Misplaced aggression has become a feature of American life. It flourishes thanks to false mythologies and unkept promises. The aggression didn’t start with this President, but it has thrived under his lead.
This aggression has been building through decades of decaying fortunes and widespread pain felt outside the vaunted halls of the gatekeepers. How it ends is anyone’s guess, but it won’t be pretty. And no one will come out unscathed.
The mythology that many of us were raised with, the idea of the American Dream as expressed by Alexis de Tocqueville, has given way to a kind of angry anxiety. That anxiety is fed by a promise that most of us under 50 never had a chance to realize. Those of us over 50 saw brief glimpses, and are grasping at anything to keep the mirage on the horizon.
All but the luckiest of us are caught in a trap that was laid long before we could notice. Its a trap founded on a meritocracy that never really was. If it did exist, it only lasted for a brief, fleeting moment.
Still we cling to the mythology, like well worn security blanket, even though its disintegrated before our eyes. The harder we cling, the more it falls apart, and the more angry and anxious we feel.
If you think this administration will bring us to the breaking point, think again. We are well past a breaking point.
We were broken decades ago. The difference now is the gatekeepers feel the threat. Its a feeling us at the middle to bottom of the ladder have felt for decades.
Culture of Anxiety
For the past several months I’ve been experiencing a kind of slow burn anxiety. The kind that gets you up at 3am and won’t let you go until its too late to go back to sleep.
I’ve been trying to reason through this, and that’s been useless. There’s no specific “reason” to articulate.
Overall, it doesn’t make sense.
For me, things have finally been turning around. I’m back in a job that pays me a decent wage. The years of barely scraping by that came after the downturn seem to be in the rear-view mirror. But I have this lingering fear that everything is about to crumble again.
I say again, because this wasn’t the first time it crumbled.
Since I started working at age 15 I’ve see-sawed between different levels of prosperity and want.
In my early 20’s I would work three jobs to make ends meet, and still make time to pursue outside interests.
In the late 90’s I started doing production work and traveling. This was the first time I really started making real money. Then 9/11 happened, and everything was in jeopardy. The event business all but shut down for months while people tried to figure out what this new world held.
It eventually came back, and strong for several years. Then 2008 happened. And again, everything was in flux.
In 2008 I was living the American Dream. I was self-employed. My business was growing. I’d just bought a house. Things couldn’t have been better…
Then Lehman went bust.
I was doing a show in Washington DC at the time. I’d just bought my first iPhone. I didn’t know how to turn off notifications. They were incessant.
In a matter of weeks I had 100 days of work cancel. That also translated to 100 days of potential work for following years. Clients went bust. Partners took projects “in-house” to save cash. I was scrambling to fill the gaps and keep money flowing into my business keep myself afloat.
But bookings kept cancelling. For months. And while the cancellations that were just days away paid out, the ones booked months in advance didn’t. Eventually, I realized things weren’t going to turn around quickly enough for me to survive. I started planning to fold up shop.
I decided production didn’t have much of a future for me. It was time to get a real job. I needed credentials to get ahead. So I went back to school.
Risk with No Reward
I started school in January of 2010. Like a lot of other unemployed Gen Xers, I believed that a credential was the path to success.
I saw a lot of other people in similar situations. Their jobs had laid them off. They were seeking stability…the kind of stability that a degree, or a Master’s or whatever had promised to bring.
I did well in school, but I suffered financially. Even as the event industry rebounded in 2011 and 12, companies were still scared or running in the red. I took a job directing the news for a local morning show, then going to school. I slept when I could, which wasn’t much.
After four years, the personal and financial strain of trying to balance a full time job, school, and my other obligations was too much. Just a few credits short of my degree, all my student loans were exhausted. I’d burned through any remnants of savings I once had. I was so close, but it became clear that this just wasn’t going happen.
I quit school , but kept my job as a producer for a morning TV news show. It paid less than $30k/yr. I stayed until it became clear there wasn’t any real future there. So, I left for a new opportunity.
I’ve always been willing to take on risk. Going to school was a risk. Starting a business was a risk. This opportunity was also a risky one. But risk is part of realizing the American Dream. So I took it.
I was raised in a family with a middle class ethos. We preached the gospel of the American Dream: If you work hard, and do your best, you will be rewarded.
The American Dream I grew up believing has been overtaken by a reality of modern day robber barons and degraded public services.
This didn’t happen overnight. It took decades. In those intervening decades, millions of people less fortunate than me, have hitched their cart to the American Dream only to have that dream shattered.
There is no meritocracy in America. Not really. Not for people working paycheck to paycheck.
The American Dream died sometime before people in my generation had a chance to take advantage of it. And for kids hitting college today, its a nightmare.
In 1990 when I started College the first time, a semester at a state school with room and board cost about $1800 a semester. My last semester at a state-run school in 2014 cost $4000 a semester with no room and board.
And sure, Tennessee has a program to pay for school now, but it didn’t then. I’ve got the student loans to prove it. So do thousands of other students who didn’t have the means to finish school.
But even education is a false promise.
The False Promise of Education
Education is supposed to the great equalizer. The way out of poverty. But for people who have spent their lives in poverty, education is too expensive a chance to take for too little reward.
And its been that way for decades.
Sometime in the mid-1990’s I started noticing that a job as a manager at retail stores required a college degree.
When I was in High School, I was a weekend manager at S’barro. It was the late 1980’s. No degree required. My GM didn’t have a degree, just years of experience. Sure it was “part-time”, but I made about $10k/yr. That would be about $21k in today’s dollars.
But by 1995, you needed a college education to manage a Gap.
Now its even worse. Thanks to two decades of wage stagnation, a person with a college degree can expect a full-time job making less than $30k/yr while trying to pay of $50k of student loans.
In 1989, as a high school student, I was making today’s equivalent of $21k/yr. part-time. Now a person with a degree in social work makes less than $30k/yr. full time…and with way more stress.
Education is no panacea. Sure, its better than the alternative, but for students who can barely afford it, education can strap them with decades of debt and leave them with no better outcome.
Once upon a time a graduate degree meant real stability. Now there are many people with graduate degrees who are settling for lower paying jobs just to get a job.
Hell, even folks with Ph.D’s can’t get jobs at colleges who now use low paid adjuncts to teach their classes.
Unless you can self-fund your education, the American Dream has turned into a cruel, dystopian nightmare.
The Cruelty is the Point
Back in October, Adam Serwer wrote a piece for The Atlantic called, “The Cruelty is The Point”. Here’s an excerpt:
Taking joy in that suffering is more human than most would like to admit. Somewhere on the wide spectrum between adolescent teasing and the smiling white men in the lynching photographs are the Trump supporters whose community is built by rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them, who have found in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.
That’s where we are today, a nation relying on Schadenfreude to get through the day.
In this world, there is no American Dream, only unnecessary pain inflicted for personal pleasure.
The only shining city on the hill is the one the White Nationalists just lit up with their totally not ironic Tiki Torches serving as a thousand points of light.
The Cruelty is Unbearable
The cruelty that our system has brought is both unbearable and unbelievable.
The town I grew up in, eviscerated by 1980’s “disrupters” who sapped away at the middle-class business owners while paying their employees a pittance.
That town had a robust farm economy. Now that land is largely owned by multinational corporations who don’t give two shits about the people left behind.
The dearth of opportunity sapped away at the future leaders of the community. One family has been in power for over 40 years. They own that town, and rule as such.
Cruelty has Consequences
All this cruelty and lack of opportunity has the effect of making us immune to the suffering of others. We’re so lost in our own suffering that compassion is dead, a victim of decades of heartless combination and trickle down economics that never made it past the upper echelons of society.
The two dead babies at our southern border? Casualties of this cruelty. They are said to be victims of their parents hubris, who, in seeking a better life, unwittingly exposed them to the kind of inhumanity we would expect from North Korea.
Farmers, the few who could survive, many of whom bought into MAGA, are now losing the land their family has cultivated for generations to the trade whims of a President who would rather rail than reflect.
Seniors, who spent their lives toiling to raise you and me, barely make enough to get by. Now they’re afraid of losing their retirement, their Social Security and their housing.
Families are struggling to make the ends meet even though they work full time and bring tons of “value” to their company. Their children will suffer most. They may have to go to a different school next month because mom and dad can’t make the rent.
This continues even though studies show moving mid-year puts their education back six months.
Those children’s teachers don’t have the supplies they need to give them a proper education, and make too little to foot the bill for those supplies. Teachers are supposed to be miracle workers, who educate, provide social services, and inspire on a shoestring budget.
And through all of this, there’s a refrain that these people are somehow unworthy of additional support. Somehow, they made the wrong life choices and that’s why things are going so wrong for them.
Forget that we need educators and social workers and restaurant workers, or that children deserve schools and teachers who have what they need to educate them. Forget all that.
The only thing that matters is that the major employer in your area meets the quarterly numbers some asshole in New York expects them to. Otherwise the whole City’s tax base goes to shit and everyone suffers even more.
The charity that employer doles out is little more than marketing to offset the bad taste those “necessary” tax breaks leave in the mouths of citizens.
Those tax breaks are “necessary” because without them, these companies assure the citizenry they’ll forego millions of dollars of training, investment, and infrastructure to up and move to a place that will bend to their whims.
And we can’t pay our people more because mystery shareholders with servers full of mathematical equations and magical expectations, not society, take precedent over everything.
And really, most of it is bullshit and bluster. Its hostage taking of the worst kind…and the hostage is the very livelihood of the consumers these companies supposedly rely on.
The tax payers who are expected to fund these tax breaks. They’re also expected to accept the bought and paid for elected officials who pass for civic leaders.
This the America we’ve built. An America based on cruelty and exploitation.
This isn’t the beginning of the downward spiral. It is the final moments before a resounding thud puts us out of the misery we’ve created.
There’s time to turn things around. But the road to a turnaround is fraught with problems and peril. Peril bought and paid for by temporary comfort and compliance. Problems of agreeing on what’s real, and what’s an empty threat designed to send us to our partisan corners in terror.
The sooner we understand how high the deck is stacked against us, the sooner we can fix it.
But the fix requires casting aside a lot of assumptions we’ve come to believe as truths. And the first thing is the belief the mythology we hold so dear is real. Because until it is real for all, its just another mirage.
2 Replies to “Anxiety and Mythologies”
That was a very well communicated piece, Steve. Rock on.