The Great Divide in the U.S.: Those Who Can ‘Do Over’ and Those Who Can’t

I don’t mean hope in the same way the Obama campaign did. Ian Welsh writes an incredibly powerful post about the personal politics of hopelessness–you should read the whole thing (it’s arguably one of the best posts of the year). But this little section struck me:

The US now has the least intergenerational social mobility in the Western world (it used to have the most). The elites have become self-perpetuating, and they never had to stare in a mirror and know that they may never have more than minimum wage job; that probably this is as good as it gets….
That existence, hand to mouth, with no hope, is something America’s elites have never experienced and don’t understand. For them there’s always another opportunity, always another chance: always hope. And what matters to them is when the “deserving”, which is to say, their own class, is in trouble. So they’ll bail out the financial sector, even though it hasn’t made any more profit than the Big 3 in the past 8 years, and unlike the financial sector, didn’t bring down the world economy, but they won’t help out the undeserving whom they don’t understand….
The elites don’t live in the same world as ordinary people. They have become completely disconnected from that world. This is entirely logical on their part, because for 30 years they’ve gotten rich, rich, rich at the same time as ordinary people haven’t had a single raise. When you’re sitting on the top it’s very clear that all boats don’t need to be lifted and that Americans aren’t all in it together. The elites have done just fine, for over 30 years, while the rest of society went to hell.
So there’s no empathy born of shared experience, of the knowledge that sometimes life sucks and no matter what you do, it’s going to suck, and that that’s the way many people live.

I think what finally did the Bush Administration in is that they couldn’t get any ‘do overs.’ They had one shot at Tora Bora–and failed. One chance to get Katrina right (or at least better), and failed. They invaded the wrong fucking country, and failed. And no phone call, no name in the rolodex, no family fixer can fix these things. This might well have been the first time in their lives for many in the Bush Administration that there was no way to wiggle out of things.
At the risk of engaging in Compulsive Centrist Disorder, this isn’t confined to Republicans*. A couple of former Clinton officials want it both ways too: they want to be viewed as disinterested public servants, while at the same time, they get to cash in. A sane society would recognize that certain choices close off other options, which is a far better situation than exists for too many which is no options at all. In short, you can’t always have it all (which sadly is news to some).
*Having attended and taught at the finishing schools for the elite, I think this is a function of education going tragically wrong:

I didn’t understand this until I began comparing my experience, and even more, my students’ experience, with the experience of a friend of mine who went to Cleveland State. There are due dates and attendance requirements at places like Yale, but no one takes them very seriously. Extensions are available for the asking; threats to deduct credit for missed classes are rarely, if ever, carried out. In other words, students at places like Yale get an endless string of second chances. Not so at places like Cleveland State. My friend once got a D in a class in which she’d been running an A because she was coming off a waitressing shift and had to hand in her term paper an hour late.
That may be an extreme example, but it is unthinkable at an elite school. Just as unthinkably, she had no one to appeal to. Students at places like Cleveland State, unlike those at places like Yale, don’t have a platoon of advisers and tutors and deans to write out excuses for late work, give them extra help when they need it, pick them up when they fall down. They get their education wholesale, from an indifferent bureaucracy; it’s not handed to them in individually wrapped packages by smiling clerks. There are few, if any, opportunities for the kind of contacts I saw my students get routinely–classes with visiting power brokers, dinners with foreign dignitaries….
In short, the way students are treated in college trains them for the social position they will occupy once they get out. At schools like Cleveland State, they’re being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy or another. They’re being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity–lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines. At places like Yale, of course, it’s the reverse.

A rare exception to the rule makes the point. In a course for which I was a teaching assistant, a student asked the professor if he could miss a lab section to have a small, personal lunch with the King of Jordan–missing the section would have lowered the grade to a B+. The professor responded, “His Highness is welcome to attend section, but you are required to be here.” The student looked absolutely dumbstruck, and the professor then added, “Go to lunch you idiot. How many people will ever have the chance to have lunch with the King Jordan? It’s worth the grade.” The most important lesson, I think, from this is that you can’t always have it all.

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9 Responses to The Great Divide in the U.S.: Those Who Can ‘Do Over’ and Those Who Can’t

  1. DrA says:

    Had a chance for a position at such an elite school. Having come from a pure blue collar family, it was hard for my family to understand what a scholar did, although teaching they get. But nothing in my experience or background had prepared me for dealing with the children of such wealth. Opting instead for a job at a public university was the smartest thing I ever did. Knowing that such people are having far more influence than they deserve based on merit truly scares me. The more time I’ve spent in academia the less impressed I am by the “ivy leagues”.

  2. Comradde PhysioProffe
    Comrade PhysioProf says:

    This is a very good insight by Welsh.

  3. Comradde PhysioProffe
    Comrade PhysioProf says:

    Oh, I just realized those quotes about elite versus non-elite universities are from that abysmally shitty Deresciweicz (sp) article. While the parts you quote make sense, the basic point of the article–that elites act like assholes to non-elites because their elite colleges haven’t trained them to speak to the non-elite–is catastrophically fucking wrong. There was extensive discussion of this at Chad’s blog when the article was published.

  4. dougalder
    Doug Alder says:

    Really explains how GWB got his MBA now then doesn’t it:)

  5. oyun says:

    Thanks very good insight by Welsh

  6. Paul Murray – Canberra, Australia – IT contractor, Canberra, Australia.
    Paul Murray says:

    I read “Collapse” by Jared Diamond. One lesson I took away from it was that societies collapse when the elites become so insulated the lower classes that they cannot understand their problems. Then they turn around one day and there’s no-one to black the shoes, because they have all starved to death.
    There’s always elites, of course, but it’s critical that they have a good idea what’s going on among the commons, and an appreciation that their own positions depend on the lives of the commons being at least livable.

  7. sciliz – 5 things: *Grad student in molecular medicine *love science *snarky sense of humor *passionate about politics *obsessed with lizards
    Becca says:

    I grew up with a healthy loathing of rules and indifferent bureaucracies. Still, I grew up with a strong expectation that The Rules Apply. You wait in lines. You fill out the appropriate forms by the appropriate deadlines. You follow the guidelines.
    As I have entered adult society, I’ve been frequently amazed at how often the rules don’t apply. I remember how shocked I was that people didn’t always take the prereqs before enrolling in certain courses.
    Perhaps most amazingly, I noticed that a lot of people were willing to bend the rules for me. If you go into an indifferent bureaucracy expecting the Rules to Apply to Me but with the mindset It Can’t Hurt To Ask, and with kindness and consideration for the individuals who have to make the machine run, a lot of doors open. This post almost makes me feel guilty for all the second chances I’ve gotten (particularly in educational contexts). I like to hope I’m slightly redeemed by the fact I haven’t gotten to the point where I expect special treatment… but I don’t know. Perhaps I can redeem myself by viewing it as a special burden. A lot of times, the hardest working people (who have caught the fewest breaks) buy into indifferent bureaucracies as good and necessary gates to keep the riffraff out. And the most priviledged (often laziest) elites, who might ocassionally end up with the power to change the bureaucracy, don’t see the need to. It takes people who have enough perspective to realize how fortunate they are to know how an indifferent bureaucracy should be reformed.

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  9. Birumut – Yalan Dünya
    tired says:

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