On meritocracy

03 October 2014

Last Saturday night, I read the news that Ohio politician James Traficant died after an accident on his farm. It shocked me. I grew up in Mahoning County, where his hometown of Youngstown was seated, and he was my representative for years. He even officiated my eighth-grade spelling bee. He is famous in the national scene for his conviction on bribery charges (hardly unusual in the organized-crime-saturated city), resulting expulsion from Congress, ten-year jail stint, audaciously running for office while still in jail and general flamboyant, colorful speech and behavior. But, in Youngstown, he was a folk hero who inspired unwavering loyalty in some until the day he died.

Understanding why Youngstown still loves a crooked politician may seem difficult or inconsequential, or both, but the reasons are inextricably wrapped up in a story relevant to American industry and class as a whole. If you’re from steel country, or coal country, or farm country, or any other region where an industry that once sustained it has now disappeared, you know the story, and you know how little anyone else outside of these regions understands it. You know what it’s like when the local mill shuts down and your neighbors who spent their entire lives working there suddenly have nothing. You know what how it feels when you’re growing up and there just aren’t options. You know the way a town looks when it’s still standing but its soul has fled.

Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about it. It’s called, “Youngstown.” “Seven hundred tons of metal a day, now you tell me, sir, the world’s changed. Once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name.” He introduced his performance of the song in 1995 on the Letterman show by saying: “This is a song about losing everything you have if you play by all the rules.”

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And that’s why, right there. That’s why the people of Youngstown loved someone who didn’t play by the rules. Because who knew better than they did that the game was rigged against them from day one.

Americans may not like to talk about class divisions, but there is at least one, and it’s between those who never imagine not getting what they’ve been taught they deserve and those who know that no matter what they do, nothing is guaranteed.

I’m nothing but an armchair sociologist, but I’m also someone who came from working class, fell lower as a young single mother on welfare, and has worked my way up to stability with a bit of inherent privilege, good luck and not much external help. I now work in one of the most promising, excessive and influential industries possibly in history: technology. The technology industry often seems to see itself as the great democratizer. But I see little understanding from those on the top of the technological heap about the reality of democracy for those without power or financial security. In fact, the valley I see between the two sides of understanding is deep, unexamined and terrifying.

I’ve heard more than one young man enter the tech industry within the last two years and say, verbatim, that his goal is to be like the main character in The Social Network; i.e., the sociopathic genius who sells out every friend he has to get ahead.

The Youngstown newspaper, the Vindicator, linked a clip from an upcoming local documentary on Traficant. It highlights the time Traficant was jailed for contempt because he refused to enact foreclosures on the homes of unemployed steel workers.

Given those options, I’ll choose a crooked politician as folk hero any day of the week. And be proud of it.


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