Where Have All The Bootstraps Gone?

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Think or thwim.

The last time I ever moshed was at a Melvins show at Nashville’s notorious Exit/In in 1999.

I remember slamming away to some crashing sonic intensity, battling through rolling gauntlets of elbows-arms-shoulders-knees-boots, smashing and being smashed, then staggering free, lurching into the greasy chill to grab some more beer, laughing for the rude madness of it, mesmerized for the music and the jumping fields of humans–and finally, noticing the blood.

Not mine, I quickly realized, though it easily could have been. But then whose?

Funny the way we always look for the one who bleeds.

That was when I took stock of my dance partners, saw the junkie arms and the prison tattoos, and realized I would never enter the mosh pit again.

Fuck. That.

Perhaps this was why no one was moshing at the Tool concert I went to this past Thursday night. Skin means sweat and sweat means… who knows. I remember at the Y once, I made the mistake of asking this ex-con friend of mine to spot me on the bench after he had finished his cardio. He looms above me, haggard as an aging Italian hitman, and a bead of sweat drops from his brow and lands square in my open eye.

That was the last time I asked for a spot from someone sweaty.

The internet is atwitter with the release of Charles Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart, wherein he provides an in-depth statistical analysis of what I’ve been calling compartmentalization all these years. One of his primary theses: that universities have become cultural and economic sorting mechanisms, dividing America into those who embrace what he calls the ‘founder’s values’ of industriousness, marriage, religiosity, and honesty and those who do not. It turns out that the ‘elites’ so despised by the Right are the ones most likely to exemplify conservative social values!

Murray, you might remember, is the conservative/libertarian AEI scholar who made big news with The Bell Curve several years back, so as you might imagine, he makes ideological hash of his data: apparently the real culprit for this growing cultural gulf isn’t rising income inequality (which only makes us better people by providing incentives) but state-managed, incentive-killing entitlements. If America’s Hard Right Turn over the past three decades is accompanied by worrisome social and economic trends, then it has to be because the turn wasn’t hard enough!

It just has to be. Hasn’t it?

Now I grew up ‘white trash.’ I know the mentality of the white working poor first fucking hand. Almost everyone I knew had some kind of little scam going. Phoney back problems. Small time drug-dealing. Welfare fraud. Petty theft. Even getting pregnant to qualify for social assistance. At the same time, almost everyone I knew would self-identify as a conservative of some description. Guys scamming welfare literally arguing that welfare should be abolished!

I also know first hand the impact of the slow parade of right wing policy decisions: welfare drying up to a pittance, the draconian restrictions on workman’s comp (which seemed to have a bigger impact on those who deserved it (like my father) than those who didn’t). Meanwhile, I watched the slow evaporation of unionized jobs, the erosion of working class wages (I actually made more in the late 80’s working in a grocery store than my buddies make now!). In other words, I watched the ‘incentives’ pile higher and higher.

If you think about it, the common thread connecting Murray’s four ‘positive values’ is duration. Why do you work hard? To build some kind of future. What is marriage? A long term romantic and reproductive commitment. What is religiosity? A working relationship with the eternal. And what is honesty? An unwillingness to succumb to linguistic convenience.

Everyone I knew back then had what might be called a ‘scavenger mentality.’ They were disenfranchised and they knew it, no matter how much they crowed about their self-importance. The society they lived was not their society, and so, in a sense, they took what they could when they could get it. Short term advantage. It was literally the case that you were a fool if you failed to exploit some johnny-on-the-spot opportunity. The people I grew up with bragged about how this or that stereo component was ‘hot,’ or how they falsified the job-search forms they needed to fill out to qualify for welfare. They laughed.

You take what you can get. That was the Golden Rule.

Now this is a horrendous over-simplification, I know, but what if what Murray is tracking is actually the expansion of this mentality? What if ‘social scavenging’ is a kind of mode we are all primed to slip into given certain social conditions. One of the things that struck me about the grocery store when I first started working there in the 80’s was simply how proud everyone was, a pride that slowly became disaffection and then outright resentment as the company strangled the union into a lapdog, and slowly put screw after screw to us as the years went by, to the point where they provided breakdowns–to the fraction of a second!–of how much time it should take for us to put up a jar of peanut butter. You understand pretty quickly that there’s no quid pro quo with your employer. I distinctly remember my own revelation, asking myself why I should give as much as I could to a company that was bent on giving me as little as it could. Quid pro quo, Motherfucker. I distinctly remember becoming a scavenger employee, one that took what he could every chance he could–simply because his employer was doing the exact same thing.

One (and just one) of the painful things about ‘incentives’ (if you want to see how painful, watch the Freakanomics documentary) as an economic (let alone moral) explanatory concept is that there are just so many kinds. When an economy punishes you, are you incentivized to work harder or to work smarter? And what counts as ‘smarter’? Given that the system is bent on giving you as little as possible, on maximizing you as a tool for the benefit of shareholders, you would have to be an idiot not to reciprocate–not to take what you can get. Scavenger mentality, as socially corrosive as it is, makes a whole helluva lot a sense at the individual level. You give me a shit job and tell me I’m lucky?

Don’t worry, Boss. I’ll look after the store for you.

Libertarians, like Murray, prize inequality because they think it provides the magic fuel that makes economies go: incentives. Like the communists, they would much rather assume a human nature than research one. Like the communists, they raise policy mountains upon fanciful, simplistic caricatures. What if, in the information age, all these ‘market reforms’ are more prone to create scavengers than builders? Perhaps the more real opportunity dries up (last I checked, the USA has the least economic mobility of any advanced economy) the more opportunist we’re liable to become. The more ‘incentives’ cut against the long term social grain.

Which brings me back to the mosh pit. Junkies and cons and grads and heirs. Some of us angry. Others pretending. All of us bouncing and slamming, slicked and shining beneath the brilliant throb of lights. Guitars scratch tectonic, and some stranger wails louder than God…

Learn to swim.

Why did I get out? Because I feared the company I was keeping.

Fucking scavengers, man.