Letters at 3AM: Where We Actually Live: Part II

The country the tea partiers want back no longer exists

Letters at 3AM: Where We Actually Live: Part II
Illustration by Jason Stout

"One 12-nation study found Americans the least likely to discuss politics with people of different views, and this was particularly true of the well educated" (The New York Times, March 19, 2009, p.A31). That's what makes possible headlines like this: "Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated" (The New York Times online, April 14). Conservatives and liberals are, in my experience, equally self-segregated and equally able to ignore facts that fail to support their opinions. Like-minded people who continually reinforce one another's beliefs can end up believing anything.

The tea party's battle cry of "take our country back" prompts two questions: What country? Take it back from whom?

"Only 1 percent of Tea Party supporters are black and only 1 percent are Hispanic. It's almost all white" (The New York Times, April 17, p.A17). In that case, "our" must mean "white" – the country I was born into, in which simply being a white American, especially a white American male, puts you at the top of the world's heap.

This is subtler than simple racism. I doubt most tea partiers are more overtly racist than most white liberals. Rather, what's at play is an innate sense of worth conferred by one's birth – a status and an identity that have been not intentionally destroyed but inevitably dissolved by circumstances impossible to reverse. The country they want back no longer exists.

"During the past decade, 83 percent of U.S. population growth came from nonwhites" (The Week, May 21, p.20). Forty-eight "percent of births in the United States [have been] to minority mothers in the 12 months that ended July 2008. ... The 50 percent benchmark could be reached as soon as this year" (The New York Times, March 14, p.WK4). "[I]ntermarriage among Asian, black, Hispanic and white people now accounts for a record 1 in 6 marriages in the United States. ... Of all 3.8 million adults who married in 2008, 31 percent of Asians, 26 percent of Hispanic people, 16 percent of blacks and 9 percent of whites married a person whose race or ethnicity was different from their own" (The New York Times, June 4, p.A12). "Hispanics have accounted for half of America's total population growth since 2000. ... White children are already a minority in 31 of America's 100 largest metropolitan areas. For America as a whole, whites will become a minority in preschools by 2021 and in the general population by 2042" (The Economist, Jan. 9, p.31). By mid-2008, "one in four American counties ... passed or are approaching the tipping point where black, Hispanic and Asian children constitute a majority of the under-20 population. ... [C]ounties in the nation's industrial heartland, inner suburbs and Great Plains ... are losing their largely white child and young adult populations" (The New York Times online, Aug. 6, 2008). The U.S. Census Bureau reports that "ethnic diversity in small-town America has increased sharply in recent years" (The Week, Dec. 19, 2008, p.6). "[T]he white population of big-city suburbs grew by 7% between 2000 and 2006. In the same period the suburban Asian population grew by 16%, the black population by 24% and the Hispanic population by an astonishing 60%" (The Economist, May 29, 2008, p.28). "In 2002, the birth rate for white women was 1.83 babies," compared with 2.2 for blacks and 3.0 for Hispanics (The Week, Nov. 18, 2005, p.15).

This explains why "'nativist extremist' groups that confront and harass suspected immigrants have increased nearly 80 percent since President Obama took office, and antigovernment 'patriot' groups more than tripled over that period" (The New York Times, March 27, p.A19). But panicky, violent reactionaries cannot change birthrates. Given our increasing intermarriage, what is changing, underneath the raucous hoopla, is the importance and status of anyone's color.

Here's something else that the present policies of Democrats, Republicans, and tea partiers won't change:

"[T]he U.S. is the only industrialized country in which young people are less likely than their parents to graduate from high school" (The New York Times, May 26, 2009, p.A19). "The U.S., which long enjoyed the world's top high school graduation rate, has fallen to 13th place behind such countries as South Korea, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia" (The Week, Nov. 14, 2008, p.20). In a study of "applied learning and problem-solving skills of 15-year-olds in 30 industrialized countries, the U.S. ranked 25th out of the 30 in math and 24th in science" (The New York Times, April 22, 2009, p.A27). Furthermore, "30 million Americans have 'below basic' literacy skills" (The Week, April 9, p.5). "[S]tate dropout rates are highest in the South, where Georgia (22.1 percent), Florida (20.1 percent), Texas (18.5 percent) and North Carolina (17.6 percent) lead the way" (The New York Times, May 9, 2009, p.A18).

"The nation's schoolchildren have made little or no progress in reading proficiency in recent years" (The New York Times, March 25, p.A18). "In federal writing tests, 32 percent of girls are considered 'proficient' or better. For boys, the figure is 16 percent" (The New York Times, March 28, p.WK12). Read those figures another way and a staggering 68% of our girls and 84% of our boys cannot write their own language.

There's blame aplenty for all. Liberal educational innovations that have not worked are slow to be replaced. Teachers' unions and bureaucracies refuse to adapt. Tax policies slash funds for working-class schools. Ideo­log­ic­al curriculums of the right reject accurate science and history while ideological curriculums of the left also are guilty of academic cherry-picking, especially at the college level. Parents demand their kids receive high grades whether or not those grades are earned.

A typical result: "35 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 years old don't even know that Democrats have a majority in the House," nor did 29% of Democrats "overall" (The New York Times, Oct. 2, p.A19).

We graduate and fail to graduate hundreds of thousands of unprepared young people every year. This can only make for a population incapable of informed decisions, incapable of improving itself, and incapable of keeping up with what's going on in the rest of the world.

That is not a citizenry. That is a peasantry.

That is a steadily growing segment of the population fit for nothing but the most menial work, trapped by its ignorance and ripe for any demigods skilled in manipulating its passions.

As Frank DeMarco wrote this month (www.themetaarts.com): "A society of illiterates does not make possible, even for those who can read, the depth of services and knowledge offered by societies of widespread literacy."

The result: In a 2009 study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation that measured what the study's leadership called "'the rate of change in innovation capacity' over the last decade – in effect, how much countries were doing to make themselves more innovative for the future ... the U.S. ranked dead last out of ... 40 nations" (The New York Times, March 3, p.A31).

That is what is actually happening in the place where we actually live.

Terrorists didn't do this to us. We sank this low on our own.

Democrats believe our education disaster can be addressed from the top down – an approach that's shown poor results. Repub­lic­ans and tea partiers offer nothing but low taxes and denuded government. Many teachers and some schools fight these trends valiantly and fight alone.

Ignorance cannot find its own way. Ignorance thrashes in a darkness it cannot comprehend. Unless our plague of ignorance is recognized as our No. 1 national emergency – more damaging than terrorism or even insolvency – our future will be but the thrashings of ignorance, a nation helpless to know itself or its world, a giant and blind cripple smashing itself silly against the walls of the labyrinth that is the 21st century.

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