Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega
Chicago, Illinois, USA
September 11
A (Sometimes) Respectable Negro
Editor and Founder of the blog We Are Respectable Negroes He has been a guest on the BBC, Ring of Fire Radio, Ed Schultz, Joshua Holland's Alternet Radio Hour, the Burt Cohen show, and Our Common Ground. His essays have been featured by Salon, Alternet, the New York Daily News, and the Daily Kos. The NY Times, the Daily Beast, the Utne Reader, Washington Monthly, Slate, and the Week (among others) have featured his expert commentary and analysis on race, politics, and popular culture.

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SEPTEMBER 29, 2011 2:42PM

A Young Republican vs the Human Face of the Great Recession

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I don't fancy myself one of those change a life by leading a college class type of instructors. Those who teach at the primary and secondary school level have more solid claims on that power than those who teach at colleges and universities. Why? Most of the answer lies in the fact that we live in an age where a college degree is obligatory. Thus, we deal more with snowflakes who are clocking in time for the necessary credits, than we do with young intellectuals who believe that knowledge and learning can be transformative.

All those qualifiers noted, there are still moments where I have to repress a smile as a student has a lightbulb moment. These instances of critical self-awareness can come from growth where before there was weakness and intellectual flaccidity; these same moments can also occur when a student realizes that they played themselves, their priors now dispelled, and basic fictions about how the world works beyond their own ego upset.

Because I am a sadist I like the first, but I revel in the latter...forgive me that trait for I was trained by Jesuits.

This quarter I am blessed with a good group of students. Although many are still finding their way, for the most part they are engaged and curious. I am doubly fortunate to have an arch-conservative as my interlocutor. There is no malice, this student simply asks good questions which proceed from a set of ideological priors that he has yet to realize are not universal. Moreover, my conservative charge has yet to realize that not all opinions are created equal, and that Fox News talking point conservatism is utterly dishonest as it is based precisely on a rejection of empirical reality in the pursuit of a narrow political agenda.

In short, said student is good fun because his questions keep me on my toes.

To this point in class, we have had two exchanges which speak to how the mythologies of American political culture are taken as truths by those more conservatively oriented and that reveal how Conservatism is bankrupt as an ideology, in this, our time of the Great Recession.

The first moment came in our discussing the myth of meritocracy, American exceptionalism, and the Great Recession where he recycled the standard story of how America is a great country of opportunity, the best country in the world in fact, as well as the most productive, innovative, and most dynamic economy that has ever been seen on this planet.

I queried, "how does the Great Recession and the fact that America has decreasing rates of intergenerational mobility, a shrinking middle class, and is solidly subpar in education, health, and many other measures, complicate your narrative of American greatness?"

He replied, taking a pause to reconcile rhetoric with facts, "these problems are just part of the business cycle, and no big deal because they are normal."

My reply, "can we tell those folks who are now structurally unemployed through no fault of their own that they can eat the business cycle when they are hungry? Is there barbeque sauce with that meal?"

My point was a simple one, and one I stress often--the world of theory exists relative to the world of facts...and real people's experiences. If you overlook this dynamic then you are only getting part of the story.

This was just a lead-in and preamble for our most recent "teachable moment."

Homelessness is a frightening concept that most folks of any age would rather look away from than acknowledge. To accommodate this mass societal version of the bystander effect, there are cultural scripts with the standard players of "the deserving" and "undeserving poor," where "those people" are drug addicts or "lazy," and consequently they "deserve" their position in life.

Who, especially among the young with an ostensibly bright future ahead of them, would want to entertain how the myth of meritocracy may leave them one of the working poor, a paycheck or illness away from the street, panhandling on a corner, couch surfing, or living in a car?

Who would want to acknowledge the scary thought that they could be one of the lost generation?

In class, we discussed these dynamics and how the new poor are the formerly middle class, and how/if this will shake up public policy and political alignments in the United States? Given the old joke that a Republican is a Democrat who got robbed, and that a Democrat is a Republican who lost their job, what will the Great Recession hold for the future of American politics and the two party system?

An important detail for context and flavor: The students in my classes run the gamut from working class, to the poor, to the solidly middle class, and also include a sprinkling of the born on the third base of life trustafarians who believe they hit a triple in life crowd. Consequently, our discussions about class and social mobility are almost always quite compelling.

During our most recent conversation, my conservative friend chimed in that the American middle class is not becoming the new poor and homeless, that one can work and make it if they only applied themselves, and that this talk about the new poor is exaggerated and flies in the face of the American dream. It simply can't be true. Impossible.

I shared some data on poverty, the record numbers of people on food stamps in America, and provided some context for the specious argument that the American poor have it well off (and the bigger game of Tea Party GOP Ayn Randian libertarianism on behalf of struggling millionaires) as a frame and meme in defense of austerity for the rest of us while the kleptocrats get to keep all of their wealth.

A student raised his hand and asked if he could comment. He looked to our arch-conservative friend and explained that his father was a construction worker who owned a nice home. They were not rich, but he and his dad were solidly middle class. This all came undone with the crash of the housing market, an illness, and the utter collapse of the economy in the town where they lived. After the savings was gone, and the retirement fund spent, our honest and sharing student explained that he had to move in with a friend's family while his father lived in a van.

The latter's only salvation was the kindness of several strangers, migrant day laborers, who had a small studio apartment which they allowed him to move in to as it became dangerously cold in the fall and winter months.

After this moment of sharing you could hear a pin drop. No response or retort was offered. My conservative friend sat silenced, wheels turning but finding no traction. To his benefit, he was the beneficiary of the great time keeper's charity as class mercifully ended.

I do not know if that was a tranformative moment for this young arch-conservative. Perhaps, it was sustenance for the other students in the class whose families are also struggling in the Great Recession, as from that moment of sharing they knew they were not alone. I simply smiled because I felt that some good had come from that exchange.

I also smiled as that class further reinforced my allegiance to Black Pragmatism.

At present, one of the great divides in American politics during the Age of Obama is an utter failure by those on the Right, and conservatives at large, to have any sympathy or empathy for those less fortunate, who may be different from them, or somehow the Other. Most conservatives cannot imagine that it could be them who is downsized, unemployed, or in need of the social safety net to keep a roof over their head or food in the childrens' bellies.

The irony of course is that most of the Right, and the Tea Party GOP especially, benefit greatly from the social contract and want to keep supports such as social security, medicare, and medicaid in place--but only for folks like them, within their narrow tribe of "real Americans" and those suitably "patriotic" and nationalistic. Others can be damned for they are "unproductive," "liberals," "lazy," or practice/benefit from "class warfare" against the rich.

We shall see if the exchange in my class, a moment where a free market trickle down conservative met the face that is the human consequence and collateral damage of robber baron, dysfunctional unfettered capitalism, will change how a young arch-conservative thinks about politics. It probably will not. But we sensible and reasonable folks who believe that education can serve the interests of the Common Good can hope and dream just a little bit.

Can't we? Or is the die already cast, the roll spent?

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I know one of these Ayn Randian libertarians. He is a 3o year old arch conservative, college graduated, self -employed father in a 3 child blended family, who lost his home back to the bank, when his housing related business crashed. He persists in his beliefs, failing to see its fictional basis, and has not changed one bit.
I believe he would take a rusty compass on a mountain hike. Some are lost, never to return.
You wrote "I do not know if that was a tranformative moment for this young arch-conservative." If he's like most of his ilk, the answer is, sad to say, probably not. The simple truth is they have a very vested interest in maintaining their apologia for greed, and thus they most likely will remain woefully and willfully blind.

If you have time, you might appreciate another first-hand account in a similar vein I offered on my post:

Arbeit Macht Frei
Your students -- arch-conservative or not -- are lucky to have you. Wonderful piece.
For me: die is cast on dark days when I think Obama cannot win, again. I do worry about Repros taking over Executive Branch and dismantling America's struggling classes -EVEN MORE.

You know...I believe as an elementary teacher that CIVICS class should be required from 6th grade on- one quarter each year. I think most American's suffer from one year of CIVICS (mine was 10th grade and wonderful), and most Americans don't even know how our "great" government works. This is why Foxy can be so misleading, and Baggers look like upright citizens who are "protecting America'.

Fab read. Rated
This is a Must Read for all my friends who perch on any point of the political spectrum. Chauncey DeVega is a Gandalf/Obi wan for this strange time.
So perfect, I sent it on to my daughter at her frighteningly wealthy college. ~r
While I do not agree with your conservative student, I appreciate your respect for him. I have a professor friend who calls students "inarticulate" when they do not agree with him.
Some are beyond hope. But it's a ray of hope to see The Street get energized - finally, people out protesting. There are enough on the left and "independents" who are hurting and/or have some empathy and realization that we sink or swim together to make a difference in the general perception. I'm watching the Sunday political talk shows at the moment, waiting for any discussion of this new at-long-last phenomenon.
Wonderful piece of writing. I wish you could tell of this to the other choir. Anyway, the students are lucky to have you and every well-taught student helps.
It’s unfortunat that you atempt to debate a basic concept by inflating your views through complicated prose. World theory is: The government is not the answer. Relative world fact is: Current family failures can be sourced to a bloated bureaucratic arm. Real peoples experiences are as such: To fish with a tree limb and twine (no hook) is a federal crime. No sooner will Huck Finn be censored by Fascists than by Bureaucratic Law attempting to slowly strangle the breath of individualism. Unfortunately, I must postulate that supporters of the views you express are fixated on misspelled words in my first sentence as opposed to the simplicity placed on the argument.
I always find it unbelievable, that there are so many beat up old pickup trucks around here, with anti-Obama stickers. No matter how much they suffer because of the rethuglicans, they still vote for them. I often get into arguments with people who blame it all on "Obama and Socialism". They have no idea what the word even means!
Rated, and favorited!
Please write about this again as the class goes on. Similar things come up in my eleventh grade English class. This year I had them read the front page, editorials, and op ed pieces as part of a summer assignment, and they will continue this through the year. Now that school has started, they must read the entire first section of the paper. I encourage them to read the local newspaper, but they can choose an online paper. We're getting unlimited access to The New York Times replica edition, and they will take turns posting an article with analysis/comments on a wiki. The rest of the class must respond to that post with evidence to support their ideas. I got so sick of their ignorance about the world the last few years that I had to do something. I hope this project opens their eyes. Some kids last week didn't even KNOW about the Affordable Care Act. They are going to be so screwed if they do not wake up and care about what's going on. Their future? Ha.
I once had a kid in my college freshman composition class, during the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis, tell the class that our "nuclear future" was worth the sacrifice of 50,000 lives or so. After I recovered from my stunned silence, I asked him whether he was willing to get his butt out to central Pennsylvania to help end the crisis. No definitive answer from him. I wonder whether he's glowing today?

You know what they say: A young person who's a Conservative has no heart; an old person who's a Liberal has no brain.

Thanks for a great piece!
I can tell you, I am a saavy 58 year-old electrical designer with many other titles under my belt, drobe a "beemer" and had all the "aires" that afforded. I will not bore you with all of it, you get it.
Now I am living in low income housing. I am so thankful for it.

Homelessness can happen to anyone.


"these problems are just part of the business cycle, and no big deal because they are normal."
those are not the words of a mere 14 year old. they are the words of a cold-hearted, unsympathetic, ignorant, fox news viewer who lives in a altered universe being espoused by a impressionable 14 year old. i had no idea what a business cycle was when i was 14. and neither did i know what a normal business cycle was, and neither does this kid. he's been brain-washed.
Let's throw in a bonus for teachers who actually change the intellectual landscape of their students....
From a fellow "Jesuit trained" educator....The best part of your class sounds like the forum for dialogue that you create. Your story confirms my belief that students, given the right opportunity, teach students as much if not more than teachers do given the right opportunity. Obviously, you are providing that opportunity.
On the flip side, I find it odd that you think you have less chance to mold young minds than primary or secondary educators because you instruct college students and because college is now an obligatory hoop all must jump through...not just a wonderful place for the truly intellectually curious. First and secondary level education has always suffered from the "hoop" problem. Welcome to the club. The trick inside the club has always been to inspire curiosity and growth within the confines of obligatory attendance. Sounds like you're doing it!
I'm curious. Do you teach in public school? What is the subject you teach? If it is debate or political science, do you bring in people to lecture or give presentations presenting other points of view?
thanks all. as many know I try to respond to folks whenever possible. I am pleasantly surprised that you all took a liking to something I thought would be narrow in interest.

i will most certainly respond as is my tradition and habit today/tomorrow.

stay strong.

this was pretty popular at daily kos too, so if you so desire jump off there as well.
Really great piece. Exceedingly suave verbal bitch-slapping of that "conservative" idiot.
When I read this post,I was very impressed.I came here because of the recent killing of Troy Davis which upset me and all I can do for him now is to keep him alive by remembering him and his innocence.What really struck me about this case was the fact that this man was killed in his homeland,a place where each and everyone should feel safe and protected.
If you are the person on your photo,I assume that you are black,too,and obviously there are people like you in higher positions,too,not just the so called "White".
Recently ,I started reading the biography of and by Pierre Trudeau,the late Prime Minister of Canada.He,too,was educated by Jesuits.The most outstanding trait learned and trained by these monks was the ability to argument at a highly intellectual level challenging the opponent.
As everyone knows,P.E.Trudeau has been an excellent rhetorician,and his visionary actions for a free country was pace-setting.He believed in freedom for all,each individual and each nation.
Your way of teaching offers freedom of thought and speach.
I am sure you have had a strong impact on the thought pattern of this young man.
I think it was C.G.Jung who once said that when we have learned to live with our own shadow,no more wars are needed.
I also teach college and occasionally run into one of these young brainwashed-by-Fox-"News" students. I wish I always handled them as deflty as you seem to have done in this case. Thanks for sharing.
I've grown to really love students like that, especially because they make me question my own "ideological priors" and force me to make a better argument. When I was first asked to teach a prison class, I assumed my other students would be as excited about it as I was. Well, I won't make THAT mistake again. Who knew that small-town kids could be so punitive?
I'm just curious as to why some teachers feel it is their place to teach students what to think in regard to politics. Unless one is teaching Social Studies, Political Science, Debate, or something like that, such issues would, in an intellectually honest classroom, I submit rarely come up. And if one is teaching a subject akin to those I mentioned, shouldn't a teacher refrain from pushing his point of view and try to be as intellectually open as possible, giving a variety of points of view and allowing students (and if young under the influence of their parents) to form their own points of view?

I suspect the "need" to propagandize students is just one more reason the parents of some are choosing to "opt out" of public schools.
Terrific post Chauncey. I remember having a similar discussion with a proto-Tea Partier during the 80s recession (mild by today's standard). He attributed unemployment to laziness since there were always plenty of jobs on offer in the papers. So does that mean the rising and falling unemployment rate really just measures cyclical indolence?
Sounds like the young AC got his eyes opened pretty far, at least in that moment while he listened to his fellow student's account. If it doesn't change his mind, I hope it's lodged in his memory, rather like the grain of sand in the oyster shell. But he may have to hear many other stories like it before he has a true sea change of mind and heart.