Hanley's chief interest here is how we should think about the costs and benefits of social mobility. The political Right, says Hanley, likes social mobility because it satisfies some measure of fairness, giving the "deserving" the chance to move up in the world (and contribute to the economy along the way). But it also allows the Right to ignore or neglict the people who don't move. The hard Left, in contrast, dislikes social mobility because it erodes working-class solidarity and suggests a belief that up on the social ladder is by definition better.Hanley writes a lot about music, because music is, or is seen as, one way to get rich without giving up the attitudes of the working class.
Hanley positions herself to the Left of centre, but the truth is that she is ambivalent about a lot of these questions, and that ambivalence comes through – sometimes consciously, sometimes less so. On the one hand she deplores the attitude of her old school teachers, who, taking their tone from Margaret Thatcher's government, seemed to think that many of her classmates were unteachable and didn't deserve to learn. Yet she also writes at length about how working-class culture seems not to support the idea that children can "improve" themselves – partly because society and the government keep telling them they're no good, so not striving is a way of sticking up two fingers at the establishment, and partly because working-class culture values "loving people for who they are", while working-class parents guess, rightly in many cases, that social mobility will mean their eventual alienation from their children. . . .
The sociological problem has a psychological equivalent, which Hanley writes about well: her obvious feelings of embarrassment and guilt at being the kind of dutiful student who escaped her roots, mingled with her pride and delight escaping. "The difficulty comes when you have a thought that goes along the lines of 'I believe life can be better than this'; a thought which is then interpreted by other people as 'You believe you're better than me.'"
I have thought about this recently in the context of stories about kids from impoverished or minority backgrounds who feel alienated in college. Hand-wringing about the lack of institutional support they get misses the basic truth that Hanley lived, the ambivalence of leaving where you came from and becoming something else.
Jason Isbell even wrote a song about this, The Last of My Kind:
Tried to go to college but I didn't belongTo think that every smart kid ought to go to college, and that we ought to do everything we can to help them, is to make a judgment that an educated, middle-class life is better than a working-class life spent among familiar surroundings and familiar people. I won't lie, that's how I feel. But the older I get the less interest I have in imposing my own ideas about the good life on others.
Everything I said was either funny or wrong
"To think that every smart kid ought to go to college, and that we ought to do everything we can to help them, is to make a judgment that an educated, middle-class life is better than a working-class life spent among familiar surroundings and familiar people. I won't lie, that's how I feel. But the older I get the less interest I have in imposing my own ideas about the good life on others."
Why must we limit elevating people to individuals? Why can't we avoid tearing apart families and communities by elevating them all together?
Why is the solution to problems like dying coal mines "let the young people move away in search of better opportunities and let the old people fade away", when we could instead be working to either rehabilitate the economies of those communities where possible, or relocate the communities en masse to greener pastures?
Transition is frequently inevitable, particularly for small communities. But we have a simple choice between allowing such communities to fall apart, or investing the resources to keep them together and help them find prosperity.
Government exists to serve the needs of the people. And I posit that we don't need quite so many guns and bombs, and could instead use a lot more resources to help communities both survive and thrive.
"But the older I get the less interest I have in imposing my own ideas about the good life on others."
I take your point. I've seen the alienation of many first-in-their-generation college students, though I've never lived it and probably can't truly understand it.
And tolerance of others' ideas of the good life is an essential social good. But I'm a college educated, rootless cosmopolitan. That's my tribe. However ambivalent and desirous of not offending I might be in an intellectual discussion, and however much I'm willing to say philosophically that tribalism is bad, when it comes down to it I actually have quite definite, essentially tribal ideas of my own about the good life. As far as I can tell, many of my ideas are frankly incompatible with what seem to be the voting ideas of the American white working class. My ideas of the good life don't have a place for, for example, the presence of conspiracy theories and race baiting as part of the discourse of the highest levels of government. I'm quite certain that many of THEM feel the same about my kind and our ideas. There are tens of millions on both sides. The divide is real and deep.
What do we do about that?
In my darkest moments, I imagine the likely outcome of today's culture clash is a soft dictatorship of competence, a sort of non-military Bonapartism, in the service of my side's interests--the service of the comfortable and well-educated.
What we do is to take the medieval approach: recognize that many of our problems are fundamentally unsolvable and get on with life as best we can.
Ah, quietism. I'm not sure that's an especially medieval approach--the Spanish would have certainly said that it vale menos. And Gregory VII and his ilk would have had none of it.
I think I'll continue looking for some other answer to my question.
Medieval people may have tried to solve their problems but they never did. It seems to me that if you had asked a worldly intellectual in about 500 what his part of Europe's worst problems were, he would have answered "a vacuum of legitimate authority, leading to constant violence, injustice, oppression by local lords little better than thugs, interruptions of trade, and a complete inability to control piracy and repel external threats; also corruption in the church, lack of education, social upheaval, bad roads, and incompetent doctors." His descendant of 1450 would have answered pretty much the same way.
Nonetheless they managed to create an amazing civilization.
Offhand, I can't think of a single civilization that ever "solved" its most fundamental social problems, at least not without creating new ones.
Anyway, I'll never be satisfied with a quietist stance toward our country's current predicament, so we should probably just agree to disagree.
Isn't a society with its fundamental social problems called a utopia?
fundamental social problems solved*
I don't advocate doing nothing about the current political divide in the US. I am just saying that what we do has to be based on the fact that we are divided. We can't magic that away. Some things we might do: look for technical problems that we might be able to get some Trumpists interested in solving, like better infrastructure and better health care; run candidates who won't infuriate Trump-leaning independents as much as Hillary did. (Would Joe Biden have beaten Trump?) Take state and local politics seriously. Fight against extremists in our own camp so we don't have to defend indefensible policies.
And, be personally nice to everyone.
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