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General News    H4'ed 5/20/18

Somebodies v. Nobodies: Guess Who's Winning?

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Thomas Farrell
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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) May 20, 2018: The reclusive American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote a short poem titled by editors as "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" (the first line of the eight-line poem). A few lines later, we read, "How dreary -- to be -- Somebody" (line 5). In the Somebody v. Nobody terminology that Emily Dickinson works with in her poem, I am basically a Nobody too -- at least in the eyes of the Somebodies in American culture today. But who in American culture today are the Somebodies? And, besides me, who are the Nobodies?

Two recent lengthy magazine articles alert us about trends over the last half century or so that have adversely impacted the economic status and well-being of both non-college whites and non-college people of color.

Now, Matthew Stewart is a Somebody who has published an article in The Atlantic addressed to his fellow Somebodies. At The Atlantic's website, his article is titled "The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy":


His article appears in the June 2018 print edition of the magazine with the title "The Birth of a New American Aristocracy."

Briefly, the New American Aristocracy was born with the rise of the so-called meritocracy. Stewart says, "I belonged to a new generation [in the 1060s and 1970s] that believed in getting ahead through merit" -- by "collecting scholarships to get through college and graduate school." But the winners in the so-called meritocracy have since emerged as the new American aristocracy -- the new aristocracy of the 9.9 percent. In Emily Dickinson's terminology, the winners in in the so-called meritocracy thought of themselves as Somebodies -- not as Nobodies.

The key consideration in his lengthy argument that we should note is that he is not trying to discount the importance of the so-called top 1 percent or the top 0.1 percent in accounting for our current economic inequality. If you want to inveigh in terms of Good-Guys v. Bad-Guys, then you can vilify the top 1 percent or the top 0.1 percent. But Stewart is not exactly vilifying the top 9.9 percent.

Instead of vilifying the top 9.9, Stewart delineates the scope of the advantages of the top 9.9 percent v. the bottom 90 percent so that he can address his fellow members of the top 9.9 percent and try to move them to undertake action to correct our current economic inequality. He frankly states the premise of his lengthy argument: "The best revolutions do not start at the bottom; they are the work of the upper-middle class."

For example, at the time of the American Revolution, slaves were at the bottom of the economic order of the day; consequently, they were in no position to lead the American Revolution. In Emily Dickinson's terminology, the slaves were Nobodies. But their slave-holding masters such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were in a position to lead the American Revolution, because they were Somebodies

At the time of our American Civil War (1861-1865), slaves were in no position to lead the Civil War, because they were Nobodies. Stewarts says, "The slaveholding elite were vastly more educated, healthier, and had much better table manners than the overwhelming majority of their fellow white people, never mind the people they enslaved. They dominated not only the government of the nation, but also its media, culture, and religion" -- because they were Somebodies. Consequently, the task of fomenting the Civil War fell to white abolitionists, including Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) who had standing as Somebodies.

The non-college whites who voted for Trump in 2016 are Nobodies. Consequently, like non-college people of color, who are also Nobodies, non-college whites today are not in a good position to spearhead the renewal of American democracy against the economic inequality of the last half century.

Now, independently of Stewart, Steven Brill published a lengthy analysis in Time titled "How Baby Boomers Broke America":


Brill's lengthy article in Time is adapted from his forthcoming new book Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America's Fifty-Year Fall and Those Fighting to Reverse It (Penguin Random house, 2018), which is due out at the end of May.

Like Stewart, Brill refers to the so-called meritocratic system, which enables the winners to think of themselves as Somebodies (in Emily Dickinson's terminology). Like Stewart, Brill also writes about "a new meritocracy-aristocracy that is more entrenched than the old-boy network." Like Stewart, Brill singles out finance as an area of special concern because of the economic crisis that disrupted our 2008 presidential campaign. As Brill shows, the meritocratic winners have split "the country into two classes: the protected and the unprotected."

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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