10 October 2020
Thanks for this. I have watched the first episode all the way through. Even though I can’t understand the Norwegian, in which Seltzer narrates the story, there’s enough English so that I know what he’s Seltzer is asking for in his questions. I understand the answers, which I have heard from so many people myself.
Before I left the San Jose Mercury News in 2000, I was sent to Duluth, Minnesota, which is separated from Superior, Wisconsin, by a river which is the state line. Except for the border the river represents, they are one city. I was there for a week helping train reporters at the Duluth News Tribune, a part of Knight-Ridder Newspapers, which owned the Mercury News as well as the Charlotte Observer, where I worked before moving to San Jose. Duluth and Superior are in a region where iron ore is mined – like the area around Kiruna, Sweden – and are ports on the western tip of Lake Superior.
The iron ore loaded onto ships in Duluth and Superior was shipped through the Great Lakes to cities like Cleveland where there were large steel mills. Those mills burned coal mined in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky and the steel they produced was used in the automobile factories around Detroit to make cars.
The Detroit Free Press was also a Knight-Ridder paper, and I had friends who worked there. I visited them when I was sent to Detroit to cover National Hockey League games between the San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings. I went to Detroit to cover the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1994, which determined the American skating team that would compete a month later in Hamar, where I lived during the Lillehammer Winter Olympics.
Big changes in society disrupt people’s lives
Detroit was a failing city even back then. The person Seltzer interviews in Detroit talks about how that city became the first city of a million or more people in the United States to shrink. In 1950, the year before I was born, Detroit had a population of 1.8 million, 84 percent of whom were white. The census estimate in 2019 for Detroit was 670,000, ranking it 24th largest in the nation. As of the most recent census in 2010, 83 percent of Detroit residents were black.
Charlotte had 886,000 population last year. In 2000, shortly before you came to Hamlet, there were only 540,000.
The city that replaced Detroit as the 10th-largest in the U.S. is San Jose. In 1950, San Jose had 95,000 people, 95 percent of whom were white. Last year the estimate was 1 million. Our population mix in 2010 was 43 percent white, 33 percent Hispanic, 32 percent Asian and 20 percent other or mixed ethnicities. These numbers do not add to 100 percent because Hispanics may be of any race. What defines Hispanics as a group is the language, not the origin, of their ancestors. They may be from Spain, Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America.
Knight-Ridder was bought by a smaller newspaper chain, McClatchy Newspapers, a few years after I left. The Mercury News, which had a newsroom of about 1,200 reporters and editors when I started there in 1985, has fewer than 400 today. McClatchy declared bankruptcy earlier this year. Although I don’t expect it to happen, I get a pension payment of about $1,200 a month that could disappear as a result.
These are large changes in size and in demographics. In a relative sense – all occurred within my lifetime – they represent very rapid societal change. As individual humans, the amount of change that we comfortably tolerate varies quite a bit from person to person. But regardless of the level of tolerance, change that exceeds a person’s tolerance can be discomfiting at the least to fearful in the extreme.
I believe much of Trump’s base of support consists of people whose tolerance for change is low. But I believe this is only a partial explanation for why they feel the way they do, and that racism, in the form of white supremacy, is the major contributing factor.
The American dream
Neither of my parents had a college degree. My father’s employer over the entire period our lives overlapped was the U.S. Postal Service. He climbed the ladder all the way from mail carrier to clerk to a temporary stint as interim postmaster at the Hamlet post office. My mother was a bookkeeper who worked for several employers – a local furniture store, a car dealership, a bank and a plant just outside town that made paper bags.
I and both my siblings, however, got college degrees. We grew up in a house my parents bought from the builder as you and Eirik did yours. When my parents died, we three inherited the house, sold it and divided the proceeds. The three of us live in houses that we own and have raised families in them. We live the comfortable, middle-class lives – “the American dream” – that many of the people in the Seltzer’s documentary aspire to but have never achieved.
Why haven’t they achieved it?
I believe it’s a combination of racism and a failure of Americans – both those who achieved the dream and those who didn’t – to understand the reality of how that dream is achieved.
The myth of how that dream is achieved is through individualism, particularly “rugged individualism,” hard work, perseverance – what is frequently condensed into one American phrase: “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” The “self-made man” is the American ideal. Luck, help from others, government assistance, favoritism, privilege, racism are not part of this myth.
There are, I’m sure, people who have achieve the dream through these mythical means. I’m also convinced these people are very rare. They are at the good end of the bell curve.
My parents – and consequently their children and their grandchildren – have benefitted from the way the dream really works. For us it began by being born white in a white supremacist society where white supremacy was enforced by law, not just custom. It helped to be Protestant Christians, to be lifetime residents of the small town they married and raised a family in, to be near the top of the social order in that town. My grandfathers both worked for a railroad in well-paying jobs with union negotiated benefits. My father was one of hundreds of thousands of Americans who went off to war in the 1940s and survived to come home.
He could have used his money to get a college degree, but he lasted less than a year in college and instead took a government job with the post office, which gave a hiring preference to returning war veterans. It was a union job with a pension. He used part of his veterans’ benefits as the down payment for the house I grew up in.
But black war veterans weren’t eligible for the GI Bill. Federal law specifically excluded them. They had gone to war as poor people and helped defeat fascist enemies whose societies were based on racism. They returned home still poor and were denied the post-war financial head start that white members of the “baby boom” generation enjoyed. Banks could, and did, refuse to lend them money to buy homes or start businesses because of their race. Or they penalized black borrowers with higher interest rates. Legally. All across the United States, including the neighborhood in San Jose where Emily and I bought our house, there were legal restrictions that blocked people who weren’t white or belonged to the wrong religion from buying houses or living there. Those laws are no longer enforceable, but they set black people back while they were and nothing has ever been done to repay those who were harmed.
When the Harvard writer Seltzer interviews is describing how some Americans have prospered and others have not, this is what he’s talking about and one of the reasons it happened.
Myth and self-deception
My parents and my siblings and I have worked hard. We’ve all had our struggles, yet we have achieved some success and live happy lives. But not all of us appreciate that we started with advantages available only to certain people and that we had plenty of government help.
But most middle-class white Americans believe that because we have had struggles – who doesn’t? – that we succeeded by ourselves. We discount how much help we’ve received from government, either through discriminatory laws or in outright hand-outs, by saying we deserve the help or that we’ve earned it. We are ignorant of the many ways that the privileges we enjoy have blocked the success of minorities in our society. We believe they are in their disadvantaged situations because they simply haven’t worked as hard as we have. They, too, deserve their fate.
These mistaken beliefs are reinforced by powerful forces in American culture: myth-building by movies, commercials, news media and politicians. Big business has taken advantage of this. We among the privileged love to hear that we are responsible for our success, that we have played the game fairly and have been justly rewarded for doing so. It is intoxicating.
Your country used some of our founding documents in creating the nation you live in today. But modern Norway has developed differently from us – in part – because the society in your country was different from ours in important ways, among them less racial and cultural diversity. The external influences of other countries from which you could draw inspiration and learn from mistakes were days, not months, of travel away.
Today’s world is much more connected than the world of 1905 when Norway became truly independent. Immigrants come to Scandinavia and Norway in much greater numbers than a century ago. I watch your TV shows and have seen in person black people and Muslims speaking Norwegian and living in your cities. It can be jarring to someone like me, who sees you and Eli as fitting the Norwegian mold.
With rare exceptions like Anders Brevik, Norwegians have not reacted to these changes the way we have in the United States. I believe the much greater equality that you have built into your society is a big reason why. The different relationship Norwegians have with their government is a big reason why. And, I believe, a fact that you first emphasized to me – that Norway is a small country – also contributes to why. Being one of 350 million makes it easier to feel powerless than being one of 5 million. Norwegians probably are more likely to feel their government actually listens to and represents them.
Still, I wonder if what is happening in my country will be a negative influence on what happens in yours. I wonder if the pace of immigration to Norway could eventually upset native Norwegians. Will the eventual exhaustion of oil revenue, either because of dwindling reserves or the world shifting toward more environmentally sound energy resources, make Norwegians feel uncertain about their economic security? Will the people in charge of dealing with this last issue be as wise as those who dealt with the discovery of oil in “Lykkeland?”
These are the kinds of changes that could upset the equilibrium in your society. Every society, I believe, is vulnerable.
Ultimately, I think, the outcome depends on what Norwegians come to see themselves and their country to be. All countries continually redefine themselves as they deal with change, and change often means immigration.
The United States of poet Emma Lazarus – who words "Give me your tired, your poor,your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …” are engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty – is a country that welcomed immigrants. We perceived these newcomers as a benefit to us, helping refine and achieve the ideals – not ethnicity – that she would say define what America is. We perceived our country as beneficial to immigrants because under the freedom we offered, they had a better chance of becoming their best selves.
Thus, the United States was a nation constantly in evolution, with more yet to learn and more to teach. It was a work in progress.
Obviously, that’s being challenged today. For Trumpists, the United States is the promised land, the pinnacle of civilization to which others can only aspire to be a part. To become an American as an immigrant under Trump is to abandon what you were and join the perfection that we are. The immigrant’s contribution to our society is to submit to it, not to contribute to its development.
The arrogance of that view, to me, is utterly stupid.
Political articles I found interesting
The Guardian, 8 October
Republicans have quietly been pushing the idea that a democracy and a republic, which is how Benjamin Franklin described the U.S. government, are mutually exclusive concepts. I disagree.
Washington Post, 8 October
I see this as opposition to gun control and Republican libertarianism being combined as two ingredients in a recipe for anarchy.
18 September 2020
Earlier this week I think I emailed you that I had been invited to sit in on an off-the-record discussion on Zoom with two political scientists, Terry Moe (I think there may be some Norwegian heritage there) of Stanford University and William Howell of the University of Chicago. They are authors of the just-published book Presidents, Populism and the Crisis of Democracy.
I was honored that the host organization, Joint Venture Silicon Valley, selected me as the only journalist invited even though I can't quote anything from the hour-long meeting for publication.
However, I recorded the presentation and the Q&A that followed because I wanted to share it with you. In light of our discussions about the U.S. presidential election campaign, I think you'll find it interesting. It could also be useful in a few weeks when you are teaching your class about the election.
Because of the file size, I divided into two recordings, the first on the two professors' presentations and the second on the Q&A portion in which I was not allowed to ask questions.
Here's a tidbit from the Q&A. Howell answered a question to compare Trump's makeover of our government to Hitler's turning pre-war Germany into an authoritarian regime by saying "our democracy is more robust than the Weimar Republic was."
Moe strongly disagreed:
"I think that there's a lot of romanticizing [about] the American public, the American voter. It's entirely undeserved. Political scientists have been studying the American voter since the 1940s, 1950s, and what they found out right away was that Americans' understanding of democracy and support for real democratic principles is about an inch deep. Right. It turns out that Americans are very typically uninformed. And there are many Americans who are quite willing to put restrictions on freedom of speech and all kinds of other freedoms in the interest of getting what they want."