Some years ago, I was working on the overhire crew for a touring event gig in Chicago. One of the touring crew was an older guy who used to be a rock roadie. I got assigned to work with him and so we got to talking.
He mostly talked about his experiences of the Civil Rights movement in the United States during the 1950s and ’60s. He was in high school and college at the time, and he participated in the protests and sit-ins. He fought hard for equal rights. It remains a defining experience of his life.
This guy was raised by middle class white Republican parents in a solid middle class white Republican neighborhood. According to him, many of his fellows stood and protested with him in support of the Civil Rights movement. They supported equal rights because they believed in the importance of individual merit. A person’s success or failure in life should be determined by their own abilities and effort.
Systemic inequality is anathema to the doctrine of individual merit. If the system assigns unearned advantages or disadvantages to people, it renders individual ability and effort largely meaningless. They all wanted an equal playing field where individuals could prove themselves.
While this guy remained committed to continuing civil rights efforts over the years, he watched most of his fellows change their stance as they all grew older, many to the point where they now actively oppose current civil rights movements. He told me he was trying hard to understand how that happened.
Human beings are monotypic: we’re the only species within our taxonomic genus. Monotypic genera are relatively rare—it’s unusual for there to be no other species within a genus, especially among higher level complex organisms. (*)
In 2012, Gillian Flynn published Gone Girl and kick-started our current craze for unreliable narrator stories. 2015 saw the release of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and the unreliable narrator novel was firmly ensconced.
Rarely have I witnessed two books compared to each other more than these.
Not only was The Girl on the Train trumpeted as “this year’s Gone Girl,” not only did every critic and reviewer on the planet compare the two, but just about everyone I knew picked a favorite and took a side in the which-is-better debate.
Most people I know like both but have a clear preference for one or the other, and there are more than a few who love one and hate the other.
For most, their preference seems to boil down to which narrator appealed to them best. It’s not a matter of which you like best, as neither narrator is intended to be likeable. But both are meant to be intriguing.
I’m convinced that character appeal isn’t all that’s going on here. I think focusing on which narrator appeals the most is circling around a deeper issue.
I recently heard a story about a guy sitting in a public place, clearly wearing a wedding ring and clearly scrolling through a dating app. What’s disturbing wasn’t just the fact that he was cheating on his partner, but that he was doing it so obviously, right out in the open where anyone could see.
What a bastard.
It’s times like this when I’m reminded most powerfully of David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” speech (*). He challenges us to try and do better when we make assumptions, to think better. We have a choice whether to assume or not, and if we choose to make assumptions, we get to choose what we assume.
This is a story that hits much closer to home for me, as it happened to a friend of mine. But her story has done as much as anything to affect how I understand poverty, how I understand the role of government assistance, of social safety nets.
And it has done as much as anything to teach me the dangers of making assumptions.
I have a friend who experienced difficult times during the recession of the Bush Years. She and her husband are both capable and hard workers, college educated. He worked in a skilled labor field and she did general office work. They did fine for themselves.
Then he was involved in an accident and was severely injured. He’s disabled for the rest of his life. As a result, he could no longer work in his chosen field. He lost his job, lost his health insurance. And we all know COBRA is prohibitively expensive.
Poverty is something I think about frequently. Working in an urban public library system, many of our patrons are poor. The community we serve has significant neighborhoods of poverty. It’s our responsibility to understand what our patrons need, what life is really like for them.
This is an issue that’s always on my mind but it seems particularly important to speak out about it now.
There’s a group of kids—teens and tweens—who hang out at a local library. Sometimes they hang out at the McDonald’s down the street. These kids clearly live in poverty.
I look forward to authors exploring the ebook format as something more than just a different package for print books. Ebooks are a format, distinct from print, and can do things that print can’t, tell stories in ways that print could never accomplish.
It’s more than the obvious idea of integrating multimedia elements (but how cool would Rigg’s “Peculiar Children” books be if the images were subtle animated GIFs?). Ebooks aren’t ink on paper, which means the text doesn’t have to be permanent. The words themselves could be made changeable.
Many people yearn for the return of American manufacturing. Other people correctly point out that manufacturing is never coming back. The latter argue that we need to focus on creating new jobs, new kinds of jobs, and they point to the modern tech industry for this.
But the tech industry isn’t a present-day equivalent of our bygone manufacturing economy. It can’t replace it.
Consider: In the ’50s, a man who never finished high school could get a job working a factory line, and that job paid enough for them to raise a family and own a home. Nothing much, no frills, but a decent quality of life. They could learn new skills on the job and advance to more skilled positions. They could have a career and retire in some comfort.
Name one job in today’s tech industry that you can get without a high school diploma. Name one tech job that you can get without a college degree.
I first read this in a book by Isaac Asimov when I was in grade school. It wasn’t until college that I learned that this is an English translation of the Roman writer Terence. It remains one of the most powerful sentences I’ve read. If any single idea serves as my deepest moral code, it’s this.
I even made it the subtitle of this blog.
To me, this statement defines my responsibility to try and understand. All human feeling, all human thought and action, should be comprehensible to me. If human nature is capable of encompassing it, I should be able to relate to it. No matter how dark or twisted, no matter how bright or saintly—if it’s human, then by definition it shouldn’t be alien to me.