FLOTSAM & JETSAM: Our split America

Friday, May 17, 2024

Our split America

Sam Smith, 2024 – Fifteen years ago my wife and  I moved from decades in Washington DC to a small town in Maine where I had spent many summer vacations. I realized that I had survived the increasingly difficult capital city in part because, even there,  I had deliberately spent a lot of time living the life of a neighborhood and its local folk. Maine offered a permanent vacation from the people and issues that ran the national Washington.

Lately I have been reminded of this because the conflicts in our national culture have deteriorated to the point at which we might even elect Donald Trump as president again.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that what allowed Trump to rise so easily were factors that had been functioning for a long time. For example, television – with its deceptive advertising and visual fantasies – was an early instructor in the acceptance of mythology, whether buying a product or choosing a president. Today traditional elements of what we used to call community - including town meetings, churches, schools teaching ethics as well as multiplication, and gathering places for families - have become ever less important. Instead our way is increasingly guided by mass media, huge institutions, corporations, public relations and artificial intelligence.

This repeatedly comes to mind because of experiences I have in small town Maine. A few days ago, for example, I was at a monthly potluck supper gathering of neighbors in a one room 19th century schoolhouse that has been preserved. And I can’t remember ever being conned or insulted by anyone in the town.

And when I recall major training moments in my life, I repeatedly find myself returning to the small and the local starting with a Quaker high school where we sat in meeting for an hour each week waiting for one of our classmates to arise and report the current occupation of their mind. Then there was Harvard University, where I graduated magna cum probation, in no small part because I had already decided to become a reporter and even my major – anthropology – required a study of the ordinary and common rather than power and success. My best course at Harvard was covering the Cambridge city council for the student radio station. How many students have a mayor and other politicians helping you learn what life is really about? Then in summer I worked on my parents’ farm learning that the only useful bullshit in life was that in a field or a barn. After college – with the draft approaching – I joined the Coast Guard and as operations officer on a cutter and learned , like on a farm, you can’t talk your way out of a tough situation.

There was one other advantage to such experiences: unlike law or business school, getting a PhD or becoming a public relations director, I had repeated contact with the less educated living ordinary lives and so learned how to converse across cultural lines and find things to share in common.

This is a big factor missing in our politics today. When I started out, for example, labor unions helped liberal leaders - even the best educated among them - learn to speak in an understandable voice.  

Donald Trump is a fake version of what populist pols were like back then, but because we have been so overwhelmed by advertising and conceptual manipulation that even the good guys don’t know how to deal with it.

For example, I checked out Biden on Wikipedia and here are a few things I found that I had no knowledge of, yet tell of a different guy than we have been taught to perceive:

Biden's father had been wealthy and the family purchased a home in the affluent Long Island suburb of Garden City in the fall of 1946,  but he suffered business setbacks around the time Biden was seven years old, and for several years the family lived with Biden's maternal grandparents in Scranton. Scranton fell into economic decline during the 1950s and Biden's father could not find steady work. Beginning in 1953 when Biden was ten,  the family lived in an apartment in Claymont, Delaware, before moving to a house in nearby Mayfield. Biden Sr. later became a successful used-car salesman, maintaining the family in a middle-class lifestyle.

Biden had a stutter and has mitigated it since his early twenties. He has described his efforts to reduce it by reciting poetry before a mirror.

Biden is a teetotaler. He has said he abstains from alcohol because there were "too many alcoholics in my family".

Biden earned a Juris Doctor from Syracuse University College of Law in 1968. He ranked 76th in a class of 85 students after failing a course because he plagiarized a law review article for a paper he wrote in his first year at law school.  He was admitted to the Delaware bar in 1969.

A few weeks after Biden was elected senator, his wife Neilia and one-year-old daughter Naomi were killed in an automobile accident while Christmas shopping in Hockessin, Delaware, on December 18, 1972. Neilia's station wagon was hit by a semi-trailer truck as she pulled out from an intersection. Their sons Beau (aged 3) and Hunter (aged 2) were in the car, and were taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, Beau with a broken leg and other wounds and Hunter with a minor skull fracture and other head injuries. Biden considered resigning to care for them, but Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield persuaded him not to. Biden contemplated suicide and was filled with anger and religious doubt. He wrote that he "felt God had played a horrible trick" on him,[53] and had trouble focusing on work.

Biden was consistently ranked one of the least wealthy members of the Senate, which he attributed to his having been elected young. Feeling that less-wealthy public officials may be tempted to accept contributions in exchange for political favors, he proposed campaign finance reform measures during his first term. As of November 2009, Biden's net worth was $27,012…

The political writer Howard Fineman has written: "Biden is not an academic, he's not a theoretical thinker, he's a great street pol. He comes from a long line of working people in Scranton—auto salesmen, car dealers, people who know how to make a sale. He has that great Irish gift."…

In short, Biden is much more the creature that Trump pretends to be but the ways of modern media permit Trump to grossly pretend otherwise. In addition, liberals these days tend to boast more of success than tell stories of the pain they suffered to get there. And the voting public has little idea of the true tales.