A Clinton win Tuesday means probably eight more years of Clintons in the oval office. Ho, hum. That would make 20 of 28 years with either a Bush or Clinton at the helm, with Obama (another Wall Street President) sandwiched in. So all bodes well for the American plutocracy for the foreseeable future.

Or maybe not. Politicians and mainstream media aren’t talking about it, but dig down a little bit and many pundits foresee a devastating repeat of the 2008 crash coming very soon, no matter who’s in office. And why wouldn’t there be a repeat. No meaningful reforms were put into place. The too-big-to-fail banks and insurance companies became bigger than ever. No one was prosecuted for what was massive white collar crime.

If serve-the-rich economics are once again unraveling, is it really possible that the Clintons/ Bushes/Obamas, shaped and trained by Harvard/Yale professors and advisors, the so-call “best and the brightest,” are the last to know? Same as they were last time? Then what kind of education is actually going on in high places?

. . .

A number of years ago, I remember asking myself this very question while watching “The Fog of War,” a documentary on Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, considered the main architect of the Vietnam war. The core message (McNamara’s mea culpa, really) was that America didn’t know what we were doing over there. We shouldn’t have been there at all. It was profound arrogance and ignorance on our part.

How did your elite education (California Berkeley and Harvard) let you so thoroughly down, Robert McNamara?

I, like most Americans, have been 99.9 percent out of the loop of elite educational institutions. By high school, the closest I’d ever gotten to an elite thinker, like a Robert McNamara, was in Plymouth, Michigan, where his brother, Tom, lived next door. (Well, “lived” isn’t the right word. Over time we learned it was his mistress who lived there, with whom he had a couple little girls. He would show up in his big Cadillac every third week-end or so.)

Before Plymouth I grew up on a farm in northern Michigan — not exactly known for its elite thinkers. Nor is West Virginia, where I’ve lived most of my adult life. But I did have a brief experience as a creative writing instructor at Andover Phillips Academy, a school of former presidents, including both Bushes, a feeder school for Yale in particular and all of the Ivy League schools in general.

I had developed a small reputation as a writer and teacher, and I got the call to teach in their summer session. If they liked me, they hinted, I might be in line for a full-time job. A relatively young man at the time, I had the audacity to think maybe I was going somewhere. I arrived at Andover with a high regard for myself. Pride goeth before a fall.

At Andover Phillips, students were graded on a number system. Three was a C, four was a B, five was an A, etc. But unlike the five grade system, ABCDF, they had six grades, a six being the equivalent of an “A+.”

That was my first whiff of trouble ahead. No big deal. I assumed that a six was reserved for exceptional work. These kids were okay, pretty good, but honestly no better in their writing skills than my students in the hinterlands of West Virginia. Maybe a little worse, truth be told. Probably over-protected, which is fatal for writer. Over-protected, thus lacking in experience, which is the grist for a writer’s mill.

But they were certainly not lacking in confidence and self-assertion. My Phillips students would go half nuts if the grade they got on an essay or short story was less than a perfect six. A five, a mere straight A, was taken as an insult.

Complaints were lodged with the administration that they weren’t learning anything in creative writing. What could I say back to that? “Yes, you are?” The dean started to sit in on my class. Within the first few weeks, I realized that I was already pegged as someone who didn’t fit into the Phillips culture.

I got a deeper understanding of my disappointment when I started attending a weekly open mic event at the student center. Too many students felt comfortable, I discovered, getting up in front of an audience with very few, say, guitar skills (maybe they knew two or three chords) and obviously very little preparation.

And the old light bulb popped on inside my head. Education itself at Phillips Academy was more or less a window dressing; the institution’s deeper function was to further rich kids in the idea of themselves as exceptional. The unspoken mandate of Phillips Academy (one of the most expensive prep schools in the world) was to make students unshakably comfortable with their privileged status, to assure them that every little thing they did was original and exceptionally good; and thus, by extension, to justify the extraordinarily big piece of the economic pie that they were already in line for.

. . .

My brief experience at Phillips, painful though it was, was an important first shovel-full in filling in a big hole my own education. It had been stamped into my head from the get-go that America, compared to most of the rest of the world, was a classless society, not perfectly so, but largely so. In America one rose according to one’s merits, one’s initiative, one’s hard work, as opposed to one’s birth, inherited wealth, and all that.

I don’t know how many times I heard as a kid that America is a country where anybody can be president. It was like a mantra. Grandparents said it. Parents. Teachers. Preachers. Presidents said it. Still say it. Obama pipes that tune regularly today in his stump speeches for Hillary. America is a country where a black man can be president. Where a woman can be president.

Well, Barack, not a black man or a woman who is willing to stand up to the American plutocracy. Certainly not a Martin Luther King, an Emma Goldman, or their modern day equivalents, if there are still any out there.

Most certainly not a poor man or woman, or a person of average income — say, a worker.  It seems almost laughable to think of a person of ordinary means as president. But why should it be laughable, except that we (privileged and commoner alike) have been brainwashed to think that there is some innate and immeasurable quality gap between the haves and have-nots.

And what is a class-bound society built on but that.

. . .

There were a couple of buildings being refurbished during the summer I taught at Phillips. At one faculty assembly, the director announced that the workers had been strictly instructed not to talk with the students, and that if any of us saw them interacting, we should immediately report it.

I remember bristling at that. Here was the summer school director, who openly encouraged us to be on full alert for the smallest hints of racism and sexism, making a classist remark big enough to drive a Mac truck through.

There was a missed opportunity for me. I should have stood up and said something. But I didn’t have the confidence to stand that alone.


1 Comment

  1. Charles Sullivan

    Jim, I think that you have identified the roots of the derivation of the idea of American exceptionalism, at least as it pertains to America’s ruling class, and particularly to the likes of the Clinton’s, who perceive themselves as “superior” or “entitled” by their social pedigree. In election after election, we see increasing mediocrity, if not blatant stupidity, which sees itself as what it is not–exceptional, as in greatness. All that is exceptional about the power elite is the enormity of their egos, the extent of their blind spots, their stupendous mediocrity and lack of critical self-examination. From the perspective of cancer, health is disease.

    In reality, the privileged elite are pathetic, self-serving sociopaths and miserable specimens of humanity–the worst of the worst. We are currently witnessing a presidential spectacle between two of the most reviled people in the country. Clinton and Trump are manifestations of the exploitative capitalist system that has produced them and preys upon naive working people of conscience, who play by the rules and do right by their neighbors. Capitalism rewards the most grotesque, hedonistic and “deplorable” people with obscene wealth and political power. Of course, these fools constitute the ruling plutocracy that is leading us toward self-annihilation, as in nuclear Armageddon. Clinton and Trump are misleaders, not leaders in the revolutionary sense.

    In the algebra of capitalism, there is no room for traits such as character, ethics, or higher consciousness. In America, people like Thoreau and Emma Goldman are exiled to the status of pariahs, and we remember Dr. King’s fate only too well. Take heed.


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