This continues an earlier post meant mainly for my working-class and middle-class high school classmates and people like them—the hard-working, long-suffering people of this country who are mystified at what’s happened to the American way of life and angry about being misled, cheated, and left out. As a top student who decided to dedicate his life to finding solutions rather than making money, I’m trying to share what I’ve learned, hoping it will h help.
In that earlier post, I said it’s time to realize there are always real issues of power in politics and real differences between people trying to wield power. We need to get past emotional catchphrases like “class conflict” and see there is nothing wrong about We the People taking a stand against the drift away from democracy and toward rule by the few in the last three decades. By “growing up politically,” I mean putting aside childish fantasies about nonpartisan government and seeing through efforts to divide and conquer the majority of the governed by exploiting emotion-laden “values” issues.
I said that I went to a good college after high school, as did a number of my classmates. I want to tell you about a conversation I had with one of them during a vacation trip home.
He said he had been in a course where they analyzed the electorate into subgroups and identified ways to get each group to vote for a particular party. It was possible, he said, for a smart political campaign to manipulate voters in that way and succeed, even if the party’s positions were against the interests of those voting for their politicians. I was horrified. Could there be people cynical and devious enough to employ such a strategy? I think we have our answer today in the number of right-wing celebrities who have made names for themselves by encouraging people to get angry, without helping them to think through what they are getting angry about.
To understand real world politics, it’s important to realize how political language has been affected by the theory of evolution. I know that many of you aren’t convinced there is any such thing as evolution. I’m not asking you to believe in it, and I don’t want to even talk about it with anyone who doesn’t understand what mitochondrial DNA is, because we won’t be talking the same language. But I will insist that it is vitally important for you to believe there have been many people who did believe in evolution back in the late 19th century when Darwin first publicized his discoveries at the Galapagos Islands and drew his conclusions from them.
The phrase “survival of the fittest” came into popular use, and is still with us today. Many powerful people of that era looked at human society and saw “survival of the fittest” at work. They were the fittest—they were smart enough to have gained power and knew how to use it—and the poor, ignorant masses were doomed to failure.
It was important to create opportunities for the talented members of lower classes to better themselves, not least because that way they would be working to leave their group of origin rather than acting as its representative. But it was a waste of time to think of aiding the downtrodden. A strong society, a society that would survive the battle among societies to see which one was fittest, would target its resources toward helping the strong, not the weak.
“Social Darwinism,” it was called—the belief that the same competitiveness that characterized the natural world animated struggles in the human world. If a society was to evolve for the better, it needed to do what animal breeders had done for generations: allow the best of the species to propagate rather than nurturing the weak. This view took its most extreme form in proposals to selectively breed a better human race—eugenics, as it was known. Even here in Vermont, the eugenics movement was strong enough to create pressure to sterilize the retarded, sometimes Indians, sometimes the French—an episode that we look at today with shame and consider unthinkable.
Social Darwinism and the eugenics movement came under fire after such beliefs reached their most extreme form in Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler and the other pro-Aryans undertook to remove inferior Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, mentally handicapped and mentally ill to concentration camps where, either swiftly or little by little, they would be eliminated. The inferior Slavs who lived to the East would be subjugated or destroyed so that the Germans would have “lebensraum,” living space, in which the could increase their numbers. When the Allied armies discovered the death camps, the horrors of those mass exterminations gave the world a shock it has never forgotten. (Forgotten, except in Russia, are the places where Russian prisoners of war were simply left to starve.)
So it was no longer acceptable to talk about organizing a society so that the strong came to the fore and the weak fell by the wayside. But that did not mean the attitudes behind Social Darwinism disappeared.
You see them today in arguments that we should create equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome, disregarding the impossibility of the children of poverty having an equal start. You see them in arguments that social programs are too expensive at a time of large deficits, with no attempt to counterbalance the human suffering produced by cutting the programs with the benefit of reducing the deficit. You see them when tax cuts for the rich are declared sacred and untouchable at a time of large deficits, because money sent to the rich will supposedly be spent more productively, in ways that will help to create more jobs. You see them when an attempt to move closer to universal health care is derided as “Obamacare,” and opponents emphasize the way individual liberties would be restricted by having to buy health insurance, with no reference to the way eliminating Obamacare would leave tens of millions with no health insurance at all.
Above all, you see Social Darwinism whenever the individual is celebrated as the source of all good things in society. The individual does not exist—from the first three months that have sometimes been called “the fourth trimester” because the baby is so dependent on others that it is almost as if it were still in the womb, to the years when those incapable of sharing their lives with others are diagnosed as autistic, to the years when good teaching is acknowledged to be essential for proficiency in learning—and so on. A student of primates, of apes and monkeys, once declared that “one monkey is no monkey.” Sometimes similar is true of humanity.
What I am trying to get across through all this is that the few have always had and continue to have some very clever ways of dominating the many, and of justifying to themselves what they are doing. They will not change their minds. Only by recognizing what is happening and supporting a different way of moving society forward, based as much on cooperation as competition, will things become any different.
In the first part of this commentary on growing up politically I spoke of “the cold cruel” that I have personally witnessed steadily making American life more painful for the average person since the 1960s. Today I came across someone’s figures that showed my personal impression was not inaccurate: economist Robert H. Frank of the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, writing for the New York Times, wrote that “From 1950 to 1970, incomes grew rapidly and at about the same rate — almost 3 percent annually, on average — for families at all income levels. From 1970 to 2000, however, that pattern changed sharply. Incomes of the top 1 percent grew more than threefold, while median household income grew less than 15 percent.”
Frank pointed out that economists have had a hard time showed how income inequality hurts anyone—indeed, followers of Italian economist Vilfredo Paredo have argued that any change for the better helps the whole society. In response, Frank has developed a “toil index,” showing how hard people have to work to afford the average home in a good school district.
“By 2000, the median worker had to work 67.4 hours a month to put his or her family into the median home. The toil index thus fell by 2.4 percent from 1950 to 1970, but rose by 62.4 percent from 1970 to 2000,” he said. “Yet all the while, steadily rising per capita G.D.P. painted a substantially rosier picture.”
They may not have thought you were very good in school, but you know better than that.