Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Born To Ride

I was pointed to an interesting article on Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, in which the author posited that Mr. Thompson was the first to predict the rise of "Trumpism," the "retaliatory, right-wing politics" that is credited with making Mr. Trump the President-elect. Mr. Thompson, the article claims, was the first of many writers to take note of the "'ethic of total retaliation' against a technologically advanced and economically changing America in which [the motorcycle guys] felt they’d been counted out and left behind."

Articles like this, especially when they feed into (or clash against) people's understandings of the world around them, invite discussion, and so a lively (if occasionally bitter) discourse sprang up on social media. One commenter, viewing this as the inevitable result of what happens when a society built around competition condemns groups to be losers, noted:

I could help these people, but they slap my hand away. But would it be helping, or creating dependency?
When I read that, what occurred to me was: The dependency is already there.

Any number of people who are not completely self-sufficient are dependent in some way. And so, generally speaking, as you work your way down to the level of individuals, dependence grows. But this is a different model of dependency than we usually think of when we are talking about helping people. Typically what comes to mind is a short continuum, with "learned helplessness" on one side and "opportunistic free-riding" on the other. But there are broader ways of understanding dependency. One could say that most urban communities depend on rural farms, because they don't have, within their borders, the unused arable land that they would need to grow all of the crops that they eat in a year. You could say that the residents of a condominium development depend on the local fire department to come to the rescue in case of a home fire. What sets these apart from other understanding of dependency is their mutuality, and therefore, the lack of an assumption that one side is either unable to unwilling to care for itself. And so the dependency, rather than being a matter of simple survival, is more about reaching a certain standard of living. City dwellers and condo residents could manage, to some degree or another without nearby farms or a fire department, but the extra work and resources that they would have to put into filling the gaps would make them slightly less well-off than they are with them.

And I think that for all that we saw the "alienated, white, masculine working-class culture" of Hunter S. Thompson's time as self-sufficient, in fact, they depended on certain things, and perhaps their alienation is the result of losing some of the things that they depended on. Thompson is quoted in the article noting that: "Their lack of education rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy." Workers with a high-school education depend on a job market that values labor that doesn't require higher education. And as that job market started demanding higher and higher levels of education (as opposed, perhaps to skill) the bikers who depended on it for their livelihoods found themselves cast aside; not because they were helpless, but because they needed the job market they'd been accustomed to more than that job market now needed them. Their contributions were still necessary, just not in a great numbers as before, or great enough to sustain them.

When Hell's Angels was published in 1966, the American Civil Rights Movement was still ongoing. Martin Luther King, Junior was still alive and "An act to enforce the fifteenth amendment of the Constitution of the United States, and for other purposes," otherwise known as the Voting Rights Act, was perhaps a year or so old; or maybe less. And so one might theorize that the racial disparities of the United States of the time was another thing that Thompson's Hell's Angels depended on, if not as openly. And this isn't to say that they'd intentionally hitched their wagons to Jim Crow; only that people often incorporate the advantages they have into their daily standards of living in such a way that when those advantages fade, their standards of living fade with them. The newfound competition from Black Americans need not have been catastrophic, or even particularly ubiquitous, to have noticeable effects.

Retaliatory politics are, I think, to be expected from any group that both exists within a culture driven by scarcity, and finds its access to those scarce resources threatened in favor of supplying them to someone else. They understand, even if unconsciously, their dependence and realize that the loss of their benefactors is a threat to them. But as they don't also see themselves as beggars, they feel aggrieved - that something that was rightfully theirs was being taken from them. In the end, the only way around this is to remove the specter of scarcity. But we are wedded to that, I think, and we'd rather deal with the retaliation of the losers than take the risks that attempts to free people from poverty entail.

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