What’s that, you say? Some people actually DO want a meritocracy? Some people thrive in meritocracies and even lift up the less meritorious, coalescing into JFK’s rising tide that lifts all boats? (His Vigah himself, of course, possessed the rising rod that ravished all cunts, but never mind that, signora.)
Fuck them. Let’s do some definitions, just to get things crooked. “Everyone” wants to hate-fuck meritocracy in the same sense that, as our main Thai acquaintance at the time told me, my parents, and one of the ditziest surviving Valley Girls in California, “everyone in Thailand has a servant.” Vigorously biting my tongue, I came very close to telling Caliditz that everyone in Thailand has an elephant, and it’s amazing, you wouldn’t believe the traffic jams in Bangkok when all these people’s family elephants keep getting cut off by the tigers that the wealthiest ride to work–although, mind you, there are also some really sorry poor bastards who are forced to make do with elephant buses. There were, quite unfortunately, business considerations that militated against my sickly punking this ditz, who I’m afraid would have believed me. The woman was dense. It sounded like quite an interesting cultural economy that the Thais maintained, though, all domestically serving one another under, presumably on alternating days, because it was hard to see how it would work otherwise, unless–oh, dear, did this Thai woman actually regard an 80 or 90% supermajority of her fellow citizens back home as subhumans?
Yeah, probably. Immigration is culturally enriching, kids. “Everyone” was the closest equivalent Bangkok had to Palo Alto, minus the meek servant class that keeps the neighborhood running for its rightful possessors, barely getting by God knew how or where. At least in Palo Alto the servant class sometimes speaks its mind. Male barista: “You have to watch it. It’s about these dorky kids who get into some drugs.” Female barista: “That sounds dumb as fuck!” No, it doesn’t; it sounds awesome. If Palo Alto can’t get Ptah to run for city council again (yes, that happened), at least it can sometimes have some of the workaday proles who keep it structurally and operationally part of the First World righteously salt the air from time to time in opposition to bad cinematography that actually sounds legit as hell instead of, I dunno, Peter Thiel cursing subordinates out because he feels like hazing a motherfucker, and incidentally receiving medically contraindicated routine blood transfusions from youngfellas. Less giggling and Sliccardo smarm would be healthy on a peninsula run by people like that. So, for that matter, would youth who dork out on the reefer but steer clear of the blood shops.
We have maybe a bit of an unreality problem lately, and not just in the Bay Area. As some other, less thoughtful baristas sometimes ask me, “What are we having today?” It’s an interesting question coming from someone who, I have to assume, is planning to serve me a coffee, not split one with me. Times can’t be that tight under the green umbrellas. Is this the sharing economy that we keep being pitched? “Hehehehehehee! Take Uber!” Is homeboy part of me now? Is this some bathetic imitation of the Eucharist, or is it Dr. Tobias Fünke’s The Man Inside Me? If it’s just sloppy language, why, yes, I don’t mind making it even sloppier. I say what I wanna say and let the words fall out, honestly. So does that kind of barista, but dishonestly. I guess. I’m not even sure that a person who speaks and thinks like that is intellectually engaged enough to take honesty and dishonesty into account before blurting shit out, and what comes out isn’t anything that would make the cut for a Sara Bareilles record. If “we” are having a Pike with room, it could mean that I’m having one on my own, or that Jesus and I are having one (there are evangelical churches that encourage this table for two; did you think I came up with something that absurd on my own?), or that I’m first-person plurally having one with the dipshit behind the counter, except that, you know, it doesn’t actually mean that. This is why we study language arts. It’s definitely why anyone believes in such a thing as “language arts.”
As Nick Gillespie said in Full Leather Jacket, “Who’s us, kemo sabe?” Okay, he actually said this about the Boomers and JFK, and it seems to be a surprisingly popular line at Reason. Even if it’s culturally appropriated by various parties without permission, it’s an improvement over becoming a plagiarist and still being Fareed Zakaria. Or worrying about whether one’s students are plagiarizing or misattributing or failing to attribute instead of asking oneself why one continues to actually read term papers that suck donkey ass, leavened by plagiarism or not. “Meinen Studenten mussen be HONORABLY shitty!” All right, then, prof.
To be fair, the principles of academic honor make compellingly good sense when they’re applied to situations that are actually high stakes. We–in this case, really we–don’t want physicians dry-labbing exam results on their patients’ charts, as a disturbing number of them do, usually with impunity. We don’t want criminal defense lawyers providing counsel so inadequate and unmotivated that it’s derelict, as many CDL’s do, again, usually with impunity. We don’t want our defense contractors risking the lives of our military personnel in firetrap jets that are falsely declared airworthy for political reasons, another American workplace custom that is usually maintained with impunity. We don’t want the Tucson VA Hospital to keep being the Tucson VA, because it got our veterans killed by backdating their files when they urgently needed medical care for life-threatening conditions. Uncaring, lying sacks of shit got performance bonuses for pretending to reduce wait times.
In any of these situations, a culture of honor is worthwhile, if imaginary. It’s a different matter entirely to demand the same honor of an undergraduate communications major at Millersville. That’s just fucking absurd. It’s like expressing outrage that Fareed Zakaria published something unoriginal, except that Zakaria, or his editors, or his interns, or parties that Zakaria figured out how to crib, can actually write worth half a damn. The end result is limited to shitty thinking. The writing itself is tolerable. It isn’t, “What was that late eighties, early nineties song? ‘That’s the way it is?’ Well that’s the way it is for Saheri.” Bitch you credit Cronkite right now. No, I’m being too optimistic. I’d be floored if the classmate who wrote that, as an undergraduate at a supposedly selective liberal arts college, had ever heard of Walter Cronkite. Someone in that class, I think the same woman, crudely quoted Fiddler on the Roof about TRADITION! Four of the sixteen papers submitted for that peer critiquing exercise sounded like they were written by people who did not speak English fluently, and we had only one ESL student in the class; I kept reading papers that I swore were hers. These papers were responses to a film commissioned by the European Union’s minor arts poobahs about an arranged marriage in India. It was recursively choke me now, Ghomeshi.
I’m not even normally one to complain about the implosion of composition skills. I can’t keep up with all the truly excellent current writing I’m aware of on the internet. I don’t particularly care for the moral panic about how kids these days don’t know how to write, and in my day we could all do calculus in letter-perfect cursive, unless Fred Reed is narrating it. Much of what I see on Facebook from amateur acquaintances of mine with no particular training as writers is well-written. What bothers me is that so many people claim to care about the unfortunate truth that there are dipshits who are expected to write competently but don’t know how. Now, I don’t know much about a science book, I don’t remember all the French I took, although I do remember some of it, and I don’t know much about history, except American history and Western European history and Russian and I promise I’ll shut up about this momentarily, but I do know that the world is at or very near unprecedented literacy rates, and that this includes the West, and what a wonderful world that wouldn’t have to be because it already is, Mr. Cooke. I also know that I’ve seen much worse run-on sentences in college writing assignments. For some of these students, bad writing was, as my lunch buddy who’s now a lawyer liked to put it in his college papers, in-weaved in the extensive. Wow Much textiles Omg abercrombie fitch Very lowell.
As badly as the writing can suck, though, there’s no going back to a conservative wanking fantasy in which Great Britain was Alexander Tytler, James Watt, and Admiral Nelson taking high tea and Herodotus beside the playing fields of Eton, because the very same early industrial Great Britain had a much larger population of illiterate slumdogs whose goal for the day was to avoid getting raped by thirsty vagrants or mugged for all they were worth by visiting highwaymen and thrown headlong into a gutter full of shit. A few wealthy scholars kept journals or published sermons that make everyone from back then sound hella smart, Jane Austen wrote some stories about rich girls seeking arrangements with aloof sugar daddies, and most of London was a tubercular shithole. Even Prince Albert, who is commemorated by an entire Canadian province, was killed before his time by a festering, palatial pool of royal shit. It was a great time to suffocate in a mine or die in a factory accident, too.
These are not things that can be learned from textbooks that mention, as a brief aside, that there were some poories, but over the next century the temperance people helpfully told them about Jesus and the wagon, eventually the factories got better somehow, and everyone had a nice party for Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Like, uh, there’s stuff missing from this account, and it might be important to understanding history. Or, if you listen to the hardline Protestant crowd I ran with for a time in college, you’ll learn that Jolly Old England has had some fine-ass Reform theologians over the years, as has the Continent. Shouldn’t something be done to preoccupy the insane, after all? As annoying as that crowd can be when it isn’t scaring the shit out of the spiritually impressionable, though, it’s a good deal better than compare and contrast John Henry, Leland Stanford, and this mob of bitter poor whiteys who beat the town launderer to death just because they were bigots and he was a Chinaman. (Hint: none of the parties to this lynching had any corporate relationship whatsoever to Mr. Stanford.) We wonder why young people aren’t as finely lettered as they might be, but we don’t first stop to ask why we’re telling them to read textbooks written by pig-ignorant propaganda drones. There are so many ways to learn about real history, or at least something resembling it, but we direct our history students to misleading, simplistic, condescending dreck.
Many Americans are educated in spite of the schools, not because of them. The K-12 system has been given over to a metastasizing testing regime, driving teachers and administrators in poorly performing schools to systemically cheat their schools’ way to higher scores because their students are too troubled, harried by their chaotic lives, or innately dimwitted to pass the tests by their own merits. The curricula that these tests crowd out are often just a bunch of garbage. The SAT, which was designed as a meritocratic leveler, upset some noisy constituencies by letting too many kikes and chinks into the WASP nest, hence the increasing emphasis on extracurricular activities as college admissions criteria. (“Taylor has enjoyed lacrosse for as long as he’s been summering on the Vineyard.”) The ostensible point of the SAT is to measure literacy and numeracy, but it increasingly measures the mastery of SAT test prep courses. We now have a college admissions process corrupted by class signals broadcast to benefit failsons and at the same time dulled by the overbearing emphasis on rote memorization that makes the educational systems so miserable in parts of Europe and East Asia.
We should be thoroughly embarrassed, but, as I discussed above, who the hell is “us”? The enthusiastic constituency for this useless Red Queen’s Race might include five or ten percent of the American public, with another quarter or third tepidly supporting it because no one can devise a less ruinous approach. Pricey schools can make young people spend years debasing themselves in the hope of admission. The goal here is not education; if the applicants wanted to become educated, they’d do their own reading or enroll in some community college, maybe pending transfer to a more rigorous state school. The goal is for these students to weasel their way into an exclusive club in the hope of parlaying their institutional affiliation into lucrative careers. Cal-Tech, Reed, and maybe a handful of other schools actually expect top-notch academic achievement of their students. “I flew to Botswana and volunteered for a week at the orphanage my parents bought for me so that I would be able to write this essay” is not academic merit. Playing varsity soccer and the oboe to the point of exhaustion for the amusement of an admissions committee is not an academic merit. I, too, could fly to Botswana and kick a soccer ball around with some locals if someone bought me a ticket.
We have all these kids trying desperately to please their elders by carrying on like they’re the love children of Clara Barton and Babe Ruth, because that’s what their elders seem to value in young people. It’s appalling, but it’s all too understandable. Some excessively endowed university run by total shitheads is their meal ticket. Correctly or incorrectly, many of these youth are afraid that if they don’t excel academically, they’ll eventually end up destitute out on the streets. Over time, personal fear becomes public reality, as the graduates who manage to navigate this treacherous racket without coming to ruin take over the electorate and refuse to do anything for the poor, whose ranks they have so far avoided joining, to their quiet relief. There but for the grace of God? Whaddaya mean, “grace?” I earned this. I suffered for it. It’s my due.
This is probably how I end up with morally challenged mercenaries in big law, high-end real estate sales, wealth management, and the like insinuating that I’m a lazy mediocrity for making less money than they do and having a spottier employment history. These same people are almost certainly driving bad public policy and bad corporate cultures that make life hell for people who fall on hard times or get tripped up by disingenuous protocols. They insist that they earned what they have, even when it turns out that they spend ten thousand dollars a year on country club memberships for the purpose of badgering other affluent people to do business with them over golf. At some level, I believe, they feel that their kind is fit to rule over mine because they’re successful and I’m unsuccessful. The more politically liberal among them flip their shit at the prospect of the unwashed, ignorant poor voting for Trump. So, I suspect, do the movement conservative among them, but for outwardly different reasons, such as having supported one of the warmongering reactionary creeps ultimately defeated by Trump. The successful are not by any means all assholes or always assholes, but the dominant business and political cultures in the United States today encourage extreme arrogance on the part of the successful, as well as the facilitation of this arrogance through aggressive reputation management and similar bullshit artistry.
If I actually settled for mediocrity all the time, would I sit my ass down for three or four hours straight, focus my way out of writer’s block, and write this essay? No, I don’t need to hear what Zig Ziglar has to say about excellence, but you might want to hear about what Zig Ziglar’s demeanor tells me about his frightening resemblance to Chuck Dederich and Jim Jones. For that matter, I’d be more involved with Dickinson College, my Alma Mater, Tried and True, if it weren’t a goddamned cult. This is a school that, in a charming Victorian premonition of Fareed Zakaria, public plagiarist, celebrated its alumnus for jacking the tune of “O, Tanenbaum” by adopting his cribbed ditty as its official Alma Mater hymn. True respect for scholarship doesn’t yield a bespectacled Mr. Chips-larping joke like Bill Durden.
This is what we get for a generation or two of intellectual counterfeiting: a bumptious asshole in Harry Potter glasses and a bowtie encouraging the ignorant overeducated to venerate the statue of a mercury laxative fiend because the blow-your-ass-out creep was an educational visionary when he wasn’t bothering his contemporaries about their guts and their nuts or suing an enemy for calling him a quack. It isn’t all we get, but it’s a start. We might say that a colonist would “Rush” to the crapper after taking a dose of the Merclax. Since we’re on the subject of Philadelphians, it’s much more honest to ride up Ridge Avenue on the 61 bus yelling about one’s plans to “cut that bitch” than to stay in school for the purpose of discreetly cutting every bitch who gets in one’s way. As homegirl announced, “I ain’t gonna do any damage.” For all I know, she may have been right about that much. I have, however, seen the damage that my classmates have done, and to paraphrase Muhammad Ali, no Strawberry Mansion loudmouth ever called me a loser.
These assholes aren’t even running their rat races to any useful end. I rarely hear these ugly attitudes from physicians, nurses, mathematicians, or engineers I’ve known. The poison comes overwhelmingly from people who talk their assigned story for a living. As a society, we’d lose little, and in some cases nothing at all, if they went down to the mouth of Wissahickon Creek and sipped gin and juice all day. It isn’t like they keep SMUD operational for a living. They’d probably wonder what the hell SMUD is, and if I made it up. #TeshTips: it’s an agency that will do everything it can to keep your white ass from shivering to death in the dark. It’s the kind of big government that allows California to have other kinds of big government. Pray that it continues to fight the good fight and doesn’t start acting like PG&E.
Nah, the college boys and girls I’m describing would rather milk PG&E for shareholder value and good old boy office sinecures than let a civil service commission standardize all the pay grades. Do they sound like they’re tacky enough to live in San Bruno?