Saturday, June 8, 2024

Socialist Climber


David F. Brooks on "The Sins of the Educated Class":

When I was young, I was a man on the left. In the early 1980s, I used to go to the library and read early 20th-century issues of left-wing magazines like The Masses and The New Republic. I was energized by stories of workers fighting for their rights against the elites — at Haymarket, at the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, on the railways where the Pullman sleeping car porters struggled for decent wages a few years after that. My heroes were all on the left: John Reed, Clifford Odets, Frances Perkins and Hubert Humphrey.

Even the left-wing New Republic! If you couldn't tell the difference between actual Communists (The Masses, Reed, Odets), The New Republic (the magazine had belonged to the same progressive movement as former president Theodore Roosevelt and Walter Lippmann when it was founded in 1914, but it was supporting Reagan's "bombing the Soviet Union in five minutes" foreign policy under Marty Peretz when Brooks was in college), and the stalwart New Dealers Perkins and Humphrey, then you weren't reading very attentively.

By his senior year at Chicago he was calling himself a "democratic socialist" like the great Michael Harrington or "social democrat" like the Roy Jenkins/David Owen faction that broke off rightward from the British Labour Party in 1981, unable to tell those apart as well, but also successfully attracting the attention of William F. Buckley, Jr., who tossed him a job offer with the National Review after a humor piece he'd written for the Maroon in advance of a Buckley campus visit, and the fanatically neoliberal economist Milton Friedman, who brutally shut down his socialism in a couple of sentences in a televised debate (see image at top, and video from around 2:10 to 6:20) by asking how come all the Nobel prizes went to private universities (neither he nor Brooks seems to have been aware of the 13 Nobels awarded to graduates of the City University of New York at a time when it was tuition free, or the 32 earned by alumni of the University of California at Berkeley, to say nothing of the state universities of Paris, Berlin—29 for the Humboldt-Universität alone—, Bologna, Tübingen, Tokyo—18—, and so on).

But I got out of college and realized we didn’t live in the industrial age; we live in the information age. The center of progressive energy moved from the working class to the universities, and not just any universities, but the elite universities.

I'm not very clear on how these discoveries pulled him away from his leftist comfort zone. Did the switch to the information age mean factory workers weren't oppressed any more, or didn't exist at all, so that there was no longer any need for a revolution that would liberate them from their shackles? Had capitalist oppression moved to universities (you would have had a good chance of persuading me, when I was in grad school, not at an elite university but at the University of Buffalo, in the middle of the Rust Belt, where there may not have been many factory workers, but the ones there were had great union contracts, while we miserable teaching assistants weren't even allowed to talk about unions). What was that "progressive energy" doing in élite universities? Brooks offers some evidence from 39 years later

Working-class voters now mostly support Donald Trump, but at Harvard, America’s richest university, 65 percent of students identify as progressive or very progressive, according to a May 2023 survey of the graduating class.

What, The Crimson surveyed working-class voters in Cambridge? LOL no, that was some other survey that Brooks couldn't manage to link, or his vague memory of one (maybe from the 2020 exit polls, where the "working class" had a mean income over $100,000 and the Biden voters $50,000)—if it did exist, it was completely unrelated to the Crimson one. 

In any event, Brooks was neither drawn to stick with his leftist enthusiasm when leftist enthusiasm adopted this new home in the élite universities, nor to follow the working class to wherever they were: he responded instead to the call of Mr. Buckley and his Upper East Side dining room, as recalled by Fareed Zakaria for a Newsweek colleague:

The dining room was grand, two tables for 10 set with silver flatware and fine china, with the Buckleys' Cavalier King Charles spaniels swirling about. "The first time I had dinner, they put a finger bowl in front of me and I wasn't sure if I should drink it," says David Brooks, now a New York Times columnist, then an editorial assistant at Buckley's National Review. Buckley had offered Brooks a job after Brooks, a University of Chicago student, wrote a funny, if smart-alecky, parody of Buckley's name-dropping memoir, "Overdrive," for the school newspaper....
NEWSWEEK International Editor Fareed Zakaria was a Yale student in 1983 when he invited Buckley to speak to the Yale Political Union. Buckley invited Zakaria and another budding young intellectual, Michael Lind, to spend the day at the Buckley weekend house, a 13-room stucco mansion overlooking Long Island Sound in Stamford, Conn. Arriving at 11 a.m. on a bright May day, the young men were served bullshots (vodka and bouillon). Before lunch there were gin and tonics, and with lunch came red and white wine, followed by … a brisk swim! Buckley led the young men to a chilly-looking swimming pool, where he disrobed and plunged in. The young men looked at each other—was this some sort of Greek or late-Victorian ritual?—and stripped off their clothes and jumped in, too. All the men vigorously splashed about for a bit and it was … time for a sail! As the paid hands rigged Buckley's yacht and loaded aboard the steaks, there were more gin and tonics, more wine. Somehow, the yachting party staggered back in time to catch the evening news, followed by … more drinks, laughs and high-minded debate.

Brooks's anxiety over the fingerbowl nicely prefigures his generous concern for the lunch companion confronting the possibility of a soppressata sandwich, but this Brooks column really isn't about that. It's about those pesky students at elite universities who are doing progressivism the wrong way.

over the decades and especially recently, I’ve found the elite, educated-class progressivism a lot less attractive than the working-class progressivism of Frances Perkins that I read about when I was young. Like a lot of people, I’ve looked on with a kind of dismay as elite university dynamics have spread across national life and politics, making America worse in all sorts of ways. Let me try to be more specific about these dynamics.

The first is false consciousness. To be progressive is to be against privilege. But today progressives dominate elite institutions like the exclusive universities, the big foundations and the top cultural institutions.

Unlike Perkins, who went to Mount Holyoke, the Wharton School, and Columbia (for an M.A.), where she became an advocate for women's suffrage, going to demonstrations and buttonholing people on street corners, before taking advantage of her social connections with both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt to win a host of positions in New York's state government and eventually become the federal secretary of labor. What does Brooks think "elite" means? (When Perkins moved to Georgetown to take up the labor secretary job, her housemate was an old friend, the founder of the Junior League.) 

No, we don't call that false consciousness. Perkins was fully aware of her privilege (as well as angry about the New York state constitution that denied her the right to vote until 1917, and I don't think she'd see a contradiction in that, as Brooks might), but determined to use it to improve working conditions for laborers like the women who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which she herself had witnessed

the accident happened on a Saturday, I happened to have been visiting a friend on the other side of the park and we heard the engines and we heard the screams and rushed out and rushed over where we could see what the trouble was. We could see this building from Washington Square and the people had just begun to jump when we got there. They had been holding until that time, standing in the windowsills, being crowded by others behind them, the fire pressing closer and closer, the smoke closer and closer. Finally the men were trying to get out this thing that the firemen carry with them, a net to catch people if they do jump, there were trying to get that out and they couldn't wait any longer. They began to jump. The window was too crowded and they would jump and they hit the sidewalk. The net broke, they [fell] a terrible distance, the weight of the bodies was so great, at the speed at which they were traveling that they broke through the net. Every one of them was killed, everybody who jumped was killed. It was a horrifying spectacle. 

And what she did next was to attend a meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House, addressed by Rose Schneiderman of the Ladies Dress and Waist Union, which raised some money, and then paid a call on Al Smith, majority leader in the state assembly, who gave her some valuable advice:

"If you want to get anything done, you got to have this, a legislative commission. If the legislature does it, the legislature will be proud of it, the legislature will listen to their report and the legislature will do something about it. But if the governor appoints the commission, they will just give it the cold shoulder; they won't pay any attention to it."

(Of course he wanted a piece of the credit for himself, but he deserved it.)

But the worst is, kids, not only are you overprivileged, but you're also underprivileged:

The second socially harmful dynamic is what you might call the cultural consequences of elite overproduction. Over the past few decades, elite universities have been churning out very smart graduates who are ready to use their minds and sensibilities to climb to the top of society and change the world. Unfortunately, the marketplace isn’t producing enough of the kinds of jobs these graduates think they deserve.

The elite college grads who go into finance, consulting and tech do smashingly well, but the grads who choose less commercial sectors often struggle. Social activists in Washington and other centers of influence have to cope with sky-high rents. Newspapers and other news websites are laying off journalists. Academics who had expected to hold a prestigious chair find themselves slaving away as adjunct professors.

There's just not that many jobs dominating elite institutions like the exclusive universities, the big foundations and the top cultural institutions. Odds are you're going to have to end up doing some really hard work that doesn't pay very well and doesn't have a union. You could end up teaching in a private school! (Not a public one, for which you won't have the qualifications.) You might as well be working class yourself, in spite of all the cultural capital Pierre Bourdieu says you've accumulated!

So take a tip from an old U. Chicago socialist and clamber on to the wingnut welfare gravy train, where they know how to take care of a fellow all day, starting from the morning bullshots. You might even be able to parlay it into a lifetime sinecure at the New York Times, where you can wash off the stain of the transaction and give everybody else moral lectures on their "sins"—including all the terrible "virtue signaling" they keep doing!

The third dynamic is the inflammation

I'm sorry, I thought you were going to stop at two.

No comments:

Post a Comment