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Same Bar, Different Worlds

While in Washington this week, I talked about the election with a conservative friend who moves in Republican professional circles. We’re both from Southern states that went heavily for Trump, yet he was as ambivalent about the GOP standard-bearer as I was. I told him that even though I didn’t vote for Trump, it gave me guilty pleasure that so many of the people who look down on the kind of people who voted for Trump were left wailing and gnashing their teeth. And I told him that I had heard from two other conservative friends in other parts of the country who confessed the same thing.

He smiled and nodded.

“You should have seen all these elite Republicans here in DC this year,” he said. “They were pulling their hair out trying to figure out why people kept voting for Trump in the primaries. They literally could not understand it.”

I had to confess that it took me longer than it ought to have done to figure it out, given that I actually live in Louisiana. The bubble doesn’t just cover Washington, DC.

Yesterday afternoon, I had business that took me to a part of Baton Rouge that’s mostly white working class. It was just after two, and I hadn’t had lunch, so I stopped at a neighborhood bar and restaurant that I’d heard had good poboys. The lunch crowd had thinned out, but I decided to sit at the bar and order food.

While I was eating and reading, a man took the stool next to me. He ordered a whiskey from the lady bartender. Then he asked her to make it a double. Who orders a double whiskey at two in the afternoon? I thought, and glanced over at him.

He was white-haired, probably in his mid-50s and prematurely grey, had a bad haircut, a pot belly, and was wearing work clothes. As I ate, he struck up a cheerful conversation with a couple in late middle age on the other side of him. They were drinking too. They talked about work. Whiskey Guy runs a crew of drywallers. Business has been good this year, with the August floods and all. They agreed that it was a shame, but what are you gonna do.

“Where’d you go to school?” the man asked Whiskey Guy.

change_me

Whiskey Guy said the name of a Baton Rouge public school, and that he was in the Class of 1981. That answer startled me. I’ve heard that question asked in saloons and at parties many times over the years, as strangers get to know each other, but not since my college graduation have I heard it answered with the name of a high school. Until today.

My hearing is not so great — a hazard of having reviewed rock shows in my first job (I had tinnitis for two days after Van Halen) — so I couldn’t hear most of their conversation. But I did hear laughter. There was an old lady sitting at the end of the bar. She looked like my mother, but her hair was as dark brown and shiny as a new dining table. When the music stopped briefly, I heard her say to the three that her husband had died last year, and this year, she was going to Disney with her grandchildren.

“That’s so nice,” the lady bartender said. “I been about twenty times since I was little.”

Whiskey Guy ordered another double. “I cracked a tooth, and I gotta go to the dentist,” he told the bartender. “I can’t take a needle in my mouth.” They both laughed heartily. He knocked back the shot, paid his bill, said a hearty goodbye to his new friends, and walked out the door.

I finished my shrimp poboy and asked for my check. When I stood up to leave, I looked around the bar and thought: damn, do I live in a bubble, or what? I could have walked into any bar in professional Washington and had more to say to strangers there than I did to these folks — even though they were just like the people I grew up with. And there was no doubt that every one of these people were for Trump. The idea that they voted for Hillary Clinton was … unthinkable. More than that, in retrospect, I can’t see any of the Republican candidates walking into that bar and being able to strike up a conversation with those people as effectively as that Manhattan billionaire who lives in a penthouse.

It’s bizarre to consider, but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. It’s hard to explain. I’m trying to explain it to myself.

 

****

On the way home, I swung by the library and picked up a book called Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets [1], by Svetlana Alexievich. It’s an oral history of life in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s demise. The book was translated into English and published earlier this year. I’m only 30 pages in, and it’s a stunner. Here’s a quote from one man:

I hate Gorbachev because he stole my Motherland. I treasure my Soviet passport like it’s my most precious possession. Yes, we stood in line for discolored chicken and rotting potatoes, but it was our Motherland. I loved it. You lived in a third world country with missiles, but for me, it was a great nation. The West has always seen Russia as an enemy, a looming threat. It’s a thorn in their side. Nobody wants a strong Russia, with or without the communists. The world sees us as a storehouse that they can raid for oil, natural gas, timber, and base metals. We trade our oil for underpants. But we used to be a civilization without rags and junk. The Soviet civilization! Someone felt the need to put an end to it. The CIA … We’re already being controlled by the Americans … They must have paid Gorbachev a tidy sum. Sooner or later, he’ll see his day in court. I just hope that that Judas lives to feel the brunt of his nation’s rage.

Here’s another series of quotes the author collected at a beer stand, where all kinds of people gather, and talk about what’s happened to their country. To be sure, there are plenty of people quoted in Alexievich’s book who hated communism, and aren’t sorry it’s gone. But listen to these voices:

— For me, it’s more of a concrete question: Where do I want to live, in a great country or a normal one?

— Russians need something to believe in … Something lofty and luminous. Empire and communism are ingrained in us. We seek out heroic ideals.

— I am so envious of the people who had an ideal to live up to! Today, we are living without one. I want a great Russia! I don’t remember it, but I know it existed.

— I tried to talk about this with my students … They laughed in my face: “We don’t want to suffer. that’s not what our lives are about.” We haven’t understood a thing about the world we’d only recently been living in and yet we’re already living in a new one. An entire civilization lies rotting on the trash heap …

If you substituted “Americans” for “Russians,” “America” for “Russia,” and “democracy” for “communism,” these lines might have been spoken at a Trump rally this year. Unreasonable? OK, but that’s beside the point. In that Soviet oral history book, I just read a long transcript of a Communist Party member talking like this, at the same time recounting the horrible injustices and suffering communism inflicted on Russia. Her father was sent to the gulag, but came out and spent the rest of his life worshiping Stalin. She misses him and thinks him a hero. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s a profoundly human kind of agony. It’s the Grand Inquisitor’s case. [2] Dostoevsky knew his people well. Dostoevsky knew all people well.

Whiskey Guy might have spoken an Americanized version of one of those anonymous Russian quotes above had I struck up a conversation with him. But I didn’t, because they had wi-fi at this bar, and I wasn’t reading a book, but looking at my laptop, reading news sites and blogs, and immersing myself in the words and ideas of people who live in Washington, New York City, London, Los Angeles… . I was sitting two feet away from this happy-go-lucky man who runs the drywall crew, but in the 15 minutes he sat next to me drinking whiskey in the afternoon and talking, I might as well have been sitting on a barstool in Georgetown. Same bar, different worlds.

And that is my own fault. He was gregarious, and would have talked to me had I reached out to him. But I wasn’t interested in him, or his work, or his kids, or his old high school, or anything about his life. I was more interested in what clever people were saying on the Internet — people who live in Washington, New York, London, Los Angeles … .

People like me, who didn’t see Trump coming.

One final thing: consider the last two paragraphs of a chapter from an essay Alan Ehrenhalt contributed to The Essential Civil Society Reader [3]. It’s either excerpted from or based on his 1996 book The Lost City [4], about Chicago in the 1950s:

screen-shot-2016-12-15-at-9-11-35-pm

#MAGA didn’t come from nowhere.

161 Comments (Open | Close)

161 Comments To "Same Bar, Different Worlds"

#1 Comment By JonF On December 19, 2016 @ 6:31 am

Re: To qualify for tax credits through the exchange, you do have to be employed.

Employed, or just have an income high enough to be above the Medicaid cutoff? I do believe that early retirees who have income from investments can also qualify for the credits.

#2 Comment By JonF On December 19, 2016 @ 6:33 am

Re: It spent $872.

Sam,
I was noting what it costs for the individual, using my own instance as the example. A single person with health insurance through work will not have premiums anywhere near that high.

#3 Comment By grumpy realist On December 19, 2016 @ 11:13 am

The discrepancy between what is shown on television sitcoms as being “ordinary” for people of a certain profession/class and what happens in reality has always been a topic of complaint. Even by liberals. I remember reading a rant by an economics professor at Stanford as to how the TV show “Friends” was giving the younger generation a totally unrealistic view of what sort of lifestyles they could expect with the professions they had chosen. (Also what level of housing they should think that was typical for people in their situation.)

#4 Comment By Sam M On December 19, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

“I was noting what it costs for the individual, using my own instance as the example.”

OK. But I was not talking about an individual. The question being asked is whether or not middle class people are priced out of college education. A commenter suggested not, because he was able to save $80,000 for his child’s college. I suggested that this would require saving almost $400 a month for a single child, and attempted to show how hard this would be for a family making the median US wage.

What an individual would be paying for healthcare seems less pertinent than what a family would be paying.

#5 Comment By Eliavy On December 19, 2016 @ 1:39 pm

Rich S says (December 18, 2016 at 2:32 pm):

This is a mystifying response. I think it fails to add up in a couple of areas:

– Government leaders already have power over healthcare providers and decisions. If there was going to be a future pogrom, the fact that the HMOs are paying for healthcare is not likely to stop that from happening.
– The thing about for-profit organizations is that they seek to gain profit however they can. In the essential healthcare scenario, the market is operates less effectively because there are huge information assymetries and the demand is highly inelastic. Therefore, they will do things that are not necessary for the client’s health because they are profitable and the client doesn’t know enough to say no. Customer service only improves when customers have a choice. In this scenario, they do not.
– Finally, your response ignores the fact that many developed nations have government healthcare and almost all of them are producing better health outcomes than the USA’s.

———————————————–

I dislike that government leaders do have so much power over healthcare providers and decisions. Letting citizens have the freedom to make their own decisions may not prevent a pogrom, but I believe it would reduce the chance of a hidden one being instituted successfully.

While for-profit organizations do seek to gain profit, how do you know that every for-profit organization is amoral and obsessed only with greed? As for me, my ideal healthcare would be a local religious co-op. However, no new ones can be made under Obamacare because the government will not allow people to make their own choices.

Is it truly a fact that many developed nations have government healthcare and have better health outcomes? I’d like to see your data, please. I was not ignoring that fact as I do not believe it based on my research.

#6 Comment By Eliavy On December 19, 2016 @ 1:41 pm

JonF says (December 18, 2016 at 4:30 pm):

Re: I don’t know what the answers are to the healthcare problems in this country, but the idea that people want government to be the answer worries me greatly.

Over the weekend there was a murder in my neighborhood, and a rather shocking one at that. People are disturbed by this and suggesting that, although we already have good police coverage in the area we may need more. Are you “worried greatly” that my neighbors want government to be that answer? At a guess, probably not, yet apart from pure special pleading I cannot see one white difference in wanting the public authorities to address this sort of outrage as opposed to insurance company outrage. Like it or not, government is all we have that can address such things. Yes, government too can be dangerous. But there are drugs in our pharmacopia that can kill as well as cure– that does not mean we do not use them when need arises.

———————————————–

You appear to be comparing two different situations, and I don’t believe that it is special pleading to say that my view on both issues is far more nuanced than what you think I believe.

Local government is more accessible to its residents and thus more accountable. That doesn’t mean that it is easy to keep it accountable, just that those under that government have a greater chance of succeeding at it locally as opposed to when the government involved is a very well-established bureaucracy centered in wealth and power thousands of miles away.

Government’s most important job is to maintain a rational level of physical protection through police or, nationally, through the military. If a community believes that the government’s level of protection is inadequate, it is certainly within its rights to ask and pay for more police and better equipment.

Government is not the only thing that can address problems with health insurance companies. In fact, thanks to the government, if I were to try to acquire health insurance in my state, there is exactly one provider from which I can get a plan, whether I like that provider or not (it’s “not,” by the way). Before Obamacare, when I was calling around looking for a personal health insurance plan, I remember having at least five options in this same state. Individuals are better at making decisions based on their needs and budgets than a government that acts as if it lives in a different country.

#7 Comment By Melampus the Seer On December 19, 2016 @ 7:10 pm

That was a good article you wrote, Rod.

There has been a ridiculous loss of respect for traditional ways of living. No, not just a loss of respect but an increase of hatred for ways that sustained people and communities for millennia.

That’s not going to end well. Guillaume Faye thinks this blind disrespect for what has worked leads inevitably to a “convergence of catastrophes” that destroys all.

And it may bear some thought: your observations are the same ones made by the Enlightenment thinkers. They wondered themselves what would or even could replace the traditions they demolished.

#8 Comment By JonF On December 19, 2016 @ 9:20 pm

Re: Government’s most important job is to maintain a rational level of physical protection through police or, nationally, through the military.

And yet it was precisely the police and the military that the Nazis used for their dirty work. If you are really afraid of the government turning Nazi-ish then you ought be campaigning to get rid of police and military. Government healthcare is quite harmless compared to the evils that armies and police have done when misused. (You brought the Third Reich and its evils into the discussion– so I refuse to let you off the hook on this)

#9 Comment By Eliavy On December 19, 2016 @ 11:57 pm

JonF:

I do fear the police and military being misused; however, as that is one of the main and most legitimate functions of government, I prefer their presence over the chaos that we’d have without them. Having a local rather than a nationalized police force is important to keep them as accountable as possible.

As far as the Nazis are concerned: the T4 program via Hitler’s chancellery was an operation in Nazi Germany by which the majority of German physicians and psychiatrists secretly euthanized the handicapped, elderly, and chronically ill from hospitals and nursing homes. This was the precursor to the Holocaust and perfected the tactics of those who would go on to kill millions more. The money saved that would have otherwise been used for the treatment of those executed was sent to what the Nazis considered worthier goals.

#10 Comment By JonF On December 20, 2016 @ 6:41 am

Re: As far as the Nazis are concerned: the T4 program via Hitler’s chancellery was an operation in Nazi Germany by which the majority of German physicians and psychiatrists secretly euthanized the handicapped, elderly, and chronically ill from hospitals and nursing homes.

Then by all means oppose euthansia, not universal healthcare. The latter has nothing to do with the former. In fact it should be staringly obvious that people faced with an adverse diagnosis are more likely to commit suicide if they have no insurance and fear becoming a financial burden to their families. Ditto for abortion: women with no healthcare are more likely to seek abortion than those who have coverage that will defray the expense of their pregnancy. The cause of universal healthcare is inherently a pro-life cause.

#11 Comment By Franklin Evans On December 20, 2016 @ 3:12 pm

Eliavy: While for-profit organizations do seek to gain profit, how do you know that every for-profit organization is amoral and obsessed only with greed?

I would not say “every”. I’ve worked for both types. The ones that were more focused on ethical conduct are all gone.

But I’m not trying to have a duel of anecdotals with you or anyone else. I have a quick story to tell.

Lyndon Johnson established the formal concept of “affirmative action” with Executive Order 11246 in 1965. It fell to the EEOC to write and enforce regulations around it.

The original application of it was simple. Given the rationally defined local pool of potential job applicants, companies were tasked to have a mix of applicants for their positions — note, please, not people hired for them, but applicants — that was similar to that demographic within a certain degree of tolerance.

Please also note that the word, concept or even implication of “quota” was nowhere in evidence.

It meant, also very simply, that any company who could demonstrate that their hiring decisions were based solely on merit were going to be in compliance with affirmative action. Those companies who actually hired based on race or ethnicity — and again, it must be mentioned, that people of color and certain ethnicities were routinely denied being applicants, despite being otherwise qualified, and there are court documents proving that — would then stand out like sore thumbs.

The immediate solution for many companies was to institute quotas, and deliberately hire lesser qualified minorities ahead of others. This was, on its face, deliberate sabotage.

Allow me to put it another way: for many decades, lesser qualified whites were hired instead of blacks or ethnic minorities who could clearly demonstrate better qualifications. “Reverse discrimination” was created by those very companies out of thin air. A simple thought exercise suffices: if companies were required to use “blind” applications — no race, gender or other identifying mark — most companies would have a mix of minorities more than close enough to the demographics test.

EO 11246 was revised in 2002, and contains this explicit statement:

Affirmative action is necessary to prevent discrimination and to address stereotypical thinking and biases that still impede employment opportunity. [original emphasis preserved.]

[5].

So, in similar spirit to your remarks: Is every for-profit organization going to use racist criteria in their hiring practices? No. But enough of them did and still do, and the individual has absolutely no recourse without affirmative action regulations and the EEOC.