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The Shinola Hole

Sam M. writes, brilliantly:

One thing that I think might help in the discussion of the “shithole” controversy would be to consider its counterpart… the Shinola Hole.

People are taking you to task for your comment, and conflating it with racism. You have responded ably, I think, by pointing out that it’s not about race, but rather about culture, and you admit the unfortunate reality that in America, it’s all to easy for these things (wrongly) to serve as stand-ins for one another.

But MORE instructive is the fact (and I think it’s a fact, although I don’t have links right now) that you have just as many, if not more, concerns about upper-middle class and elite American culture as you do with underclass culture.

Think about it. Would you, Rod, send your kid to board at Phillips Exeter Academy, even if he got a free scholarship? I bet you wouldn’t. I might be wrong, but I think I am not. And I think that’s because you would have grave concerns about the impact that elite, aggressively secular and aggressively liberal institutions would have on your teenage kids. I share that concern.

How much? I don’t know. If I had to pick, would I choose to send my kid to a high school in west Baltimore or to Exeter? On the basis of safety, I’d probably opt for Exeter, honestly. But the fact is, that’s a false choice for me, so i choose neither. If I had to choose between my small Catholic rural school system or Exeter? I choose small rural Catholic 100 times out of 100.

Because those places are Shinola Holes.

Shinola, as you know, was a shoe polish until 1960. Not leather. Not rubber. Stuff to make dirty shoes look clean. Dressing. preservative in a sense, sure, but mostly to make things look better. Now? It is a lifestyle brand peddling watches and other stuff. It’s based in Detroit. I guess locals work there. Good for them, I guess, but I don’t own any of their products. According to Wikipedia, the company bought the rights to the name, trading off the old “You don’t know shit from Shinola” jab. So again, the name itself is clever window dressing.

And that’s what these institutions are, and that culture is. Everybody knows that you don’t learn much more at Yale than you do at Community College. [Note: Sam M. is a Yale graduate. — RD] They don’t add a whole lot of value. They just take kids who are really smart in the first place, which allows them to signal their intelligence and work ethic. That’s the value. The downside is that the value of that signaling creates a culture of “merit” and weird striving which has, in many ways overtaken our culture’s ambition.

I had two sisters teaching in Baltimore in the mid-90s. One taught at a BAD middle school in inner city Baltimore. It was terrible and dysfunctional and she LOVED IT. She loved those kids so, so much. She worked so hard to help them save themselves and hardly any of them took her up on it. She had gang members perform MacBeth. Did them become scholars? No.  Scads of them are in jail. One of them set a teacher’s car on fire. But again, she loved and respected them.

Another sister taught in a smart, upscale suburb, where the kids worked to get into Princeton and won state championships at sports and were generally awesome at everything. She could not wait to get out of that place. The helicopter parenting, the backstabbing. No real sense of community. It was like a caricature of Tiger Mom parenting.

Nobody who had options would raise their kids in that ghetto neighborhood. That shithole. But there are people like you and like me who would have real reservations about raising kids in that Shinola hole, too. Not because of race, but because I do think it is aggressively secular, and that my kids would struggle to be the people I want them to be. So… I don’t live in one.

It’s not that there are no good Catholics in upscale suburban neighborhoods where kids go to Princeton. Northern Virginia has LOTS of places with traditional parishes and observant Catholics, for instance. But it’s also true that really awesome families manage to overcome local culture in ghettos and raise awesome kids there.

But I am not a gambler. I am not native to either place and I know little about how to navigate those cultures, on either end of the spectrum. And I don’t think it’s necessary to say that means I hate black people, or poor people, or rich people. But really it’s true: I’d really, really have to consider my options before sending a kid of mine off to Stanford.

That is absolutely the case for me too. I endorse every word above, and congratulate Sam on the coinage. It reminds me of Catholic friends who choose to send their kids to state colleges rather than Catholic universities they regard as Shinola Holes: places that look good on the surface, but whose values they regard as corrupt and corrupting. But Shinola Holes are everywhere, and don’t necessarily have anything to do with class. For example, Evergreen State College is the Marianas Trench of Shinola Holes. The values that undergird and animate a culture like the dominant one at that place are values that I reject, and from which I would want to protect my kids.

Like Sam, I don’t want to live in either a shithole or a shinola hole. You don’t either, if you’re honest with yourself. One might be better than the other in terms of personal safety, but that does not mean you want to be part of the culture of the place, or to have your kids formed by it. There is nothing wrong with saying so.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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