwar era to the last couple of decades, and thinking about the different fears at different times.  

Broadly, the economic shift was from The Great Compression -- relatively low ratios of high wages to low ones -- to the new Gilded Age, in which the ratios are much, much larger.  The turning point was somewhere around 1980, give or take.  From the end of World War II into the 70’s, wealth was spread more evenly, both by class and by geography.  This was the period of suburban expansion, and a time when economic opportunity became more evenly spread around the country.  It was also the time when most community colleges were established.  They were part and parcel of the Great Compression, built to fill the demand for an expanding middle class.

The literature and art of the time were obsessed with themes of conformism.  Conformism was often portrayed as mindless or soul-deadening -- think “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” -- but not fitting in was also terrifying, as in nearly every episode of “The Twilight Zone” ever made.  Part of that, I think, came from the recent experience of two major wars with widespread military conscription; the military’s premium on conformity is obvious.  And part of it came from horror at the “collectivist” roots of fascism and communism, as Americans understood them.  (You don’t really see the word “collectivist” much anymore.)  Ayn Rand’s hyperindividualism took collectivism as its foil; she just took “The Twilight Zone” and reversed the polarity.  Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” used bland suburbs as a foil, too, though to different ends.

Looking back, it’s easy to see where someone predisposed to fears of “massification” (another oldie but goodie) would find ammunition.  There were three television networks to choose from, so each had to try to be an inoffensive to as many people as possible.  For all practical purposes, there were three brands of car, each imitating the others.  Heberg’s “Protestant, Catholic, Jew” showed that religions were gradually watering down and resembling each other, at least as practiced on the ground in the US.  

Race stood as an obvious and glaring counterpoint to the narrative of growing equality, which I think is part of why so many midcentury thinkers had such trouble with it.  But the narrative was widespread just the same.

Now, wealth is being concentrated both socially and geographically.  Richard Florida’s latest book captures the dilemma facing many young people now: in the few places where opportunity is abundant, cheap housing isn’t.  The President of the United States brags about his wealth, and has no qualms about toning it down.  We’ve been defunding collective goods for decades, and amassing the proceeds among the top (pick your small number) percent.  Our political parties are far more clearly divided ideologically than they once were, and “swing seats” in Congress are vanishingly rare.  

Rather than “collectivism” or “massification,” we’re obsessed with either “diversity” or “cultural breakdown,” depending on your politics.  The science fiction stories now are about grinding poverty for the many while the few live in pilfered opulence.  The vision of the future in The Hunger Games is markedly different from the original Star Trek, for all of the latter’s flaws.  Now we don’t fear mindless conformity; we fear a Hobbesian war of each against all, or at least, of each subgroup against all.  An explosion of cultural choices -- the kids literally don’t believe me when I tell them how few channels we had when I was a kid -- coexists easily with a massive concentration of wealth.  Each cultural choice has to distinguish itself from all the others; Heberg’s description of religion in America reads like science fiction now.  

Where once the common culture seemed oppressively ubiquitous, now it seems stretched beyond recognition.  A disbelief in common purpose follows.

For community colleges, the shift has been both devastating and largely unacknowledged.  They were built in one era, and designed around the assumptions of that time.  But circumstances have changed.  Community colleges are spread around the country, as wealth once was, but increasingly isn’t.  In some places, they fulfill their mission by preparing students to move away.  And the idea of education as a public good has been supplanted, as have most other public goods.  Hobbesian warriors and Randian entrepreneurs don’t want to be bothered funding something that might benefit other people.  Add race to this logic, and it gets ugly fast.

The fear now isn’t of being swallowed up; it’s of being left behind. Or of being held back by other strivers dragging you down.  If I’m doing all I can to avoid falling into the pit, the last thing I want to do is to try to pull someone else up. Over time, that becomes self-reinforcing.

I don’t know how the stories of these fears will play out.  But I do know that Logan’s Run never actually came to pass.  Sooner or later, stories change.  Sally comes out from behind the couch.  I just hope we don’t lose track of our story in the meantime.