The American Divide
By Kenneth Weene
Early in my life, my father decided—correctly—that while I was quite intelligent I had some serious perceptual motor limitations. To put it quite simply, I was pretty much uncoordinated. The only question was which was worse, my fine motor skills or my larger muscle coordination. Over time the answer became clear: both.
To address that deficit, Dad bought me a special present for my seventh birthday. What made it special was the cost, far more than he usually spent. It was a Gilbert Erector Set—the fancy one complete with electric motor. His plan was that by building things with me he would get me interested in fine motor activates and that in turn would lead to improvement. Great plan except for fate; fate determined that I got chicken pox just before my birthday. Now, in most homes that would not have been a problem. Since Dad had already had Chicken Pox, there was no reason he and I couldn’t have sat on the floor and built bridges, houses, and especially those wonderful looking grain elevators that decorated the cover of the instruction manual.
However. reason had little to do with our lives, not when my mother was concerned. She decreed that I couldn’t sit on the floor to play until I was completely cured. A draft would assuredly do me in.
So, the alluring red metal box sat unopened for a few days, on each of which my older brother whined that it was unfair that he couldn’t play with this great new toy just because I was sick. In the end, his whining won my mother over and he—not I—got to open the shiny box, unwrap its treasures, and try—Dad happily participating—his hand at building things.
The drawbridge was not the first project, but it was the one I remember. They had finished building it a couple of days before I was pronounced well enough to play. It sat in a corner of the room where my brother could raise and lower the deck to allow imaginary boats to pass beneath or toy cars to pass over the river below. I, of course, wanted to take apart that bridge and build something of my own. It took two more days before I was finally granted permission to disassemble my brother’s bridge. No, he was not about to help.
By that point, Dad had tired of playing with this new toy. He no longer had interest in helping me. I struggled with a couple of simple projects—none anywhere near what my brother had accomplished—and put the Erector Set away. My occupational therapy having accomplished only frustration and a feeling that my brother was the favored child.
To be honest, I have no belief whatsoever that if I had played with that Erector Set, if our father had spent time with me screwing those little girders and plates together, that my perceptual motor skills would have improved. To this day, it feels somewhat miraculous when I accomplish any manual task.
In Boy Scouts, tying knots was a naught. At camp making lanyards from “gimp,” that plastic lacing so popular in those days, resulted in mess. In Junior High School, shop classes were a frustration and source of fear for my teachers; in metal shop I was given a minimum passing grade for staying seated on a stool.
“Kenneth, just don’t touch anything,” was a constant instruction in my life.
On the other hand, I was book smart. I read, read and read more. Also, I loved to discuss ideas. Abstractions lured me the way that balls and, yes, Erector Sets lured other boys. Academic teachers loved me even as shop and gym teachers echoed that mantra, “Kenneth, just don’t touch anything.”
It wasn’t a big problem in those days to be book smart, no stigma attached. Most people earned their livings doing hands-on work. Relatively few people went to college so the possibility that I would end up working with my brain didn’t upset anyone, especially not my Junior High classmates who relished those shop classes. While most of them spent print shop—yes, we were supposed to learn how to set type—happily learning a trade that might end working in the printing plants of publishers of books, magazines, and newspapers, I spent those class hours thinking about the novels I might someday write.
To be fair, I would have to hunt and peck them on a typewriter because nobody could read my scrawl: just another side of that psychomotor nightmare.
Of course, all this happened before what has been called the Third Industrial Revolution, the one driven my micro-electronics. During those earlier times, hands-on was the sine qua non of every product. Machines could not work on their own. Then came transistors and beyond that integrated chips. Just to add an icing on this new industrial cake lasers added even more precision to machine functions. Those talented hands were no longer so necessary. Even in more back-breaking work like mining and agriculture, mechanization was reducing the number of hands required.
If machines were taking on more of the skill in work, lower paid workers overseas could do the jobs at reduced cost even if shipping was required. And, yes, those same circuits made shipping cheaper as well.
Yet another factor diminishing the demand for skilled labor was market saturation. If the roadbuilding splurge of the Eisenhower years led to more automobile demand and sales, soon there were more cars on the road than we needed. And, with those integrated circuits and computerized quality control cars were being driven longer. Air conditioners were soon in every home; which meant that the demand for new equipment dropped. Worse for the skilled workers in America was that the new computerized equipment, cars for example, required less skill in making repairs. Circuit boards were snapped in and out. The fabulous American knack for tinkering was no longer needed be it in the garage or for appliance repairs. Who now, for instance, repairs televisions? Radios? And the list goes on.
Sadly, workers like those kids I went to Junior High with, the ones who excelled in metal shop, print shop, electric shop, and less so but even wood shop, are now less valued. In fact, such skills have become so less valued that those shop classes have been replaced. Another class I was forced to take—and in which I did spectacularly badly—was mechanical drawing. Making blueprints was considered an important, even crucial skill. Today computer programs quickly turn out blueprints that a skilled person would take weeks to draw.
While this computerized degradation of skilled labor was going on, other groups were demanding entry into the workforce. Women, Blacks, Hispanics, and immigrants were all looking for their places at the economic table. White men whose families had for generations earned their way with their hands and backs found themselves being displaced—not gradually but seemingly overnight. Threatened and in fact losing ground, it is no wonder that they were and are still angry.
On the other side, people like me, the ones who went the academic route, have for the most part been at least able to tread water. Perhaps, at some point doctors, teachers, lawyers, engineers, scientists, and even clergy may be replaced by computers. But, that hasn’t happened yet. Still, it might and even some of us live with that threat hanging over us.
The sense of threat and anger fuels politics. When people are comfortable, they don’t bother with voting. Satisfied people simply go on from day to day, at least that’s true of the average satisfied person. But, the times are a-changing and people are no longer contented. Especially those people with that long tradition of hands-on working.
It is those people who have formed the swing vote that threw the last presidential election to Donald Trump. They are not “deplorable” nor inherently hateful, anti-feminist, or racist. They are threatened and angry because their world is getting smaller. They want that sense of satisfaction back. That sense that their lives will be good and their children’s lives even better.
Traditionally, the Democratic Party has tried to speak for those people. It has been the party of Social Security, minimum wage, and unionization. However, it has failed to address this new sense of threat. To a small degree Bernie Sanders tried. He spoke for free college for everyone, which sounds like it should help. However, there are many working people who have a sense that they and their kids don’t belong in college. When Donald Trump speaks of community colleges as a place for vocational training, he is coming closer to the comfort zone of many workers than talking about their kids taking more math, science, English, or especially foreign languages.
Quite simply, the Democratic Party has become the party of the intelligentsia, people like myself with our college degrees and graduate educations. It is not by chance that Bill Clinton presented himself and his wife as two brilliant minds for the price of one or that Barack Obama and his wife had such outstanding educations. The Democratic Party has become a party of thinking and theorizing.
The problem is that for those threatened and angry hands-on workers—yes especially white but those of other hues as well—intellectual arguments are just more proof that they are under attack. To add fuel to that flame, we have the Core Curriculum, a well-thought-out approach to better educating the young to work with computers and in the modern age but a clear threat to those who managed to survive school through rote learning and good shop grades. Another symbol for such people is the disappearance of cursive writing. While that may be a relief to the fine-motor-challenged like myself, it is just another way of telling those workers that their hard-won skills no longer matter.
Clearly, 2016 was the moment when political leaders could address the chasm between intellect and hands, between theory and praxis. I don’t know if Donald Trump understood what he was doing or simply stumbled into it, but he keyed in on just that issue. He positioned himself—no matter how illogically it may be—as the hands-on working stiff whose life was under siege. To her clear discredit, Hillary Clinton never saw the issue that was dividing the country. Since she had taken considerable time off to ready her presidential campaign, her failure to come up with positions that addressed the concerns of that significant portion of America, the part that had so strongly supported her husband, really speaks to her inadequacy as a candidate.
So, where can the Democrats go now? Better yet, where might a new political party go? The best answer may well lie in history. But, it is a side of history that most Americans don’t know and that many big businesses don’t want us to consider. Much of the growth of the American economy has not been a function of private investment. No, that is a myth. The government—often state as well as federal—has been the force—often indirectly but also directly—that has driven our growth and the development of new jobs and opportunities. I’ve already mentioned the road building of the Eisenhower years. However, everywhere we look there is the hand of government. Even the growth of semiconductors and integrated circuits would never have taken off were there not both pressure and investment from the military. Of course, perhaps the best example was in the nineteenth century when federal lands were used to finance and give purpose to the railroads.
The problem with the American economic system is that we have come to regard corporations as gods. We have this fantasy that they create jobs and new ideas. We want to believe that the pursuit of profits will always determine good decision-making. When there is a clear market, corporations do an excellent job. Why wouldn’t they? Years ago, when studying economics, I read about how in Russia the state-run businesses couldn’t make intelligent decisions. My favorite example was the production of only one size bra. Obviously, a private corporation would have been making a better decision as it tried to increase sales and profits rather than presumably limiting costs.
But, when it comes to seeing the future, existing corporations often are too busy playing it safe. Even when they do research and development, say in the drug industry, they are more concerned that every new product ends up making money than taking real development risks.
Looking to the future should be the goal of government. Of course, if there is too much link between existing corporations and government—certainly the case today—that function is compromised. Maintenance of the status quo becomes the goal. That is what has happened in America. As a result, instead of new growth in hands-on employment in manufacturing equipment for renewable energy and faster transport systems in America, those areas are being developed in other countries. There is no development of new techniques in damming, something that will be essential as sea levels rise. Nor have we been investing in new localized and indoors methods of agriculture as have the Dutch and other European nations.
Instead of calling for a new wave of American driven technology and resulting manufacture, the intellectual politicians of the left have focused on a more just society, one in which everyone receives at least minimal levels of freedom and purchasing power. Quite simply, justice—while one of the highest goals for any society—can only be pursued in a state in which people do not feel threatened. When humans feel under siege they are less willing to worry that the other person be treated fairly and more concerned that they not lose ground themselves.
Whilst I may not be able to do much with my hands or back, I do know that my fellow Americans who can deserve the opportunities and recognition that they desire just as much as those of us who hold PhDs and other degrees do. For now, that is the divide that must be addressed