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Chapter Nineteen: Roots of White Self-Hatred

 

When I was a young boy growing up in Detroit, I attended public school and played with my friends in the alleys and streets. We kids wrestled and punched each other, dug tunnels in the ground, climbed trees, flipped pen knives, and played a stupid game in the alley called “duck on rocks” with crushed beer cans. Under those relatively unsupervised conditions, I built up emotional energy and a sense of masculine self-esteem. Then my parents sent me to private school in Grosse Pointe. My rough-housing personality continued for a year or so. Then I learned how to study and became a good student, placing at the top of my grade-school class for several years. Others considered me a bookworm. My time was taken up reading class assignments and preparing for tests. This went on through high school and then into college. I was on a track to success.

Some time around my third year of college, I began to regret what I had become. College students write papers on sublime concepts of philosophy or art and on important issues facing society. While I was immersing myself in those concerns one afternoon, I thought to myself that I really did not have the base of experience to write intelligently about them. Here my father was paying thousands of dollars a year to me to have valuable intellectual experiences. I could not relate them to what I had personally experienced and knew to be true. I needed more basic life experience. Then I had a brainstorm: Why not drop out of college for a year or two, gain that needed experience, and then return to college, better equipped to understand what I was studying?

Actually, I would not be missing a beat. Young men were then under an obligation to do military service. Why not join the army and get that obligation out of the way, and then return to Yale as a more knowledgeable, experienced adult? I had a plan. My plan was to enlist in the army under a program called the Six Months program - six months of active service followed by several years in the army reserve and then return to college. After being examined by doctors at an enlistment center, however, I learned to my surprise that the army had rejected me. Either it was because I wore glasses or had failed several of the psych questions, depending on whom I asked.

I had dropped out of Yale without any immediate plans. Back in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, I lived for a time with my parents. I was a “college dropout” - not a flattering term in those days. I spent my time memorizing poetry, writing artsy prose, and attending debutante parties (including Anne Ford’s) until my parents and I reached an agreement that I should go to Germany. That I did in the fall of 1961. I lived in West Germany - Bavaria and Berlin - until Christmas, 1962, except for short visits to France and to Greece. Although some of my time was spent in such “basic life experience” activities as crating oranges in a Munich train yard and working in a Berlin factory which built engines for oceangoing vessels, I mainly attended German language school, read aimlessly, and wrote about subjects far away. It was a reasonably stimulating experience, though not particularly adventurous. I then returned to Yale in January, 1963, and completed my remaining year and a half of college. I can’t say that my experiences as an itinerant college drop-out improved subsequent comprehension of the course materials.

My career goal was to become an accountant. Accountants like Robert McNamara were then filling important positions in business and government. This was a skill which might take me to high places. After graduation from Yale, I enrolled in a one-year program at the Rutgers School of Business in Newark, New Jersey, which offered accounting and business courses. This was my first exposure to double-entry bookkeeping. It had certain charms. But I again grew restless, especially when prospective employers presented an escalator-like path of career advancement with their firms which would occupy much of my life. It was deja vu all over again, just like school.

I recognized that I knew nothing about the practical side of accounting. Why not take an accounting job somewhere utilizing my present knowledge, learn the craft through practice, and work my way up through the ranks? Browsing through business magazines in the Rutgers library, I came across several articles about companies in Minnesota - 3M, Honeywell, Control Data - where opportunity seemed to lie. Minnesota was a land of corporate opportunity combined with open spaces and many clean, beautiful lakes. Alternatively, I imagined it was somewhere out on the Great Plains. I picked up brochures about Minnesota at the New York World’s Fair. That was where I would live. Cutting short my studies at Rutgers, I boarded the Greyhound bus two days after New Years Day,1965, and began the next part of my life.

The job interviews in Minnesota did not go well. Employers were not lining up to hire this particular Yale graduate. I remember one corporate interviewer asking me who was my psychiatrist. Eventually, I found an accounting job in the Department of Public Welfare, State of Minnesota. It was fun to go to work and have coffee with the other employees but the job itself was routine. I quit after a year to take up writing full time. For the next several years, I bounced along in several unrewarding projects and then returned to school at the University of Minnesota to take more accounting and business courses in preparation for the CPA exam. I passed the exam. This was more how successful accounting careers are launched. Even so, I managed to botch a job with a public-accounting firm. I then went back to writing, got married, and finally took a job with American Hoist & Derrick Company, a St. Paul manufacturer of cranes, which lasted for five and a half years.

My idea of starting at the bottom, seeing how the business worked, and then being promoted to high places was not how the career system worked, at least not in my case. I had the notion that computers would take me somewhere. I would find a new way to use computer technology to gather and interpret information about a firm’s operation and that would make me an expert. Cost accounting would put me in touch with the nuts-and-bolts side of the business. That was the idea I had at American Hoist and also at the Metropolitan Council Transit Operations, at the end of my accounting career.

Computers were becoming an increasingly important part of accounting work. Personal computers put this tool at one’s own finger tips. My crowning achievement at the bus company (next to being assigned to the transit-redesign team) was to develop a cost-accounting method to assign costs to individual bus routes, tying directly into the scheduling data base. Calculating those costs on a quarterly basis became part of my regular job assignment. The agency used my subsidy-per-passenger numbers to decide which routes to eliminate in the next restructuring of service. I sometimes referred to myself as the Dr. Kervorkian of the transit agency. Sixteen years later, I was still in the job position for which I had been hired.

I learned from my real-life business experience that people count more than operational knowledge. To get promoted within a bureaucracy, you probably need a mentor. I was older than the average entry-level employee and my Yale background might have put off several of my superiors - no mentors for me. My one solid job in management, as controller of a small paper-goods manufacturer in western Wisconsin, lasted for only six months. I might have cut my own throat in calculating the firm’s breakeven point, which told upper management that it had to cut staff. In more than twenty years of accounting work, I was promoted once while being fired or laid off several times. It was a lackluster career, peaking at an annual income of $35,000. Mine may have been an extreme case of conflict between expectations arising from my own emotional needs and the way the world works.

I tell this humiliating story as an attempt to explain why white people in America may succumb to racial self-hatred. Historically, middle-class whites have been caught up in the promise of education and later success in corporate or professional careers. One’s life experiences are controlled as one “rides the escalator” to economic and social success. The idea of going to college, from the perspective of upper-middle-class Midwestern families such as mine, was that this package of life experiences would perpetuate the upward mobility of one’s forbearers. The children of prospering middle-class families would attend schools where the children of aristocrats were. At Yale or Harvard, these young people would learn the finer points of culture so that they would know how to fit in with the cream of society. Going to a prep school or an elite college meant that one was on a “success track”.

The downside was that, as a young person who identified with and cooperated with this type of upbringing, one was making a statement of claiming to be better than other people. One was better because one knew all about the society’s rich culture. However, this type of success did not measure up against other types based upon heroic or courageous struggles. True success is the fruit of an uncertain life.

I suspect that many young people, predominantly white, feel, as I felt years ago, that their lives were being built on false pretenses. I could not claim to be superior to anyone else because I knew that I had not really lived. “Really living” for me meant to be that boy knocking around the Detroit alleys with his friends, living out his own fantasies, making his own mistakes, gaining unstructured experiences that made authentic connections with life. It did not mean slavishly following a path which well-intentioned adults had laid out for me. The path to true success lies in overcoming personal difficulties. The bigger the challenge, the greater the achievement. Such success does not lie in expectations of wealth and respectability if one gets good grades in school. The roots of white self-hatred might lie in the false promises of education and the fact that we fell for them. Could we, pretending to be superior by virtue of having graduated from college, look someone in the eye whom life itself had revealed to be a superior person? We knew we were living a lie.

Black Americans did not face that situation. One of the benefits of being socially downtrodden is that life’s raw experiences press in upon oneself every day. Boys and girls brought up in that environment learn to cope with adult-sized issues at an early age. Through street smarts or luck, some do prosper and rise into a higher socioeconomic class. Back in the ‘50s, my generation of white American was exposed to elements of black culture which we found emotionally appealing. We knew Jackie Robinson’s story of how, as a black man, he had to be better than the other ball players to break into the Major Leagues. We knew about Jesse Owens and Joe Lewis and Harry Belafonte. We knew about the black blues singers whose music expressed agonies of the soul. We inexperienced youth knew about the easy sexuality which many black men and women possessed. Rock ‘n roll music, originating in the musical subculture of black America, took white America by storm. Here was Elvis Presley, a poor white man from Mississippi who imitated black singers, exhibiting raw sexual power. There were also young blacks courageously desegregating lunch counters in the South, risking their very lives.

Such images from black America proved appealing to young whites pretending to be on a success track in school. The blandness of our actual daily experience compared unfavorably with the black experience. Having to prove that you’re better than someone else - making this the basis of your personal pride - would be hard for anyone. (Jews, with their supremacist heritage, have solved this psychological problem by positioning themselves as the world’s chief victim.) It is doubly hard for a young person still trying to know who he is. Can’t we all just be left alone to find purpose in what comes our way? Why all this social pretending? That was our parents’ idea, not ours. Moreover, the promise that one would join a social aristocracy by going to college was undermined by the fact that nowadays everyone goes to college. We could obviously not all become aristocrats. It seemed that white Americans were on a treadmill moving faster and faster toward nowhere. To the extent that we acquiesced in this false dream, we set ourselves up for self-hatred. Many of our more adventurous peers became rebels against the system.

The current President of the United States, George W. Bush, graduated from Yale four years after I graduated from there. Vice President Dick Cheney - like me, a Yale drop-out - might have been there at the same time. I must admit that, having been a college student in the early ‘60s, I have sympathies for them that others may not have (although I do not agree with the Bush-Cheney approach to the impending war with Iraq or their idea of an “axis of evil”). I have heard persons who came from a different background ridicule George W. Bush for being stupid. A decade earlier, they ridiculed Dan Quayle for the same reason. They said that George W. was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and had an easy upbringing; it was only because of help from his father’s friends that this unremarkable white boy ever succeeded. What these people really meant to say was: Why can’t a high-IQ, self-aware individual like me become President if he could? Life isn’t fair.

Let me say that I think both Dan Quayle and George W. Bush succeeded through personal merit. I have seen Quayle in action; as a political schmoozer, he’s one of the best. Put him down as a genius under the theory of “multiple intelligences”. With respect to the younger Bush, I once read in the newspaper of an incident involving the Yale chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, while Bush was a Yale. Coffin, the original “Freedom Rider” and pianist Artur Rubinstein’s son-in-law, was a likable though arrogantly brash practitioner of “afflicting the comfortable” and bringing about social change. After George Bush the elder lost the 1968 Senate race in Texas to Lloyd Bentsen, Rev. Coffin told the younger Bush to his face that the better man had won. They say that George W. partied his way through Yale, consumed too much alcohol, and was at loose ends for several years following his college graduation. Then he met his wife, Laura, stopped drinking, and pulled out of his personal funk. And, yes, with the help of his father and his father’s friends, he later became a career success. Even if George W. Bush did not grow up dirt poor, I call this overcoming adversity.

We need perhaps to rethink our approach to education if it deprives young men and women of an authentic life. Let’s not just assume that the time which they have to themselves is “wasted time”. What is happening during the time spent in the classroom? Is this truly quality time? Are the courses interesting? Do they excite young people’s creative imaginations? Do they arouse positive hopes for the future? Or does a leaden, self-serving educational bureaucracy produce an experience which deadens that part of the soul? Of course, society has made the decision, not to raise basic questions such as this, but expand the educational process to wider circles.

f white kids are stifled in school, then why not stifle black kids on an equal-opportunity basis? Why not take away their opportunities to experience life in the raw? Let’s develop social-studies courses that tell white kids how badly their forbearers have treated blacks and hang pictures of Martin Luther King on the wall. Let’s tell boys that they must control their male chauvinistic tendencies and look up to girls as models of behavior. Let’s scare everyone into staying in school for longer and longer periods; let’s make them study harder and jump through more hoops. You should take Advanced Placement courses. You should earn good grades. You should participate in extracurricular activities to show admissions officers that you are personally well rounded. If you falter in school, that will end your chances to be a success in this society. Stay in school whether you like it or not or whether it does you any good.

Consider for a moment the young white male who comes from an undistinguished social background, let’s say in the suburbs. What is our society offering that type of person in terms of education? All this racialized, genderized culture is telling him that he is a bad person. While previous generations of Americans had George Washington to admire, we have the Civil Rights heroes who, though displaying many admirable qualities, were basically presenting a complaint against white America. Why should the average white kid be expected to identify with this? Who are his people? Who are his role models? The fact is that today increasing numbers of young men are choosing not to go on to college. Given a choice, they may not wish to subject themselves to further psychological abuse.

Schools are not panaceas. Educators are not judges of young people but persons hired to give them high-quality experiences. We need to resell young men and women on the joys of the intellectual life. We need to bring back the kind of tolerant, offbeat environment which produced the personable, individualistic scholar. I think of academics like Kenneth Boulding or Milton Friedman, who, even if they disagreed with you (as they did with me on my proposals for a shorter workweek), were at least willing to engage in personal dialogue. Politically correct education, deconstructionism, and the rest have banished that type of scholar. In the end, it’s about money.

I do not want to leave the impression that I do not appreciate my prep-school or Yale education. I was the beneficiary of many outstanding teachers. There is one thing about Yale that outsiders may not know. By and large, it is not a place of grim self-hating competitors. The atmosphere is one of sociability. In the freshman dining hall, I remember how often someone would stick out his hand and introduce himself if you sat down at the same table. I have gone back to class reunions rather reluctantly, fearing to expose a painful contrast between between my own lack of career achievement and what my classmates have accomplished. The experience has almost always been a positive one. Even though most of my time at Yale was not spent with the Class of 1964 (my graduating class) and I knew few in attendance, that did not seem to matter. People again introduced themselves and did not brag.

At the last reunion, there was a panel of classmates who had changed careers late in life. I remember a Jewish guy who had been CEO of a billion-dollar-a-year pharmaceutical company telling us how, feeling personally unfulfilled, he had abruptly resigned. (There was nothing to bringing out new drugs, he told us. It was a completely routine procedure.) He had spent much of the next year staring at a television screen. Then he had found a young wife. They had had a baby and moved to Israel. This, too, was an acceptable model of the Yale man. We each need the freedom to lead our own lives in our own way. That can be antidote to what ails white society: We each become our own underdog.

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