[written as an anthropological response to the New Zealand massacre of March 2019. I was in the field, doing ethnographies.]
I’ve spent the last month out of the shipping lanes of American prosperity, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey. In one case, I visited a town of roughly 1000 people. This town is two or three departing families away from losing their high school and with this, their high school team, and with this, their town spirit. (The high school matters so much in this scheme of things, the town police cruiser is dressed in school colors.)
If the town is on a knife’s edge, so are some livelihoods. The people who run the hardware story can hear the Amazon dragon over the hill side. Not far behind, robots and AI. And there are all the other problems of American life: poverty, opioid and other kinds of drug abuse, unemployment, families damaged by violence, poverty, and divorce, kids who manifest as aimless, lost even.
It’ll probably be ok. This town has survived many challenges. I walked past a home-made flag pole on top of which was a model airplane in the form of a Lancaster bomber. The work of a hobbyist? A celebration of someone’s departure for service in 1940’s Europe? A way to memorialize loss? Bad things happen. The town has a way of carrying on.
But this time might be different. The uncertainties are stacking up. And when you throw in a few imponderables, and some people begin to lose their nerve and turn to wild thinking and fault finding, and really bad things draw nearer.
Back in a city, plenty more problems. Structural misery, a system of drug abuse, a permanent class of hopeless people, an institutionalized inequality. To be sure the inner city is filled with lifeboats, churches, hospitals, soup kitchens, libraries, shelters. All of them really making an effort without any hope of making a difference.
This is where New Zealand might be said to start. This underclass in an inner city used to be a mystery to the rest of us. They were people we said had failed. They were absolutely other others. But they might as well have been another species. They were “losers.” And by stages this classification has given way to the understanding that, ‘no, actually, that could happen to be me.’ And for some the revelation is still more frightening: ‘that will be me. If things don’t change.’ (Things have been tough enough for long enough that it’s like we’re wearing Frank Capra glasses. You know, the ones that come from watching It’s A Wonderful Life over the holidays. We can see the future, good and bad.)
There are three groups to consider. The first is frightened and angry. They can be mobilized in the ballot box but are otherwise passive. The second is frightened and angry and actively looking for a scape goat. ‘Who is to blame? It’s not going to be me. I worked hard. I did everything asked of me. I sacrificed.’ This group is intellectually mobilized. They call in. They are anti social on social. The third group takes things one horrifying step further. They believe that the world can be restored to order by the murder of ‘outsiders.’ Killing ‘outsiders,’ to some this is a socio-political act, a method of re-equilibration.
And this ‘argument’ would be less compelling if anyone else was making an effort, if people who believe themselves in peril could point to politicians, bureaucrats, NFPs and identify someone who has created something more promising than a life boat.
But they don’t see much of this. They see a Washington filled with people who found a way to help themselves to public resources. They see talk show hosts grown rich as Croesus trafficking in grievance…not solutions. They see intellectuals elites (by which they mean you and me) who are doing nicely. When asked why we have not been more active in coming to their aid, we say things like “well, the economy changes and people are obliged to change with it. Sure it’s going to be painful, but an adjustment has to happen on the ground. People have to do it themselves” People have taken pains to tell me how little comfort this brings them when they are lying in bed at 4 in the morning, wondering if they are going to lose their home.
So what about solutions? I have to say that growing up in Canada, we used to think of the US as a nation of problem solvers, people who took could not wait to exercise their ingenuity.
The solution pieces are easy enough to see. Local economies in a small town are in peril. At least the industrial economies are. The artisanal economies on the other hand are flourishing. Thanks to the revolution put in train by our Mao, Alice Waters, Americans have rethought what they want to eat, where they want to eat it, how they want it grown, harvested and brought to market. The artisanal movement has transformed consumer taste and preference, and not just in food. Ideas of luxury, extravagance, satiety, satisfaction, indulgence, all of these are on the run. Take a bow, Ms. Waters.
A companion change in culture is taking place as boomers (of whom I am one) have crept towards retirement. To no one’s surprise, they are rejected cultural conventions for aging and insisted on a new model sometimes called the Third 30. This says that with enough health and wealth, sometime can redefine themselves radically. (So much for the gentle decline model.) And this create a large, well funded, deeply experienced labor class that is eager to take on new challenges.
Back to the little town on the verge of losing its high school. With the right will and initiative, we could redefine what a teacher is and bring boomers into the loop. Costs of education drop, town spirit perseveres, the police cruiser keeps its colors.
And while we are at it, lets invite artisans to come live here. Now the local economies are somewhat protected from Amazon, AI and the robots. New sources of revenue, tax and otherwise, open up. And notice we know have an economy to which some people living in the inner city can contribute. So let’s invite them too. This little town is vastly better than a life boat.