Tuesday, September 08, 2020


My high school class of 1957 pushed hard on the idea of meritocracy — that the talented and hard-working can rise to the top and SHOULD do that, but always remembering that their privilege is accompanied by responsibility for everyone else.  When I got to Browning, MT. as a teacher, which was NOT the top — in fact, was considered so low class that it was hard to hire teachers — I had not forsaken being best or bright, but had “re-framed” what that meant.  I was after adventure, artistic quality, and devotion.  I ignored money.

This change was not just due to college -- which was mostly in theatre where there are no small parts, only small actors, and everyone works for a common goal.  But also due to parents whose target was not to get rich or to climb a hierarchy, but humbly to accept life as it came without taking unnecessary chances.  They came from farms, not offices. 

Longer PBS interview of Daniel Markovits:

Markovitz “authored "The Meritocracy Trap" (2019), [which] places meritocracy at the centre of rising economic inequality and social and political dysfunction. The book takes up the law, economics, and politics of human capital to identify the mechanisms through which meritocracy breeds inequality and to expose the burdens that meritocratic inequality imposes on all who fall within meritocracy’s orbit.”  (Wiki)

Markovitz ignores a number of things.  One is that there are always more systems than the dominant capitalism that has made empty cynical shells of so many people who control our country.  There have always been “bohemians” or “hippies” or eccentrics who connected with each other in systems, with or without media.  Adventurers, explorers, those who went out to the edges looking for the unknown would endanger the wealth that was their own bodies.  

Most didn’t pay for their adventures but depended on the largess of sponsors, taking advantage of accumulated money of others.  This is also true of those inspired by charity or major aesthetic accomplishments, using the advantages of concentrated money by exchanging for it a different kind of exceptionalism — that of the superior people in terms of prestige and high tastes.  I'm not even talking about crime. 

One of the major mistakes of the Soviet system as seen from the outside is their failure to appreciate these systems.  The country seems a nation of babushkas, heads down, diligently doing minor work while a few militaristic bullies set the rules for everyone else.  This is what Trump admires.

One of the major mistakes of the USA has been poor education for BOTH the middle class and the disadvantaged.  This begins with the poor education of teachers, who often see ed classes in state schools as Mickey Mouse courses for athletes busy smashing their heads together.  The dominance of sports has seriously damaged education IMHO.  Coaches rule and become superintendents.

This vid is a quickie from an entirely different area, those offices.

In terms of small businesses, office jobs, and even techie jobs, a major deficit in my experience has been management skills.  Someone told me early in my short “career” as clergy that I would never make money unless I converted my job into management of the congregation’s and the denomination’s organization.  Such jobs did exist but they had nothing to do with my preparation for ministry.  They require really big churches, which are scarce in the UU context because it is a small denomination.

Also, it would have to be urban, a place highly populated with specialized jobs that demand education.  This is structural as well as overtly hierarchical.  Even in the secular City of Portland some managers were so overwhelmed by their jobs that they could not design systems that could keep up, even for something simple like nuisance abatement, which required going into the field to see what was there.  It could not be computerized.

We need a lot more of the kind of training described by this management blog.  It’s not easy when the work arrives unpredictably on its own schedule.  But even students and householders need to think this way.

Another factor that is neglected by this capitalist Yalie concept of merit will not be popular.  It is that of reputation.  Even in a city institution, word gets around about who shows up, who "gets it", and who is lost in the perks of long alcoholic lunches.  On a rez or in a small town, much depends on the reputation of a whole family for honor, dependability, and hard work.  If someone is an exception, they stand out and get discussed; if their reputation is bad or erratic, often passed over.

Yalies think of money and tenure as the only measure of hierarchy.  Out here on the prairie we have another marker for privilege which is about labor — it’s very old, the diff between those who own land and sit somewhere making marks on paper and those who are out in the weather digging, planting and harvesting.  

Children of men on farms who were broken down in old age by hard work, dusty breathing, and risky machines have been urged by their fathers to choose work that is indoors, safe, and clean.  This is considered the reward of merit.  Presumably it escapes the vicissitudes of the climate and the market.  But expert manual labor also pays well, like plumbers.  People don't hold back money from them if they’re drowning.  Still, everyone believes that more education will be rewarded with less strenuous work.  Only sports deserve effort because it is not considered labor.  The backside of this is contempt for learning because it was hard and not useful, often irrelevant to the public mind.

My own reputation as an “intellectual” is hindered by the reputation of Bob Scriver, sculptor judged by income and judge involved in many emotional issues.  It’s hard for people here to separate me from him.  There are a few advantages but no money.  In terms of my major occupation of ministry, I’m too anchored to rural places — NOT environmental issues — to deserve attention.  UU's consider themselves elite and urban. 

So far I’m not seen by publishers as saleable so writing is not a source of money.  Slowly I build another reputation as worth reading because of merit for future understanding.  This is a characteristic of “merit” that’s not necessarily recognized.  My goal is finding deeply shared human characteristics.  This interferes with those who maintain their “merit” by pulverizing everyone else.  But that takes effort -- labor -- and does not give progress to the whole.

If merit is defined by capitalism, I am a failure, not even attracting other people's money.  If merit is defined by other kinds of value, I'm priceless.

No comments: