Let’s tell ourselves a fairy tale, shall we?
Once upon a time there was a young man who longed to get into Yale. He didn’t — he got into Stanford instead — but it didn’t exactly poison his soul. Or if it did, the poison merely melded with all the other temptations and inducements, tragedies and victories, slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, so that it became a kind of bemusing anecdote he told at cocktail parties years later.
No, that’s not right.
What about this?
Once upon a time there was a young man who got into the college of his dreams: UC Santa Barbara. He enjoyed his first year there so much that the college graciously sent him a letter at the end of it inviting him never to come back. He went on, after a summer spent digging up and then re-setting the reflector pads on a re-paving project for a stretch of state highway in the hottest part of the Central Valley, to get a degree in Voice while bartending his way through the ’89 quake. The winter of his frosh-year discontent, if it did poison his soul, was burned and purged away by that happy summer of an adulthood spent in the company of the love of his life, raising three healthy brave and kind children, singing astonishing music whenever he had the time and inclination to do so.
That’s more like it, but still not quite right.
Once upon a time there was a young man who longed to get into Northwestern. He didn’t — he got into Lawrence instead — and while he put a good face on it, still he talked of four years in “Crappleton” even after he moved to Chicago the minute he possibly could, there to spend certain years as a machinist, making a bad (and short-lived) marriage when he tumbled over the handlebars of his bike one snowy evening and suddenly needed the health insurance that his non-union job didn’t provide. Ultimately he found his way into the marginal world of citizen journalism, twitter feuds, and the kinds of activism that lead to (real or imagined) clicks on the phone and unexplained interruptions to one’s correspondence.
No, that’s definitely not it.
Once upon a time there was a young man who everyone thought would apply to Harvard. He didn’t (he didn’t even apply to Stanford); instead he applied to Arizona State and spent four years tailgating at Pac 10 games before then gunning for Harvard and launching himself into a career where he gets to spend months on mountaintops in Hawaii and Chile, literally naming new stars by comparing legit-ass Hubble telescope images against photographic plates taken a century ago and stored in earthquake-proof vaults buried in a hill from which General Washington surveyed the British fortifications around Boston.
Now that is perhaps more like it.
But what if we vary the theme a bit?
Once upon a time there was a young man who didn’t worry too much about what college he should attend. He applied to, and got in to, the same college — Birmingham Southern — where his older brother went. He didn’t pay too much attention to the danger signs he saw and reported on (to his naive younger cousin) while there. For instance, the story of his older brother slicing open his wrist on a broken beer bottle at a fraternity party and joyously, drunkenly, painting a sort of Jackson Pollock on the tuxedo shirt of his brother member with the spray of ink jetting forth from his vein before collapsing and being taken to the ER. Or the story he himself told of being led to the basement of the KA house during pledge week to meet the black mastiff with an unmentionable name who was the fraternity mascot, fed on steak and the ear-scratches of the sons of petty gentry from small-town Alabama. Or the story I tell of rescuing him from some weed- (or maybe even meth-)induced haze from a plywood-floored apartment on the south side of town, a stretch of town where the sidewalks really do end in grickle-grass and the wind blows sour, whisking him back to Alabama and the tender arms of the woman who would bear his children and later leave him for a man ambitious enough to at least apply for membership in the Mountain Brook Country Club. Did that young man bury himself in sorrow and shame? Hardly. He picked himself up, dusted himself off, and reinvented himself as a federal attorney and bassist for a local band playing in a coffee shop that he swears was the inspiration for the Whistle Stop Cafe.
Still not it. What about:
Once upon a time there was a young man who wasn’t born a man but later became one. After a semester or two at the local community college, he followed his mother into a career in public school food service, retiring in his late 40s with a quarter-century of service on the job, a beautiful wife and two lovely kids (by her prior relationship). He lives still, surrounded by a supportive, loud-laughing family, in the town where he grew up, and simply doesn’t give two shits about whether he did, or didn’t, get a BA.
Or this one:
Once upon a time there were two girls with essentially interchangeable biographies centered largely around hard-working mothers and feckless fathers scrabbling for dignity at the lower reaches of the middle class. One of these girls cared deeply about what college she went to. She pleaded with her father, who mortgaged the house when she got into Barnard. She later made a movie about it and wrote herself into the fevered imaginings of a whole generation of young women across the nation. The other girl cared not quite as deeply — or was better at hiding it, anyway — as to what college she went to. But after having been rejected from UC-Santa Cruz she took a long and rather circuitous route to getting a BA from an entirely different sort of college all the way on the other side of the continent. She apprenticed herself into a career in the arts and now sits in judgement — a career she has spent her entire life preparing for — as part of the creative process of making the sorts of movies that the first girl stars in.
Here’s the thing about all of these fairy tales: each one of them is a unique narrative. Each one of them is is drawn, perhaps with some more-or-less inadvertently malicious creative license, from life.
What they do not do is cohere into some neat and tidy moral lesson, some sociological truism, some contorted philosophical argument. They are real people’s biographies, refracted through my ineluctably myopic summary of the complexity of their reality.
And that’s the thing about a book like “The Tyranny of Merit.” I think there’s some truth there, but I’m not sure it’s more than a fairy tale. I can imagine the psychic anguish of Julia, in The Magicians, and how the moment of seeing the golden chalice of an elite liberal arts education snatched away could scar one’s life forever — but the imagination of that anguish says everything about me, about how pathetically important it was to have pinned my hopes and dreams on the petty vagaries of 10 different admissions committees — and nothing about anybody else.* To imagine that my own insecurity, specifically my insecurity at age 17, constitutes the magic goggles by which I can read the golden plates of contemporary politics isn’t just laughably hubristic, it is utter fucking nonsense.
Maybe it is truly the case that my cousin’s husband — holder of a BA from University of West Georgia, failed businessman, father of three strong kind and beautiful girls, and flagrant NRA member cum Trumpista — can serve as the magic spyglass through which I can descry the wide and rugged territory of white resentment. Maybe. Or perhaps I could look to my uncle — holder of no formal degree other than a training certificate from DeVry, intermittently employed, variously convicted, and never at a loss for those words picked specifically to needle his ambitious high-marrying sister, my mother — for the synecdoche that will short-circuit the need to see all the trees in the forest, thank you very much, and will serve as a stand-in for every other story one could potentially spin into an article in the New York Review of Books.
In case it isn’t yet clear, this kind of thing makes me damned tired. I am by instinct and training a sociologist. I want, to the depths of my very soul, to find a theory by which all the secrets of the world can be revealed, and in that revelation, a solution by which all the world’s ills are neatly highlighted, outlined, and revealed. I bend my mind every day to see the complex and describe it in simple terms; I seek to sum the integers and turn them into an average; I burn — you laugh at the verb, but it is true — to take the array and model it as a regression; I want to hear the the individual tale of misery and woe and turn it into a Sunday School lesson.
But I’m having trouble mustering the courage of my own convictions on this particular subject. I’m not at all clear that there is a neat and tidy lesson to be drawn from the legacy of Trump, nor from the prospect of that fat-cheeked power bottom currently contemplating a run for Congress out of Ohio. I don’t know how to take the story of my cousin’s boyfriend — a bona fide Klansman, and dues-paying retireee from the UMW — and make it fit into anything other than a sad and sloppy armchair philosophizing by yet another West Coast libtard.
The sweep of history is hard enough to see when all the wreckage lays at one’s feet; it is impossible to describe accurately when it is swirling around one’s head, obscuring the vision of one’s blinkered eyes and always bruising one’s flailing arms. Maybe it is the case that rampant individualism gone horribly awry — that Calvin was simply wrong, and the theology of works is in fact true, that one can work one’s way to heaven, and in fact only by work can one make one’s way there, that good luck comes to those who labor well and bad luck goes only to the lazy, that stupidity and ignorance are synonyms and in fact subspecies of the mortal sin of sloth — maybe this is the answer to what’s wrong with America.
If that is the case, then sing me a new song. ‘Cause this shit is starting to bore me to tears.
*Would I have been a different person if I had gone to Oberlin? Probably not. UC Santa Cruz? Probably not. William and Mary? Oh helz yes. I would have been a fucked-in-the-head closet queen with a serious fetish for Navy boys. Do I think therein lies a tale by which to read the history of the decline and fall of American Democracy? Please.