August 4, 2011

Ideas as Opiates

The gentleman seated to my right on the plane was thirty-ish, white, anxious looking, and gripped in both hands a fairly new copy of 'Atlas Shrugged'. A representative sample, right there next to me! So of course I had to ask. He said he was reading it to "understand some things" but that he had his own criticisms of both the content and the writing style.
He also had, it turns out, a lot of criticisms about society in general, and public education in particular. Probably not so fun for him, then, to realize he was sitting next to someone who is working on a doctorate in urban education. Tough for me too, I guess, though our long and rather far-ranging talk did help the time pass. And eventually, I know I'll paint it.
Watching the recent debt-ceiling dance made me recall that plane ride conversation, and made me reflect yet again on how people perceive and use power, political and otherwise. Or rather, how people perceive their own powerlessness, and how they react to that feeling. And how I myself react to that feeling.

Mark and I used to live in techno-land, on the other coast, where everyone has gadgets and things hum. We used to live in an epicenter of techno-hubris, too. And now we are on the other side, in Philly. Or "reality" as I call it. And reality here is complex and messy and slow. Here, I have a student job processing quality-of-life surveys of people with intellectual disabilities, people who survive only through the largesse of the county and the professionalism of their care staff. Yesterday I reviewed a survey completed (with the help of her staff) by a middle-aged woman who is both severely intellectually impaired and a quadriplegic. She lives in a small group home and she functions however marginally in the world only because her elderly parents engage with her staff to make sure she has growth occasionally going outside.

I have had so many conversations with conservative-types, mostly men, over the last 10 years -- people who are, by any objective measure, possessed of tremendous social capital and power. They tend to protest that their power is threatened at every turn, and they object outright to living in a social order that, through things like public education or healthcare, diminishes their domain. The Rand-fan on the plane certainly perceived things this way. Which makes me wonder about their egos, as well as my own.

Part of me did want to just punch the guy. But a greater part of me wanted to hear why he thought what he thought about his own situation in life, because I need to know how they think. Just as I need to know how the actually powerless (whether in group homes or at Roxborough High) are impacted by his kind of thinking. Comprehending how the relentlessly self-referencing see the world matters. Because, it seems, they are making all the policy decisions now.