Friday, December 08, 2017

I don't get it.

I've been told I should not admit this:
I have trouble relating to the people who have become increasingly frustrated as a changing world has left them feeling disconnected - even abandoned by their government, the media, science, corporations, and other institutions.

I'm told that is not something a California liberal with a fancy degree should commit to text. It confirms just how out hopelessly of touch I am.

NPR, the Washington Post, J.D. Vance, the New York Times, and countless others have presented strong arguments telling me as much... and those are just the liberal outlets telling me I'm out of touch.

My conservative friends and family use my degree and zip code as a weapon whenever we debate politics. I've been told I'm out of touch by everyone.

Maybe they have a point.

I've spent the last twenty-three years of my life putting personal and professional distance between myself and the people I am out of touch with. It wasn't an accident. It took a lot of work, and I did it with intention. I didn't do it, however, out of some kind of disdain or disrespect.

I did it because I was told to.

My childhood was littered with movies and songs about rust belt towns falling into ruin. I listened to nightly news reports about union jobs leaving my Midwestern home for non-union towns in the South - or other countries. I remember the stellar line up at Farm Aid '85 singing about the plight of the family farmer. The world was telling me that I could not count on a comfortable working-class life.

I listened.

Sure, I rooted for the Goonies as they tried to keep their side of town out of the hands of rich developers hellbent on building a golf course. But the message was loud and clear: Staying ahead of the changes in the country's economic landscape was going to take more than wishing on a penny.

But this isn't some "pulled myself up by the bootstraps" story. I had a lot of help.

My parents moved out of the middle class when I was in high school. They were able to send me, my sister, and my twin brothers to college during the 90s without asking us to take on any debt. My first degree landed me a job in New York City. I met good people who helped me learn and advance (I married one of them). There were bumps and bends in the road, but for the most part, I have walked the fortunate path of a global citizen allowed to seek education and opportunity wherever I can find it. I should also note that I'm a white heterosexual man, which cleared away many of the obstacles through no effort on my part. I'm grateful for the people and circumstances that helped me along the way.

I'm not looking for a pat on the back.

I'm just trying to figure out why politicians, op-eds, and think pieces are expressing shock and surprise that a person like me is out of touch with those whose life experience is so distant from my own.

Being an educated liberal doesn't give me the ability to see into the hearts of people.

I know their views are different than mine, and...
(here's the liberal part)
I do not think my view is better or more important.

When I listen to people express frustration with a changing world that has left them feeling disconnected or even abandoned, I don't dismiss them or demean them. I just...

I don't get it.

That's it. I just don't get it.

I don't understand political movements that insist the country is failing, science is lying, and the sky is falling.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think we live in some kind of utopia. I believe there is a lot we need to work on - some of which is pretty urgent - but for the most part, I trust science, non-partisan research, government programs, universities, and the media.

And sure, I am biased in their favor. I have relied heavily on those institutions to reach the achievements I have reached. And they delivered. So, yeah, it is weird to see people treat them as a kind of enemy. There is something happening there that I can't understand.

It's like when I listen to an old favorite song, "Common People" by Pulp.

I used to think I identified with the singer complaining about the rich student who wanted "to live like common people." But that's never been me. If I belong to any group described in that song, I belong to the 'tourist' group, and "everybody hates a tourist."

The song is a reminder that I can't know another person's experience. So, I shouldn't romanticize the lives of others, nor should I presume to understand what is behind the choices they make.

I have to accept that there are things I cannot know. I won't get it, and that's okay.

This doesn't mean I have to change my view. My lack of understanding doesn't make me wrong, but it doesn't make the other side wrong either.

Accepting that is crucial. If I am going to listen better, I have to know there is stuff I do not understand. It's not a character flaw. It is what happens while living in a diverse and liberal society.