Wednesday, June 15, 2022

There is No Merit to Merit

Perhaps like many people, I am sick and tired of explaining to people why their invidious observations of particular black people justifies their implicit racism. I believe that this kind of behavior is the purest instance of what is now popularly called confirmation bias. 

The trouble is that it's very hard to find a way to penetrate the idiocy. Racists are stuck and unmovable, especially when they have no actual personal interaction with those they consider congenitally inferior. Sometimes it's still true even when they do. 

When I was growing up, and sometimes even still, I was thought to be extremely intelligent. Observations about my intelligence were often followed by predictions about how wealthy I would become. Now I was a shy kid who truly hated it when some friend of my parents would compliment me (or so they thought they were doing). Why just the other day I got angry to the point of shaking when friends of mine, both immune to anti-racist arguments, wondered aloud and to me why I wasn't wealthy. 

I understand money as a kind of virus which infects the soul, and I no more want money than I want recognition, which just makes me weird, I guess. Well, sure I would like to have lots of money, but I'm not about to waste my time working for it. And I would like sufficient recognition to be able to join in to wider intelligent conversations. But as with wealth, it's not worth, apparently, twisting my thought to be recognized in some disciplinary slice of academia by virtue of an advanced degree. I'm well aware that my fundamental whiteness will still and always provide for me in any emergency. And there is finally no erasing my own fundamental racism. So there! I am a scoundrel and a cheat. No wonder I have no wealth to speak of. Oh!

We all know that some people are more intelligent than others in any given realm. The trouble is that we also believe that there is something like disembodied "merit" to the extent that some people are better or more deserving than others in some general sense. 

But the term better, when applied to people, is generally understood to have a moral dimension. Our usage for terms like "merit" tends in a neutral abstracted dimension. We would otherwise not tolerate the excessive wealth of the one-percenters. We would see such wealth plainly as a kind of mark of evil. An absence of fellow feeling. Ebenezer Scrooge hoarding. A desire for recognition which is pathological and not healthy. Kind of like getting a degree from Trump University (was there ever really such a place?)

Without any grounding in the dismal science of economics, I make the observation that each time the economy, stupid, crashes, there is a kind of ratchet effect which pumps yet more wealth to the top. Generally by way of the central bank refundingt the losses at the top to keep this ship of state afloat. Inflation, for instance, is clearly of service to that same process. And there is, as yet, no relief valve for the pressure of all our money concentrating at the top. I think that's because our treatment of money as a neutral politics-free entity makes it so. If it were water, we would worry about the bursting. Water is more political than money. Water is life, or so say many of the palliative Black Lives Matter signs. Money is merit.

Once upon a time we freed the banks from having to own the assets they were lending. The savings and loans which made for a Wonderful Life were crushed. The Cajas in Spain lost their cajones. The world was washed in American Warbucks. I lived through this at the side of my board of trustees worth well north of a billion actual dollars when a billion was a lot of fucking money. They sat angry on bank boards, some of them, as their banks went under.

My good and fine informant Adam Tooze makes the bland observation that this particular round of inflation is not so much marked by wage/price spiraling as it is by an historically unprecedented expansion of corporate profits. They need those profits to fund the yachts of their C-grade leaders. The private jumbo-jet flying yachts too. 

In a world where the media's job is to keep the economy pumping, there is now a general plague of confirmation bias. That's what got us blimpo Donald Trump and his leveraged jumbo jet. He must have merit, else how would he have gotten so high? He rides high on confirming the confirmation bias of people who know in their bones that they are being lied to and pandered to by the MSM which always hides the real story about wealth. Just like Elizabeth Warren is capitalist to her bones, I also know that I am being lied to.

The real story about wealth as we treat it is that wealth is melting down the planet in just the way that Nazis rendered Jews. Adam Tooze is also the informant of a young professor from Yale at Georgetown who tries to put the politics back in money so that we can do something about our apparently crashing democracy. Getting money out of politics amounts to the same thing as putting politics back in to money. So says young Stefan Eich.

Now it is absolutely true that I did serve as the headmaster of a school for gifted kids whose antics would make even Kurt Vonnegut cringe. I was about Eich's age. (I can't, for the life of me, remember which of Vonnegut's novels concerned such a school in Ilium, which is a realm I've crisscrossed more than he did in his life.) 

I chafed against our use of IQ testing for admissions and thereby alienated many in the community. I did think that such testing could be useful to pluck otherwise invisible, let's say, black kids from a crowd. But it wasn't really such a great way to find those kids who might thrive in our quirky school. Kids who were curious and irreverent and who required no-bullshit smart teachers who treated them as immature equals. Often, they were kids who didn't do well in school. The rewards there didn't work for them, and maybe school felt like prison as it did to me. I did think and still do think that all schools should work the way that mine did.

I also think that for a kid to believe that he has special merit can only be destructive.

Our administration consisted basically of me, the lowest paid and likely most overworked independent school head in all of New York. I had hardly anyone to whom to delegate almost anything. And yet I loved that job far more than Elon could possibly love his, if he even has a job. I guess if Trump had a job then Elon has a job. Fuck them both.

Schools have become places which limit what kids can learn, often with the excuse that they have to be protected from foul matters. That's even as they live in communities where foulness is on display everywhere and all the time, and where school is no longer even a safe place to leave your kids for the day. I mean, if you're going to teach kids how to handle guns, shouldn't you also teach them Marx? We did.

Along with reading (the good stuff) and writing (I learned to read and write myself only after getting my degree, though it would be hard to press my case in this forum, staying half a step ahead of my students as teachers do) and certainly disembodied and abstracted 'rithmetic. It was a damned good school whose grads identify with it more than they do with their universities. 

I only wish I could feel at home in the alumni gatherings. But I'm a public-school kid who therefore hated Yale from where I keep up with almost no-one. Ditto them with me.

So, the only thing that the Left and Right will ever agree on is that we shall perpetually live in the best of times and in the worst of times. I count the awful stuff and strain toward a progressive future, in an almost reciprocal way to how right-wingers strain to keep the good stuff from slipping away. 

Life sucks and then you die. Or alternatively, when you gamify it, life is a lot of fun and then you Peter out and off the field of play. To either extreme you must deny that there is anything cosmic to life, and especially to your life. But there is. So there!

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