Saturday, March 5, 2011

It Takes All Kinds

"It takes all kinds," barks my anti-union anti-tax racist homophobic Republican-voting Randroid  grandfather. He says it with a wave of his hand and a jerk of his chin, the dismissive anger an old man bleeds when he has outlived his era, lived long enough to call his grandchildren "communist" and see them snicker.

He's right: it does take all kinds. 

A society made up of only one kind of person would be fatally weak. A society that lacks any particular kind of person is tragically flawed, possibly crippled. Not every person will be or should be, by nature, from early childhood, a money-obsessed entrepreneur, and not every person will be or should be a gifted musician who goes out of his or her way to raise social and political consciousness, but we the human race would be lost without all the different kinds of people. We need a man who turns your household trash into another person's treasure because he desires every dime just as much as we need the singer who stirs our souls in service to wisdom and empathy. 

Only blind fools and idealists believe that we should all be one way, or all held to one standard of success. Only a blind fool praises rich businessmen and despises garbage collectors, waitresses, and day-care nannies. The total diversity of us is needed, and to the extent that the total diversity of us is supported, we thrive. A society is a living organism, and each cell of its body is connected to every other: a body needs its heart as well as its stomach. And no human being is born bare-assed to the world and makes it on his own without help.

The most important thing the human race does, above mere survival, is educate the future. Teaching comes after feeding ourselves, I agree. But it comes behind nothing else.

We die: our wisdom turns to dust with us. Those that come after us would always be starting over from zero if we didn't record and pass on our experiences, but records and stories aren't the same as experiences: so we take a few steps back, always, before we can take a few steps forward. We forget, as a whole, that war is made of millions of individual murders, that unregulated markets breathe the havoc of boom and bust, that before social safety nets the aged poor died in the streets like animals, that democracy is a never ending struggle and not a smug July 4th platitude, that workers today are anything more than serfs or slaves because the workers who came before us imperiled their lives demanding safety, liberty, and a decent wage.

Workers unions will always be controversial, because workers united prevent ambitious men who live for the thrill of acquisition from acquiring quite as much as they would otherwise. The world needs a certain number of powerhungry greedheads, and we should not be surprised when they succeed and acquire great wealth and power. But nor should we see them as anything other than what they are. They are not good men. They are not great men. They are greedy men. They will take and take and use and use. We should be ready for them, ready to rein them in and set their limits. NO, you may not risk others' lives to make more money. NO, you may not destroy the environment to make more money. NO, you may not dodge the taxes you owe to the society that made your success possible. 

Yes, a condition of employing human beings to your ends will be to negotiate with them like equals.

Powerhungry greedheads hate public education. They don't need it, they don't want to help pay for it, and they certainly don't want it to work. An educated workforce is a hard-to-manage workforce, an un-servile, dare I say "uppity" workforce that sees through lies, shares opinions, communicates, plans, organizes. Out of sheer self-interest, the richest among us feel that if learnin's not job-training, it shouldn't exist. The word "liberal" in "liberal education" or "liberal arts" was originally used to distinguish the educations of free people from the educations of slaves (liber means free in Latin, as in "liberty"); slaves would be schooled in accountancy or some other practical or marketable skill, but they would never be taught History or literature or general sciences, because that kind of general knowledge makes a person the captain of his own ship of life, wiser, freer. Those who value only money will of course see anything that does not immediately lead to money as a waste of time: but there are more kinds of people in the world and more reasons for mankind's continuing existence than material wealth.

Teachers are very different kinds of people from those money-loving entrepreneurs. Teachers in America choose to earn a Bachelor's degree (at least), and then go into a deeply damaged public school system where they know they will be paid less than they would if they went into virtually any other Bachelor's degree requiring line of work. And they know they will be accused, abused, over-scrutinized, assigned more students than they can teach, and expected to tolerate kids raised in an X-treme gross-out culture, who will think nothing of, for example, ruining someone's internet image, or, as one of my relatives recently did (and got expelled for doing), poisoning a teacher (to laugh while she gets sick, you know, for kicks!). Teachers are in fact expected to react to their work conditions not at all: if they even blog about it, they might get fired

Teachers do not demand what they are worth, and they are worth a lot: a study last year calculates that a good kindergarten teacher adds at least $320,000 to the economy, yearly. Teachers don't ask for that much. Teachers ask for about 1/6th of that -- just enough to remain solidly middle-class -- and decent working conditions -- supplies and small class sizes -- mainly so that they can teach more effectively! 

Most people are neither as greedy as the greediest businessmen nor as selfless as the most hardworking teacher. Most people want to be good, giving people, look out for their own interests, fall in love, have some kids, be remembered by someone. And because they are neither intimately involved in the lives of the very greedy nor of the very selfless, they are persuadable. They might hear a rich man say that while he "deserves" his wealth (for "creating jobs" and whatnot), teachers earning 50,000 a year plus benefits are "overpaid" -- that's about the price of one Lincoln Town Car, by the way. I wonder what millionaires drive -- or are driven in?

Among the many "kinds" it takes in a society, clearly, is the mob. A persuadable mass of people with little stake in or understanding of a situation who none the less may be driven to action by a few strong words. Most of us are members of the mob at one time or another. We cheer for Egyptians, knowing less than nothing about Egyptian politics, but still! We do it for fictional things and unconsequential things too: we cheer for the New Orleans Saints, because they're the plucky underdog, or hate on the Yankees. Whatever.

But insomuch as any of us are members of the mob at any given moment, we should remember a few things: that selfless people are particularly bad at defending their own interests, that greedy people are particularly untrustworthy. The human race will never cease to form mobs -- but we should try to become wiser mobs. The "lowest common denominator" IQ can get higher in any given set if all the IQs in the group get higher too.

And good news: IQs are getting higher! Everywhere and always! There's no reason to expect mankind to repeat the dumassery of the past!! But education is a big part of that. If there's a single "sector" or "function" of society that we should throw an insane amount of resources behind, it's education. The coffers of the rich and greedy should be raided to pay for it. The time and energy of billions should be devoted to it. The best facilities should be built to house it.

But even if we can't manage that -- even if we can't manage to make education our #1 priority as a species, we should at the very least defend it from the necessary but potentially destructive faction of ourselves who want everything and everyone to belong to them.

A body needs a mouth. But a body cannot let its mouth eat its feet.

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