Our current state of affairs – this is an overgeneralization – two versions of the American existence are emerging as separate entities.
There’s the Knowledge Economy and there’s Trumpism, with a lot less overlap between the two with each passing day. We’re not exactly forced to pick the one around which we’ll coalesce, it’s more that we increasingly feel compelled to. Your choice depends on where you live, what your community looks like, which media outlet you get your news from, how religious you are, what level of education you’ve attained, the industry you work in and the amount of exposure you’ve had – in real life – to people from different walks of life and ethnic backgrounds.
Social media has aggravated these differences and recent political contests have hardened them.
Former Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the Cornell commencement last week, akin to making a direct address to the Knowledge Economy. The crux of his remarks:
I thought we had passed the days when it was acceptable for political leaders at local and national levels to bestow legitimacy on hate speech and fringe ideologies. But the world is changing so rapidly…
There are a lot of folks out there who are both afraid and susceptible to this kind of negative appeal. We saw the forces of populism not only here but around the world call to close our nation’s gates against the challenges of a rapidly changing world…
The immigrant, the minority, the transgender, anyone not like me became a scapegoat. Just build a wall, keep Muslims from coming into the United States.
‘They’re the reason I can’t compete, that’s why I don’t have a job. That’s why I worry about my safety.’ And I imagine, like me, many of you have seen this unfold. It was incredibly disorienting and disheartening.
Biden’s audience – remember, we’re talking about Cornell graduates and their families – is extraordinarily divorced from Trump’s audience. They won’t compete for jobs or real estate or potential mates with the Trumpists. They’ll consume information from different sources and have an almost entirely different life experience as they build their careers and raise their families in the coming years.
It’s sad that this is where we are. I don’t think most people want to be compelled to choose a team within one country, but the environment we’re in now practically demands it. This is deeper than political affiliation or just the usual city versus rural heuristic. It’s cultural. We’re supposed to be one culture, generally speaking. Maybe once we were. Or maybe we never were and it’s only becoming more obvious now. Differences in income and opportunities, magnified by Instagram glamor shots and Facebook status updates, are driving people crazy and forcing them onto teams. And teams discourage independent thought.
There is an implicit conceit within the Knowledge Economy that if everyone would just get with the program, the future would be brighter. From the outside, this can be taken as a chide or a scolding. We know what’s best for you. You shouldn’t be surprised that the kneejerk reaction to this sort of thing is a big f*** you and even votes cast out of spite. No one wants to be lectured by people who presume to be better than them. No one wants to be constantly presented with evidence that their life choices have been self-destructive – especially on social media, which is like one giant, raw nerve ending, continually being rubbed the wrong way.
But what if it flipped?
What if, all of a sudden, the Knowledge Economy didn’t look so hot. By publicly denigrating climate science and prioritizing the re-opening of coal mines, it sometimes seems as though this is an explicit aim of the Trumpists – a reactionary counter-revolution rolling back decades of social progress and industry-specific obsolescence. Re-shuffling the deck of cards. Flipping over the roulette table. Letting the chips fall to the ground and the players starting from scratch.
One current White House advisor said last year that “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.” The implication being that complete destruction is preferable to allowing things to keep going in the current direction. This is a desperation that is utterly inexplicable to those who are currently toward the top of the income and education scale.
In the event of a “complete destruction” of society, how would the denizens of the Knowledge Economy fare?
I came across an extreme example in the novel World War Z. Author Max Brooks explored this idea back in 2006, a full decade before the election that would crystallize these two renditions of American life. His narrator interviews the fictional Director of the Department of Strategic Resources in the aftermath of a global zombie epidemic, which humanity has just barely managed to survive. Having non-Knowledge Economy people as instructors may have saved the world…
America was a segregated workforce, and in many cases, that segregation contained a cultural element. A great many of our instructors…these were the people who knew how to take care of themselves, how to survive on very little and work with what they had. These were the people who tended small gardens in their backyards, who repaired their own homes, who kept their appliances running for as long as mechanically possible. It was crucial that these people teach the rest of us how to break from our comfortable, disposable consumer lifestyle even though their labor had allowed us to maintain that lifestyle in the first place…
Imagine the typical Cornell grad in this sort of scenario. What is she bringing to the table? I imagine my own paltry set of skills and realize how unhelpful they would be as the Department of Strategic Resources classifies us all and puts us to work in staving off the undead hordes at the gate…
You’re a high-powered corporate attorney. You’ve spent most of your life reviewing contracts, brokering deals, talking on the phone. That’s what you’re good at, that’s what made you rich and what allowed you to hire a plumber to fix, which allowed you to keep talking on the phone. The more work you do, the more money you make, the more peons you hire to free you up to make more money. That’s the way the world works. But one day it doesn’t. No one needs a contract or a deal brokered. What it does need it toilets fixed. And suddenly a peon is your teacher, maybe even your boss. For some, this was scarier than the living dead.
Substitute “corporate attorney” for graphic designer or evening news anchor or financial advisor or web developer in your mind. Imagine a world in which those skills suddenly had no meaning, no utility. Now think of the millions of your fellow Americans who have been made obsolete by technology or foreign trade over the last few decades – or live in constant fear that they are about to be.
Once, on a fact-finding tour of LA, I sat in the back of a reeducation lecture. The trainees had all held lofty positions in the entertainment industry, a melange of agents, managers, “creative executives,” whatever the hell that means. I can understand their resistance, their arrogance. Before the war, entertainment had been the most valued export of the United States. Now they were being trained as custodians for a munitions plant in Bakersfield, California.
100,000 retail jobs have been lost over the last year. Hiring in e-commerce positions – from web design to fulfillment and shipping – does not offset these job losses on a one for one basis. And if these workers remain out of work for long, or end up doing something they’re unhappy with, whose message will they be more susceptible to, the Knowledge Economy’s or the Trumpists’? Which team will they join?
How about the 3 million Americans who list their occupation as “driver”? As automated vehicles take their place on the road, will Biden’s appeal resonate? I don’t think so. It’s much more likely that the rhetoric of “the experts were wrong, burn it all down” will get through and take hold.
Can anyone or anything turn this tide of our growing separation from each other? I can’t imagine what could do it in the short-term. And I still can’t change an oil filter.
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