My friend since sixth grade sent an email “To my friends of the left and right.” He attached a review by conservative writer Charles Murray entitled “Meritocracy’s Cost”, which analyses a new book by liberal Harvard professor, Michael Sandel, “The Tyranny of Merit”. Murray’s essay ends, “If there can be that much agreement between people who are so far apart politically as Sandel and his reviewer, common ground should be within the nation’s grasp. Somehow.”
My friend ended his email with the question, “What can we do to foster the “somehow”? The following is my response.
Good afternoon, Chuck et al. – You asked if somehow people as far apart as Murray and Sandel can find common ground? My first attempts at responding bogged down in answering the Murray shotgun review of a book I have not read. I disagree with many of his assertions: his belief that elites disdain ordinary people, his misstatement of Calvin’s predestination (thanks for lending me Benjamin Friedman’s “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism”), his regard for IQ as a measure of worth, his failure to define elite. Is a businessman without elite education and cultural sophistication who built a billion dollar company an elite or ordinary? Do the elite really devalue the master carpenter’s work? I could go on.
To return to your “somehow”, I ask how do we regain a sense of common national faith? My starting point is not the Declaration of Independence with its premise “all men are create equal.” John Adams and others got into trouble by pointing out that people have differences which create inequality. I prefer the Preamble of the Constitution, “We the People of the United States.” Reflect on its goals: a more perfect Union, establish Justice, domestic Tranquility, common defense. general Welfare, and Blessings of Liberty. We the People pledged “ourselves and our Posterity” to pursue these goals. The pubic dialogue should stress this history and our continuing effort to fulfill these promises. Too much time and energy is spent on our differences, contradictions and failures. The more factions demand their aspirational goals, without compromise, our divisions and backlash become more extreme. We need to acknowledge our national failings – racism, inequality, and other shame in a context of an arc of progress toward a more perfect, yet imperfect, United States. This starts with education and continues in our daily lives.
Country music refutes Murray’s view of discontented workers. A recurrent sentiment is heard, “I don’t make much, but I love what I do.” Listen on the radio for a few days to hear the voice of ordinary people. The energy and upbeat view of life even with disappointments lifts my spirits. Would an elite law school graduate working on the Series Q Debentures for a corporate client sing, “I love what I do?’
Today’s blue collar worker has legitimate anger. The American dream promised that each succeeding generation would do better.. His father may have worked at GE for years in a good paying, union protected job with benefits. He works in a seasonal, service job at low pay, getting unemployment insurance and odd jobs in the winter. His children have moved to Florida or Texas in hopes of a better future in a raising rather than declining region. If we can not be empathic, we should at least be sympathetic.
We can work to close the gap in our daily contacts with other people. If you pick-up the paper in the same store each day, do you engage with the familiar clerk? Do you inquire about the lives of service people who work for you? Do they have children? Where do they go on vacation? Do you take part in community activities which bring you together without regard to wealth, education or status. Whatever your religious beliefs, do you attend religious services and make new friends at the coffee hour? Somehow we come together when we are not strangers.
It is even possible to discuss politics. On the bumper of my Chevy pick-up, I have two stickers: “Let People Vote” and “Fight Hate.” I asked the Trump supporting carpenter who is repairing my past repair failures, “ Do you disagree with those two ideas?” He responded by quoting the Constitution’s 1870 voting rights Fifteenth Amendment, with emphasis on “citizens” and the implied deferral to the States’ regulation of voting. Retreating to “Fight Hate,” I asserted “You can’t disagree with that.” He walked closer to the truck to read the small print, “Southern Poverty Law Center.” He answered, “No, but I don’t like that radical, left-wing organization.” We both laughed and went back to work.
Somehow we can come closer together by sharing our stories, not our ideology. As sung by Kenny Chesney. “We ain’t perfect but we try, Get along while we can.” Our Nation survived a Civil War. We now need a Civil Peace.
Thanks for starting this discussion. Let’s continue with others joining. — Very best wishes, Mike
Michael Belknap is President of the Belknap LTD, a real estate development firm. Belknap has lived in a 19th century in Columbia County since 1971.