Blue Kool-Aid

  • Posted: December 6, 2016
  • Category: Blog
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There is an old song, a very old song, probably never actually heard by anyone reading this blog. Hard to dance to, but with a catchy title, the song’s name is The World Turned Upside Down. It is said that the British army played this song, a popular saloon ditty of the time, as George Washington accepted the surrender of Lord Cornwallis and his forces at Yorktown. Pre-Gender Studies history textbooks always cited this factoid, a telling detail with which to make a larger point. America was something entirely new in the world, the existing world’s order was being turned upside down by a people with a radical new vision of government and society.yorktown

The song might well have also served as an appropriate requiem for Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters on that Wednesday morning. Only someone living on Mars could have missed November’s tectonic upheaval in our beloved country. Donald Trump is the President–Elect of the most powerful country in the world. He had defeated the candidate supported by virtually every responsible citizen in the country. A reality TV star has his manicured finger on the button. Even worse, our new President unashamedly sports a comb over, the universal symbol of old men caught up in the vain pursuit of faded youth. How did our world turn upside down?

Pundits, talking heads and the writers of op-eds have spilled the midnight oil and countless artisanal whiskeys hammering out words of explanation, explanations both reasoned and hysterical. The talking heads, as they are affectionately known, are paid to provide sensible explanations for the happenings in our world and without exception their explanations are indeed sensible, even the hysterical ones. On the other hand, sensible people were, almost without exception, blind to the dawning of the new reality.

My oldest, the mother of three young daughters, called me on the Wednesday morning following the election. I was the only person she knew who might have voted for the new Emperor and she was hoping for explanation, perhaps only simple reassurance. Her husband’s co-ed softball game, the night before on Election Night, had been nearly postponed because the players, normal suburban moms and dads, were crying uncontrollably on the field over incoming news reports of a Trump victory. It was as if these young parents were bourgeoisie in the streets of Paris upon hearing the news of Guderian’s Panzer columns sweeping across the France countryside in May of 1940.

For many of us living in the professional, mostly urban, centers of the United States, Election Night was a world turned upside down. Half of our nation’s citizens were confronted with a stark realization, an unexpected slap in the face. The other half of their fellow citizens was either Nazi’s, members of the Klu Klux Klan or unrepentant patriarchs intent on keeping their women barefoot and pregnant. Many of them wondered aloud, certain of a coming revanchist future, “Just who are these people, these bigots, these deplorables, who live in flyover country, who call themselves Americans?”

How can we begin to bridge the enormous disconnect in our country? Perhaps we might search for explanation in a tragedy that befell a group of our citizens in South America back in the dark days of the Jimmy Carter Presidency. It was just 38 years ago, in the deep forests of Guyana, that nearly a thousand people committed suicide by drinking grape Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. Known as Jonestown, this community of people had come to believe that the murder of their children, followed by their own suicide, was a rational plan of action.

One fallout of that tragedy is the phrase, “drinking the Kool-Aid”, which has entered our language. Perhaps its most common usage is among cynical employees of large corporations, describing their thoughts on the latest corporate pronouncements. But while cynical employees might snicker about the Kool-Aid, everyone knows that life and advancement in the organization requires drinking the Kool-Aid.

Atoms dance in a mad quantum netherworld of cats both alive and dead. Stars detonate in unimaginable cataclysms of destruction, holding in their death the promise of future life. Human beings are born and die in patterns at once obvious, yet mysterious. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. The Universe and our own lives seem to be random occurrence, purposeless and unknowable. But we are human beings and we cannot live without meaning. And so we drink Kool-Aid.

Our own particular brand of Kool-Aid is a mixture created by our family, our friends, our culture. But in the United States of today, our education is our Kool-Aid. My parents believed in the power of education. My own arrival on a college campus seemed foreordained. I pushed my own children to get a college education. My children take it as a given that their own children will get college educations.

The belief in a college education is the nearest thing we have to a universal faith in the United States today. And wonder of wonders, a lot of kids take their parent’s advice and get a college education. They get a college education and as a result get professional jobs in the urban centers of our country. They live in suburbs populated by professional people with college degrees in professional jobs. They are good people doing the best that they can to make a good life and raise their families.

But to get to that professional job in the professional suburb, they had to get the college degree. And to get the degree, to graduate from college, they had to drink the Kool-Aid. And that Kool-Aid dispensed on college campuses is a potent brew. Our educational system conjures up a subtly addictive Kool-Aid composed of Western Christianity (sans Christ), Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Enlightenment Humanism, spiced with the cloying sauce of Identity Politics.

Our Kool-Aid has worked well for us. We should not let the tragic nature of Jonestown blind us to the enormous power of Kool-Aid. A nation working in harmony harnessed to a common vision is a powerful thing. Ask the Nazi’s and Imperial Japan. The United States of today is an eloquent testimony to the power of American Kool-Aid. We are living in the reality for which John Quincy Adams, our sixth President, hoped when he wrote almost 200 years ago:

“I am a warrior, so that my son may be a merchant, so that his son may be a poet.”

John Quincy Adams was actually a career politician rather than a warrior and his estimate of the number of generations required was a bit optimistic. But his words capture the promise and hope of America; that one generation might do the hard dirty things so that future generations might live at peace in the midst of john-quincy-adamsplenty. The first generations would sacrifice, giving up their own dreams to deal with the harsh realities of the world so that their children might be free to follow their dreams in pursuit of softer less harshly bound paths.

Every family had its own version of John Quincy Adam’s hope. My own grandparents emigrated from the Ukraine, working as migrant farm laborers in America so that their children, my parents, might be farmers on their own land in a free country, so that I might be an engineer. Perhaps our family’s poet will make an appearance in another generation or two. But nearly all of us in the blue enclaves shocked by Trump’s victory are of the generation of poets. We are a free generation. Earlier generations were gripped by harsh realities. They had to survive in a world with few safety nets, but also prosper and build so that future generations might have the opportunity to pursue their will-o-the-wisp.

Drinking the Kool-Aid is a metaphor for the complete acceptance of a community’s beliefs and ways of thinking. Cynical inhabitants of the corporate cube farm may fool themselves by supposing they can choose, but generations of Twentieth Century communist apparatchiks, Werner Erhard and L. Ron Hubbard know otherwise. Coherent descriptions of reality, repeated often enough and reinforced by social conditioning, change our perceptions of reality. Our brain sees what it has been conditioned to see and ignores everything else. If we get a new Lexus when the corporate Pavlov rings his bell, we endeavor to ring bells. If a manager is given a lateral transfer instead of a promotion because he ignored diversity goals for his department, watching eyes take note.

When talking with someone outside our bubble of reality, we are like the fish upon hearing the cat’s question about the water in the fishbowl, “What water?” Our water, the Kool-Aid of the professional classes, is cat-fishbowleverywhere. From pre-school through college, we drink it every day and we accept it. If we don’t actively absorb the Kool-Aid, we get shunted off to the “Dumb Kids Class” and our futures become different. If we begin to doubt in high school and college, the educational system has ways of dealing with students asking inconvenient questions and contemplating heresy.

This election was traumatic because the Kool-Aid of the educated professionals was called into question. Reality rippled. The space-time continuum was torn. Aliens from another dimension were seen. Water was reported to be running uphill by reliable and sober observers.

Who is to say whether a particular type of Kool-Aid is good or bad? Time and reality have a way of sorting that question out. We might begin by asking the ghosts of Jonestown to log onto Yelp and review grape Kool-Aid.

But clearly the educated professional class of the United States, as well as Northern Europe, has been drinking Kool-Aid. Nowhere else was the shock of the Clinton debacle so great. Of course the traditional Democratic blocs voted as they have been trained to do over the generations. But these traditional Democrats are increasingly disinterested and lethargic. How many times can their anger be exploited by their cynical plantation owners?

Judgment of the Kool-Aid might be best left for another day, but honest people can agree that Kool-Aid blinds us. Again, the inhabitants of Jonestown can bear witness. The wisdom of all cultures teaches that it is both wise and noble to walk in another’s shoes, to try and understand another’s point of view.

While the Deplorables in flyover country have many faults, including their own Kool-Aid, they do know the Kool-Aid of the educated professional classes very well. The Deplorables are immersed in the blue Kool-Aid of the educated professionals every time they watch television, see a movie or read a newspaper. They taste it on a trip to the museum or zoo with their kids, during the bruising encounter with the school system and in their every encounter with an increasingly alien government. The blue Kool-Aid is forced down their throats when the Deplorables are forced to deal with the arrogant experts that effortlessly evade responsibility yet order their very lives. The Deplorables in flyover country know the taste of the professional’s Kool-Aid well.

But the professional’s in their blue enclaves, those so greatly shocked by the Trump victory, are untouched by the realities of the Deplorables. The professionals debate foreign policy and applaud “heroes” honored at every sporting event, but they don’t know anyone who has patrolled the streets of Fallujah. The professionals are passionate about universal and quality health care, but are spared the back-breaking premium increases and sullen bureaucracies of Walmart style health plans.

The professionals believe in universal human rights, respect for all cultures and open border immigration but their children are excused from the babble of tongues and customs in elementary school classrooms and struggling neighborhoods. The professionals are comfortable in the temperate spaces of their office buildings sorting paper and updating computer files, but have never smelled the bitter tang of welding smoke on a freezing job site in Wyoming or heard the sharp ring of punch presses in the sweltering heat of the factory floor.

Our blue Kool-Aid has worked well for us. We live in the Promised Land dreamt of by our ancestors. But sometimes, I fear that we forget that our life, our education, the freedom to enjoy life in the blue enclaves is a gift. Yes we have lived and survived a hard meritocracy. Every step of our life has been in competition with other strivers, for grades in school, for promotions at work, for the money to send our children to college and retire. But even so, others have sacrificed much to put us in the game of the professionals.

That phrase, “given much”, calls to mind an old admonition from the Bible, once known well by the privileged classes. It is from our Lord, Jesus Christ, who is speaking directly to us, the generation of poets. In the twelfth chapter of Luke, Jesus says:

“To whom much has been given, much will be required”

Of course, we, the generation of poets, see ourselves as a generous people, good and righteous, passing laws to ensure that the coddled feelings of the protected classes in our own fishbowl are not hurt while sending humanitarian aid and weaponized drones to the far corners of the world. But somehow we, the generation of poets, have become practiced at giving away that which is not ours to give. We easily and quickly forgive those who have hurt others, but not us. We are adept at spending other people’s money in causes that both enrich us and make us feel good about ourselves. In our self-righteous aid to the feckless, we add to the burdens the heavily laden. Our sympathy for abandoned kittens and remote peoples gives us the moral standing to be contemptuous of our fellow citizens that do not share our enlightened attitudes.

Perhaps that which is required of us is more personal. We have heard a great cry in our land. It is now a volatile time in the garden of poets. Demagogues walk among us, seeking power and celebrity. Perhaps the “much” spoken of by Jesus contains the requirement that we respect our fellow citizens, we extend to them the same grace we allow ourselves and that we hear the pain in their voices.

3 Responses to “Blue Kool-Aid”

  1. Barry says:

    The talking heads, as they are affectionately known, are paid …

    For some fine Blue Kool-Aid, I recommend a couple of “How to Get Away with Murder” episodes.

  2. jeffrey Esbenshade says:

    My son-in-law and myself went to the Trump rally at the Stockshow grounds.

    The Denver Post never reported Mike Shanahand spoke.A blue collar crowd wearing

    Make America Great Again hats. Only 1/3 of USA has a BA or BS, this was the

    other 2/3 of America.I made a living from these people for 29 years loggers,

    miners, farmers ranchers,trash collectors, feedlot operators, truckers.

    We put up with rules and regulations from the blue bloods in Wash D.C.they made our business costs higher, and our life more high pressure.

    My son and I have a scholarship at U Colorado Foundation. The U said we had to
    rewrite our scholarship to remove gender. I would not do it, the U
    would not award the scholarship money until we took male out of the endowment.

    I have spent my last 14 years in public education. The teachers only see life
    from one point of view. Our students need to hear all types of ideas& viewpoints

    And you wonder why I voted for Trump?

    • Pete Straub says:

      We are increasingly identified as those that are earning or have earned their way and those that have not. Wealth, (not great wealth, just equity in a home, even meager retirement savings in the bank), self respect, and a sense of community responsibility, versus those who are envious – and those who see the struggle for security as just too steep to climb, immigration protocol judged to difficult to follow, those who won’t or can’t put forth the effort to work, to earn, or to create. There is those who are either embarrassed or uncomfortable of their wealth, Hollywood elites and super rich come to mind. “Trumper”s love his challenges to the press, the slap back of Boeing’s cost of AF-1, the common sense hand extended to Chairman Ing-wen, Being able to with Al Gore on Monday, and Rex Tillerson on Tuesday. Buckle up, my friend – it is going to be a great ride.

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