Hunter S. Thompson Chillingly Predicts the Future, Telling Studs Terkel About the Coming Revenge of the Economically & Technologically “Obsolete” (1967)

Image  via Wikimedia Commons

Half a century ago, Hunter S. Thompson got his big journalistic break with a book called Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. In it he provided a curious and fearful public with a look into the inner workings of one of the most outwardly menacing social movements of the day, based on knowledge gained not by merely observing the Hell's Angels but by getting on a hog and spending a year as a quasi-member himself. This gave him opportunity both to develop what would become his style of "gonzo journalism" in the long form and to catch an early glimpse of bigger trouble ahead in America.

"To see the Hell’s Angels as caretakers of the old 'individualist' tradition 'that made this country great' is only a painless way to get around seeing them for what they really are," Thompson writes in that book, calling them "the first wave of a future that nothing in our history has prepared us to cope with. The Angels are prototypes. Their lack of education has not only rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy, but it has also given them the leisure to cultivate a powerful resentment... and to translate it into a destructive cult which the mass media insists on portraying as a sort of isolated oddity" destined for extinction.

Studs Terkel, after reading that passage out loud in a 1967 interview with Thompson, calls it "the key" to the entire book. "Here we have technology, we have the computer, we have labor-saving devices," he says to Thompson, but we also "have the need for more and more college education for almost any kind of job, and we have this tremendous mass of young who find themselves obsolete." But Thompson replies that the real consequences have only started to manifest: "The people who are being left out and put behind won't be obvious for years. Christ only knows what'll happen in, say, 1985 — a million Hell's Angels. They won't be wearing the colors; they'll be people who are just looking for vengeance because they've been left behind."




The Angels, wrote Susan McWilliams in a much-circulated Nation piece late last year, "were clunky and outclassed and scorned, just like the Harley-Davidsons they chose to drive." And "just as there was no rational way to defend Harleys against foreign-made choppers, the Angels saw no rational grounds on which to defend their own skills or loyalties against the emerging new world order of the late 20th century." The result? An "ethic of total retaliation. The Angels, rather than gracefully accepting their place as losers in an increasingly technical, intellectual, global, inclusive, progressive American society, stuck up their fingers at the whole enterprise. If you can’t win, you can at least scare the bejeesus out of the guy wearing the medal."

Six years later, Terkel invited Thompson back into his studio for another interview that followed straight on from the first. Ostensibly there to talk about Thompson's book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (which followed his best-known work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), the two, having cracked open a beer, get into what the Studs Terkel Radio Archive blog describes as "the sense of surrealism in 'real' life," which becomes "a very serious conversation about the direction in which our country was heading. After Thompson recounted his experience of talking to Richard Nixon about football" — the only subject permitted — "Studs responds, 'Isn’t this what we’re faced with now? … That fantasy and fact become one.'"

What's a reporter to do in such an environment? Terkel seems to see in Thompson the perfect kind of "subjective" journalist, one "who can make literal what is psychic in our lives," for a time that has lost its own objectivity. "Has there ever been any such thing as objective journalism?" he asks. "It's probably the highest kind of journalism, if you can do it." Thompson replies. "Nobody I know has ever done it, and I don't have time to learn it." But the distinctive suite of journalistic skills he did possess primed him to perceive certain realities — and perceive them with a distinctive vividness — that have only become more real in the decades since. What, for instance, did he learn from covering the 1972 presidential campaign? "Power corrupts… but it’s also a fantastic high."

Related Content:

New Animation: Hunter S. Thompson Talks with Studs Terkel About the Hell’s Angels & The Outlaw Life

Hunter S. Thompson Gets Confronted by The Hell’s Angels: Where’s Our Two Kegs of Beer? (1967)

Hunter S. Thompson’s Conspiratorial 9/11 Interview: “The Public Version of the News is Never Really What Happened”

Hunter S. Thompson Gets in a Gunfight with His Neighbor & Dispenses Political Wisdom: “In a Democracy, You Have to Be a Player”

Read 18 Lost Stories From Hunter S. Thompson’s Forgotten Stint As a Foreign Correspondent

Read 11 Free Articles by Hunter S. Thompson That Span His Gonzo Journalist Career (1965-2005)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

John Wayne Recites and Explains the Pledge of Allegiance (1972)

Back in 1972, John Wayne recorded a spoken word album called America, Why I Love Her, described as "a series of heartfelt, patriotic speeches over a bed of stirring music." You can stream the entire album below (or over on Spotify). Above, we're featuring the 8th track on the release, Wayne's recitation and exegesis of the Pledge of Allegiance. Some will find it corny, others rousing. Personally, I'm not a fan of syrupy nationalism. But I'll give Wayne's interpretation this--his take recognizes America as a place of inclusiveness and openness, giving everyone equal access to its opportunities and institutions. Compare it with the nationalist rhetoric you hear today, and, you might find yourself longing for John Wayne's sunnier America.

"I pledge allegiance to the flag"

What do those words mean to you? To me they say, "Thank
you, America, for your strength, your courage and your
freedom...which has been a beacon to the world for two
hundred years."

"Of the United States of America"

Whose bright stars are fifty states...each bearing its
own stamp of individuality. People...two hundred
million strong...people who have come to her from all
corners of the earth.

"And to the republic for which it stands"

A land of laws...with an ingenious system of checks and
balances that allows no man to become a tyrant...and
lets no group prevail...if their power is not tempered
with a real concern for the governed...A land where the
right of dissent and of free speech is jealously
guarded...where the ballot box is the sword...and the
people its wielder.

"One nation under God"

A land where freedom of worship is a cornerstone of her
being...A land graced with temples and churches,
synagogues and altars that rise in profusion to embrace
all the religions of the world.

"Indivisible"

A land forged by the hot steel of raw courage...and
formed forever...by the awful crucible of civil war.

"With liberty"

Where man in pursuit of an honest life will not be
denied his chance...where her citizens move freely
within her vast borders without hindrance or fear...A
land brimming with opportunity...where freedom of
choice is the guide for all.

"And justice"

The courts of our land are open to all. Its wheels of
justice grind for all causes...all people. They look to
every avenue for justice...every concern of the
law...and they temper their reasoning with mercy...

"For all!"

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George Orwell Reviews We, the Russian Dystopian Novel That Noam Chomsky Considers “More Perceptive” Than Brave New World & 1984

We know George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, at least by reputation, and we’ve heard both references tossed around with alarming frequency this past year. Before these watershed dystopian novels, published over a decade apart (1949 and 1932, respectively), came an earlier book, one truly “most relevant to our time,” writes Michael Brendan Dougherty: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, written in 1923 and set “1,000 years after a revolution that brought the One State into power.” The novel had a significant influence on Orwell’s more famous political dystopia. And we have a good sense of Orwell’s indebtedness to the Russian writer.

Three years before the publication of 1984, Orwell published a review of Zamyatin’s book, having “at last got my hands on a copy… several years after hearing of its existence.” Orwell describes the novel as “one of the literary curiosities of this book-burning age" and spends a good part of his brief commentary comparing We to Huxley’s novel. “[T]he resemblance with Brave New World is striking,” he writes. “But though Zamyatin’s book is less well put together—it has a rather weak and episodic plot which is too complex to summarise—it has a political point which the other lacks.” The earlier Russian novel, writes Orwell, in 1946, “is on the whole more relevant to our own situation.”




Part of what Orwell found convincing in Zamyatin’s “less well put together” book was the fact that underneath the technocratic totalitarian state he depicts, “many of the ancient human instincts are still there” rather than having been eradicated by eugenics and medication. (Although citizens in We are lobotomized, more or less, if they rebel.) “It may well be,” Orwell goes on to say, “that Zamyatin did not intend the Soviet regime to be the special target of his satire.” He did write the book many years before the Stalinist dictatorship that inspired Orwell’s dystopias. “What Zamyatin seems to be aiming at is not any particular country but the implied aims of industrial civilization.”

In the interview at the top of the post (with clumsy subtitles), Noam Chomsky makes some similar observations, and declares We the superior book to both Brave New World and 1984 (which he pronounces “obvious and wooden”). Zamyatin was “more perceptive” than Orwell or Huxley, says Chomsky. He “was talking about the real world…. I think he sensed what a totalitarian system is like,” projecting an overwhelmingly controlling surveillance state in We before such a thing existed in the form it would in Orwell's time. The novel will remind us of the many dystopian scenarios that have populated fiction and film in the almost 100 years since its publication. As Dougherty concisely summarizes it, in We:

Citizens are known only by their number, and the story's protagonist is D-503, an engineer working on a spaceship that aims to bring the glorious principles of the Revolution to space. This world is ruled by the Benefactor, and presided over by the Guardians. They spy on citizens, who all live in apartments made of glass so that they can be perfectly observed. Trust in the system is absolute.

Equality is enforced, to the point of disfiguring the physically beautiful. Beauty — as well as its companion, art — are a kind of heresy in the One State, because "to be original means to distinguish yourself from others. It follows that to be original is to violate the principle of equality."

Zamyatin surely drew from earlier dystopias, as well as the classical utopia of Plato’s Republic. But an even more immediate influence, curiously, was his time spent in England just before the Revolution. Like his main character, Zamyatin began his career as an engineer—a shipbuilder, in fact, the craft he studied at St. Petersburg Polytechnical University. He was sent to Newcastle in 1916, writes Yolanda Delgado, “to supervise the construction of icebreakers for the Russian government. However, by the time the ships actually reached Russia, they belonged to the new authorities—the Bolsheviks…. [I]n an ironic twist, Zamyatin, one of the most outspoken early critics of the Soviet regime, actually designed the first Soviet icebreakers.”

While Zamyatin wrote We in response to the Soviet takeover, his style and sci-fi setting was greatly inspired by his immersion in English culture. His two years abroad “greatly influenced him,” from his dress to his speech, earning him the nickname “the Englishman.” He became so fluent in English that he found work as an “editor and translator of foreign authors such as H.G. Wells, Jack London, and Sheridan.” (During his sojourn in England, writes Orwell, Zamyatin “had written some blistering satires on English life.”) Upon returning to Russia, Zamyatin quickly became one of the “very first dissidents.” We was banned by the Soviet censors in 1921, and that year the author published an essay called “I Fear,” in which he described the struggles of Russian artists under the new regime, writing, “the conditions under which we live are tearing us to pieces.”

Eventually smuggling the manuscript of We to New York, Zamyatin was able to get the novel published in 1923, incurring the wrath of the Soviet authorities. He was “ostracized… demonized in the press, blacklisted from publishing and kicked out of the Union of Soviet Writers.” Zamyatin was unapologetic, writing Stalin to ask that he be allowed to leave the country. Stalin not only granted the request, allowing Zamyatin to settle in Paris, but allowed him back into the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934, an unusual turn of events indeed. Just above, you can see a German film adaptation of We (turn on closed captions to watch it with English subtitles). And you can read Orwell’s full review of We here.

Related Content:

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Albert Einstein Writes the 1949 Essay “Why Socialism?” and Attempts to Find a Solution to the “Grave Evils of Capitalism”

Image by Ferdinand Schmutzer, via Wikimedia Commons

Albert Einstein was a complicated human being, with a wide range of interests. His personality seemed balanced between a certain chilliness when it came to personal matters, and a great deal of warmth and compassion when it came to the wider human family. The physicist struck up friendships with famed American activists Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and he championed the cause of Civil Rights in the U.S. He professed a deep admiration for Gandhi, and praised him several times in letters and speeches. And in 1955, just days before his death, Einstein collaborated with another outspoken public intellectual, Bertrand Russell, on a peace manifesto, which was signed by six other scientists.

Einstein saw a public role for scientists in matters social, political, and even economic. In 1949, he published an article in the Monthly Review titled “Why Socialism?” Anticipating his critics, he begins by asking “is it advisable for one who is not an expert on economic and social issues to express views on the subject of socialism?” To which he replies, “I believe for a number of reasons that it is.”




Einstein goes on, sounding something like a combination of Karl Marx and E.O. Wilson, to elaborate the theoretical basis for socialism as he sees it, first describing what Marx called “primitive accumulation” and what the socialist economist Thorstein Veblen called “’the predatory phase’ of human development.”

…most of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.

The science of economics, as it stands, writes Einstein, still belongs “to that phase.” Such “laws as we can derive” from “the observable economic facts… are not applicable to other phases.” These facts simply describe the predatory state of affairs, and Einstein implies that not even economists have sufficient methods to definitively answer the question “why socialism?”—“economic science in its present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future.” We should not assume, then, he goes on, “that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.” Einstein himself doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. He ends his essay, in fact, with a few questions addressing “some extremely difficult socio-political problems,” of the kind that attend every debate about socialism:

…how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?

Nevertheless, Einstein is “convinced” that the only way to eliminate the “grave evils” of capitalism is “through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals.” For Einstein, the “worst evil” of predatory capitalism is the “crippling of individuals” through an educational system that emphasizes an “exaggerated competitive attitude” and trains students “to worship acquisitive success.” But the problems extend far beyond the individual and into the very nature of the political order.

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands… The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

The political economy Einstein describes is one often lambasted by right libertarians as an impure variety of crony capitalism, one not worthy of the name, but the physicist is skeptical of the claim, writing “there is no such thing as a pure capitalist society.” Private owners always secure their privileges through the manipulation of the political and educational systems and the mass media.

The predatory situation Einstein observes is one of extreme alienation among all classes; “All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naïve, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.” Einstein believed that devotion should take the form of a socialist economy that promotes both the physical wellbeing and the political rights of everyone. But he did not presume to know exactly what such an economic future would look like, nor how it might come into being. Read his full essay, "Why Socialism?" here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The CIA Assesses the Power of French Post-Modern Philosophers: Read a Newly Declassified CIA Report from 1985

We might assume that philosophy is an ivory tower discipline that has little effect on the unlovely operations of government, driven as they are by the concerns of middle class wallets, upper class stock portfolios, and the ever-present problem of poverty. But we would be wrong. In times when presidents, cabinet members, or senators have been thoughtful and well-read, the ideas of thinkers like Francis Fukuyama, Leo Strauss, Jurgen Habermas, and John Rawls—a favorite of the previous president—have exercised considerable sway. Few philosophers have been as historically influential as the German thinker Carl Schmitt, though in a thoroughly destructive way. Then there’s John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, Aristotle… even Socrates, who made himself a thorn in the side of the powerful.

But when it comes to the mostly French school of thinkers we associate with postmodernism—Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, the Jacques Lacan and Derrida, and many others—such influence is far less direct. The work of these writers has been often dismissed as frivolous and inconsequential, speaking a language no one understands to out of touch coastal elites on the left edge of the spectrum. Perhaps this is so in the United States, where power is often theorized but rarely radically critiqued in mainstream publications. But it has not been so in France. At least not according to the CIA, who closely monitored the effects of French philosophy on the country's domestic and foreign policy during their long-running culture war against Communism and “anti-Americanism,” and who, in 1985, compiled a research paper to document their investigations. (See a sample page above.)




Recently made available to the public in a "sanitized copy" through a Freedom of Information Act request, the document, titled “France: Defection of the Leftist Intellectuals,” shows itself surprisingly approving of the political direction post-structuralist thinkers had taken. Villanova University professor of philosophy and author of Radical History and the Politics of Art Gabriel Rockhill summarizes the tenor of the agency’s assessment in the L.A. Review of Books’ Philosophical Salon:

…the undercover cultural warriors applaud what they see as a double movement that has contributed to the intelligentsia shifting its critical focus away from the US and toward the USSR. On the left, there was a gradual intellectual disaffection with Stalinism and Marxism, a progressive withdrawal of radical intellectuals from public debate, and a theoretical move away from socialism and the socialist party. Further to the right, the ideological opportunists referred to as the New Philosophers and the New Right intellectuals launched a high-profile media smear campaign against Marxism.

The “spirit of anti-Marxism and anti-Sovietism,” write the agents in their report, “will make it difficult for anyone to mobilize significant intellectual opposition to US policies.” The influence of “New Left intellectuals” over French culture and government was such, they surmised, that “President [Francois] Mitterrand’s notable coolness toward Moscow derives, at least in part, from this pervasive attitude.”

These observations stand in contrast to the previous generation of “left-leaning intellectuals of the immediate postwar period,” writes Rockhill, who “had been openly critical of US imperialism” and actively worked against the machinations of American operatives. Jean-Paul Sartre even played a role in “blowing the cover of the CIA station officer in Paris and dozens of undercover operatives,” and as a result was “closely monitored by the Agency and considered a very serious problem.” By the mid-eighties, the Agency stated, triumphantly, “there are no more Sartres, no more Gides.” The “last clique of Communist savants,” they write, “came under fire from their former proteges, but none had any stomach for fighting a rearguard defense of Marxism.” As such, the late Cold War period saw a “broader retreat from ideology among intellectuals of all political colors.”

A certain weariness had taken hold, brought about by the indefensible totalitarian abuses of the “cult of Stalinism” and the seeming inescapability of the Washington Consensus and the multinational corporatism engendered by it. By the time of Communism’s collapse, U.S. philosophers waxed apocalyptic, even as they celebrated the triumph of what Francis Fukuyama called “liberal democracy” over socialism. Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man made its startling thesis plain in the title. There would be no more revolutions. Harvard thinker Samuel Huntington declared it the era of “endism,” amidst a rash of hyperbolic arguments about “the end of art," the “end of nature," and so on. And, in France, in the years just prior to the fall of the Berlin wall, the previously vigorous philosophical left, the CIA believed, had “succumbed to a kind of listlessness.”

While the agency credited the diffidence of post-structuralist philosophers with swaying popular opinion away from socialism and “hardening public attitudes toward Marxism and the Soviet Union,” it also wrote that “their influence appears to be waning, and they are unlikely to have much direct impact on political affairs any time soon.” Is this true? If we take seriously critics of so-called “Identity Politics,” the answer is a resounding No. As those who closely identify postmodern philosophy with several recent waves of leftist thought and activism might argue, the CIA was shortsighted in its conclusions. Perhaps, bound to a Manichean view fostered by decades of Cold War maneuvering, they could not conceive of a politics that opposed both American and Soviet empire at once.

And yet, the retreat from ideology was hardly a retreat from politics. We might say, over thirty years since this curious research essay circulated among intelligence gatherers, that concepts like Foucault’s biopower or Derrida’s skeptical interrogations of identity have more currency and relevance than ever, even if we don’t always understand, or read, their work. But while the agency may not have foreseen the pervasive impact of postmodern thought, they never dismissed it as obscurantist or inconsequential sophistry. Their newly-released report, writes Rockhill, “should be a cogent reminder that if some presume that intellectuals are powerless, and that our political orientations do not matter, the organization that has been one of the most potent power brokers in contemporary world politics does not agree.”

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Introduction to Political Philosophy: A Free Yale Course

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Finland Created One of the Best Educational Systems in the World (by Doing the Opposite of U.S.)

Every conversation about education in the U.S. takes place in a minefield. Unless you’re a billionaire who bought the job of Secretary of Education, you’d better be prepared to answer questions about racial and economic equity, disability issues, protections for LGBTQ students, teacher pay and unions, religious charter schools, and many other pressing concerns. These issues are not mutually exclusive, nor are they distinct from questions of curriculum, testing, or achievement. The terrain is littered with possible explosive conflicts between educators, parents, administrators, legislators, activists, and profiteers.

The needs of the most deeply invested stakeholders, as they say, the students themselves, seem to get far too little consideration. What if we in the U.S., all of us, actually wanted to improve the educational experiences and academic outcomes for our children---all of them? Where might we look for a model? Many people have looked to Finland, at least since 2010, when the documentary Waiting for Superman contrasted struggling U.S. public schools with highly successful Finnish equivalents.




The film, a positive spin on the charter school movement, received significant backlash for its cherry-picked examples and blaming of teachers’ unions for America’s failing schools. By contrast, Finland’s schools have been described by William Doyle, an American Fulbright Scholar who studies them, as “the ‘ultimate charter school network'" (a phrase, we'll see, that means little in the Finnish context.) There, Doyle writes at The Hechinger Report, “teachers are not strait-jacketed by bureaucrats, scripts or excessive regulations, but have the freedom to innovate and experiment as teams of trusted professionals.”

Last year, Michael Moore featured many of Finland’s innovative educational experiments in his humorous, hopeful travelogue Where to Invade Next. In the clip above, you can hear from the country’s Minister of Education, Krista Kiuru, who explains to him why Finnish children do not have homework; hear also from a group of high school students, high school principal Pasi Majassari, first grade teacher Anna Hart and many others. Shorter school hours—the “shortest school days and shortest school years in the entire Western world”---leave plenty of time for leisure and recreation. Kids bake, hike, build things, make art, conduct experiments, sing, and generally enjoy themselves.

“There are no mandated standardized tests,” writes LynNell Hancock at Smithsonian, “apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school... there are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions.” Yet Finnish students have, in the past several years, consistently ranked in the top ten among millions of students worldwide in science, reading, and math. “If there was one thing I kept hearing over and over again from the Finns,” says Moore above, “it’s that America should get rid of standardized tests,” should stop teaching to those tests, stop designing entire curricula around multiple-choice tests. Hancock describes the results of the Finnish system, and its costs:

Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.

Moore's camera registers the shock on Finnish educators’ faces when they hear that many U.S. schools eliminated music, art, poetry and other pursuits in order to focus almost exclusively on testing. Though lighthearted in tone, the segment really drives home the depressing degree to which so many U.S. students receive an impoverished education—one barely worthy of the name—unless they luck into a voucher for a high-end charter school or have the independent means for an expensive private one. In Finland, says the Minister of Education, “all the schools are equal. You never ask where the best school is.”

It’s also illegal in Finland to profit from schooling. Wealthy parents have to ensure that neighborhood schools can give their kids the best education possible, because they are the only option. Many people in the U.S. object to comparisons like Moore’s by noting that societies like Finland are “homogenous” next to what may seem to them like maddening cultural diversity in the U.S. However, Finland has incorporated (not without difficulty) large immigrant and refugee populations---even as its schools continue to improve. The government has responded in part to rising immigration with educational solutions such as this one, a "national initiative to reinforce Finnish higher education institutions (HEIs) as significant stakeholders in migrants' integration."

The subtantive differences between the two countries’ educational systems may have less to do with demography and more to do with economics and the training and social status of teachers.

In Finland, writes Doyle, no teacher “is allowed to lead a primary school class without a master’s degree in education, with specialization in research and classroom practice.” Teaching “is the most admired job in Finland next to medical doctors.” And as Dana Goldstein points out at The Nation—a fact Waiting for Superman failed to mention---Finnish teachers are “gasp!—unionized and granted tenure.” Perhaps an even more significant difference the documentary glossed over: in Finland, “families benefit from a cradle-to-grave social welfare system that includes universal daycare, preschool and healthcare, all of which are proven to help children achieve better results at school.”

Hundreds of studies in recent years substantiate this claim. It would seem intuitive that stresses associated with hunger and poverty would have a pernicious effect on learning, especially when poorer schools are so egregiously under-resourced. And the data says as much, to varying degrees. And yet, we are now in the U.S. slashing breakfast and lunch programs that feed hungry children and deciding whether to uninsure millions of families as millions more still lack basic health coverage. Most every American parent knows that quality daycares and preschools can cost as much per year as a decent university education in this country.

It seems to many of us that the atrocious state of the U.S. educational system can only be attributed to an act of will on the part our political elite, who see schools as competition for fundamentalist belief systems, opportunities to punish their opponents out of spite, or as rich fields for private profit. But it needn’t be so. It took 40 years for the Finns to create their current system. In the 1960s, their schools ranked on the very low end---along with those in the U.S. By most accounts, they've since shown there can be systems that, while surely imperfect in their own way, work for all kids, embedded within larger systems that prize their teachers and families.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Kurt Vonnegut Ponders Why “Poor Americans Are Taught to Hate Themselves” in a Timely Passage from Slaughterhouse-Five

Image by Daniele Prati, via Flickr Commons

Amidst what is now an ordinary day’s chaos and turmoil in the news, you may have noticed some outrage circulating over comments made by erstwhile brain surgeon, former presidential candidate, and current Secretary of HUD Ben Carson. Poverty, he said, is a “state of mind.” The idea fits squarely in the wheelhouse of Carson’s brand of magical thinking, as well as into what has always been a self-help tradition in the U.S. since Poor Richard's Almanac.

Consider, for example, the immense popularity of a book written during the Great Depression, Napoleon Hill’s 1937 Think and Grow Rich, which has increased every year since its publication. By 2015, the book had sold around 100 million copies worldwide. Hill’s prolific self-help cottage industry occupies a prominent place in a distinctly American genre, and an economy unto itself. Books, videos, seminars, and megachurches promise the faithful that they need only to change themselves to change their economic outcomes, in order not only thrive but to “grow rich.”

The notion has had purchase among wealthy opponents of a welfare state, who find it a convenient way to blame the poor for circumstances outside their control. But it also, as robust sales indicate, has wide appeal among the not-so-wealthy. Why? One reason---the presciently, acerbically insightful observer of American culture, Kurt Vonnegut might argue---has to do with the fact that Americans think of poverty as a personal failing rather than a social condition, and conversely conflate wealth with intelligence and capability.




Vonnegut articulates these observations in his 1969 classic Slaughterhouse-Five, through a character named Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American playwright who becomes a Nazi propagandist (and who stands trial in Israel in an earlier novel, Mother Night). Ostensibly quoting from a monograph of Campbell's, Vonnegut writes, “America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves.” Campbell's monograph continues:

To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘if you’re so smart why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

The Kin Hubbard quoted here may now be largely forgotten, but in the first three decades of the 20th century, he was a humorist as widely admired as Mark Twain or Will Rogers. Hubbard drew a popular comic strip based on a character called Abe Martin, and his humor was once described as a "comical mixture of hoss sense and no sense at all."  The quote above comes from one of Martin's many pithy political ruminations, which include lines like "It's all right t' aspire to office, but when a feller begins t' perspire fer one it's time t' watch out."

The Hubbard-quoting Campbell, writes Vonnegut with wry humor, was “said by some to have had the highest I.Q., of all the war criminals who were made to face a death by hanging." He also pitches his appeals to the common man, and ties together the “think and grow rich” phenomenon and the tendency of so many of the country’s less-well-off to support candidates and policies that routinely endanger access to public services, quality education, and healthcare.

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.

Campbell appears elsewhere in the novel in an attempt to recruit American POWs into "a German military unit called ‘The Free American Corps,” of which he is “the inventor and commander.” Near the top of the post, see the character in the 1972 Slaughterhouse-Five film defend his alliance with the Nazis and explain his bizarre uniform in terms one commentator sees as distinctly resonant with today’s far-right rhetoric. For all his outlandish presentation, he is a complicated figure---something of an amalgam of the far right’s showmen and hucksters and its cynical intellectuals, who often understand very well how the stark divisions of race and class are maintained in the U.S., and exploit that knowledge for political gain.

Related Content:

Kurt Vonnegut Gives a Sermon on the Foolishness of Nuclear Arms: It’s Timely Again (Cathedral of St. John the Divine, 1982)

Hear Kurt Vonnegut Read Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle & Other Novels

Hear Kurt Vonnegut Visit the Afterlife & Interview Dead Historical Figures: Isaac Newton, Adolf Hitler, Eugene Debs & More (Audio, 1998)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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