Last night I had one of those maddening Facebook arguments– I’d like to think it was a debate, but it was probably just an argument–that illustrate just how pervasive conservative ideas have become. The key phrase was, “some people are just not meant for college.” A few hundred years ago that was the exact phrase used to justify keeping everyone in the political dark except for white men with property. Now it’s become one of those falsely “hard-nosed” phrases that certain otherwise liberal people use to sound “realistic” and “pragmatic.” We’d love a world in which college is affordable for all but “some people are just not meant for college.” Is it just genetics?
It’s nonsense, of course. Even as recently as fifteen years ago no one who considered themselves liberal, much less progressive, would ever say such a thing; the echos of the long history o discrimination and eugenics were too strong. Years of conservative marketing, though, seems to have wiped out the semantic common sense that sends up alarms when something like this pops up. It’s also a problem of our American ignorance about socioeconomic class and our increasingly distorted self-image as a culture that encourages equality and mobility. At one moment we seem to be moving towards an understanding that inequity is a result of policy, and then the insight fades again.
These were my brood-y dark thoughts as I read, “For class warfare, there’s the 1%, and then there’s the 0.1%,” by Henry Banta on the Nieman Watchdog website. Underneath the persuasive conservative rhetoric– especially tropes like “some people are just not meant for college”– lies a reality that seems nearly inaccessible to what might be called the political common sense of the United States. We’ve– using “we” in the loosest sense–created a profoundly unequal society that concentrates wealth in a deeply alarming and unprecedented fashion. That’s hard to stomach so we respond by creating a kind of naturalized fantasy to explain the results. It “those people” again.