Monday, March 29, 2010

America's Tipping Point

I just finished reading Kai Wright's latest post to The Notion, the blog that The Nation maintains for (currently) twenty contributors. The post was yet another attempt to diagnose the almost pathological divisiveness that has consumed our country, motivated this time by en editorial by Frank Rich in Sunday's New York Times entitled, "The Rage Is Not About Health Care." Wright's reading of Rich definitely deserves reflection:

Rich points out the reality that America is undergoing one of the most deep, significant changes in its history. No, it's not health insurance reform. Nor is it our economic collapse, though that's surely part of it. Frankly, it's not even the fact of a black president. The change is far deeper and probably far more consequential: White people will shortly lose their status as normative Americans. Whatever else does or doesn't change, by the time Millennials are adults, no one will equate white skin with the phrase "all-American" – assuming the phrase carries meaning at all.

I think this is a productive analysis to bring to the conversation, particularly since it uncovers a problem deeper than the issue of normative status: It cuts far deeper to the very nature of identity that we all have, regardless of whether we see ourselves as normative.

From this point of view, both Rich and Wright missed the dead moose on the table. Without dismissing their conclusion I would argue that a more critical contribution to a prevailing sense of rage is the deterioration of what we may call "the American world of work." Unemployment is part of this problem, but it is the tip of an iceberg. Beneath that tip is that substantial chunk of our population that is in our educational system, ostensibly being prepared to enter that world of work. However, this is not simply a cri de cœur about how underfunded education is in our country; it is an attempt to raise the question of how we are to prepare our young for the future when we do not have the foggiest idea what that future will be and what roles they can possibly play in it. It is easy enough to prepare cogent arguments for kids about why they should not pin their hopes on being professional athletes or entertainers, but where should they set their hopes?

There is nothing new about this problem. It was only a few years ago that James O'Toole and Edward E. Lawler III came out with their book, The New American Workplace. The Foreword for this book included the following passage by Susan Meisinger:

Even though American workplaces have evolved in ways unforeseen at the time of the Work in America study, readers of The New American Workplace will draw at least one conclusion that remains unchanged from the earlier study: Satisfying work is a basic human need that establishes individual identity and self-respect and lends order to life.

This is where the real identity problem resides, in our natural ability to establish our "identity and self-respect" through satisfying work. We are afraid to confront the extent to which the world the Internet has made has robbed us of that ability; and, having had it taken violently from us, we respond in the only way we can, with the kind of rage that Rich examined. Unless we can figure out a way in which to restore that identity, it is hard to imagine any future other than one in which the rage gets more violent and ultimately more destructive.

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