After Nadia Taylor finished her first quarter of studies at the Culinary Institute at Raleigh-Durham, she learned that the four-year degree program in which she was enrolled would cost $100,000. According to the Associated Press, she had enrolled after being “cold-called by a recruiter who knew personal details about her, including her low-income status, and that her mother was incarcerated and her father deceased.”
Taylor stayed the course for several years, but she quit after the curriculum was changed requiring her to take even more courses than it originally included—courses that she couldn’t afford.
When reporters interviewed Taylor, she was a steakhouse cook with $47,000 in debt and, as she put it, “literally not one thing to show for it.”
It turns out Taylor wasn’t alone. The company that owns the Culinary Institute that Taylor attended, Education Management Corp., recently agreed to pay $95.5 million to settle claims that it “illegally paid recruiters and exaggerated the career-placement abilities of its schools.” (The company maintains its innocence.)
The story intrigued me. It seemed like yet another episode in the long, bad season of How to Hustle the Working Class and Manufacture Distrust.
A working-class young man whom Jen Silva interviewed for her book, Coming Up Short, explained that he doesn’t even like to answer his phone anymore, because in his words, “I have this problem of being tricked.”
There is Lance, the working-class young man I wrote about here and here who has more than once been a victim of bad bosses in the workplace. He once told me that he doesn’t like signing contracts because too many people try to take advantage of others. Like the time the fitness center convinced him to become a member: after he signed the contract, he learned that you couldn’t opt out for at least a few years.
I think of my friend, who, when I suggested to him that he might consider visiting a psychologist about his struggles to overcome anxiety and substance abuse, replied that he didn’t trust psychologists. He had visited one as a teenager, and what he remembers is that the psychologist told him that he has the personality of a serial killer. Hardly a healing experience!
‘I have this problem of being tricked.’
Another friend doesn’t want to visit the psychiatrists at the county mental health clinic because, as she explained, they give you fifteen minutes to diagnose you with some disorder, only to prescribe you some crummy pills that make you feel like a zombie—and that seem to have everyone else that you know addicted. Her on-the-ground experience echoes the devastating critiques leveled at contemporary psychiatry by at least one concerned psychiatrist, as well as the former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine who wrote The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It. When the people that are supposed to be there to help you heal are just too busy or don’t seem to care, where else do you turn?
There is the young man we interviewed who had recently learned that his girlfriend was pregnant. Inspired to man up, he joined a church and got baptized. Problem is, as my wife and I later learned, the start-up, nondenominational church of a few dozen congregants was pastored by a couple that had been accused of molesting a teenager. (The young man we interviewed didn’t stay at the church long, though I don’t know if he ever learned about those accusations.)
It reminded me of the man who said simply, “I got a trust issue with females.” He had been separated from his wife ever since she said she was no longer in love with him.
It reminded me of the divorced woman who told her daughter that she didn’t like that her son-in-law—her daughter’s husband—was bathing his own daughter. Her ex-husband had been abusive, she didn’t trust men, and she didn’t trust her son-in-law for no other reason than that he was a man.
It reminded me of Rodney, the restaurant manager in a twelve-year cohabiting relationship who didn’t trust marriage, because as he said, “I’ve grown up in a family where marriage was never really a rock for anything.”
The for-profit college allegedly targeting low-income people and burdening them with outrageous debt would only be the latest in a long line of American hustlers. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Walter A. McDougall says, we have always been a nation of people hustling each other; we have always been a nation bustling with “scofflaws, occasional frauds, and peripatetic self-reinventors.” McDougall opens his magisterial history with Herman Melville’s forgotten novel Confidence Man, in which a master con man manages to swindle the public’s trust. The victims include a barber whose shop sign reads “NO TRUST.” In this novel, McDougall says, Melville simply “took the risk of telling the truth, as he saw it, about the tricks Americans played on themselves in their effort to worship both God and Mammon.”
We have always been a nation of people hustling each other.
But there is something new about our situation. Never before in our history have so many of us come from a fragmented family. If we have always been a nation of hustlers, most children and adults could find at least a measure of security in their families (even if that security was too often illusory). But today the family has also become the domain of the hustlers: there are the obvious culprits like Jerry Springer and Larry Flynt, but also the mainstream purveyors of bad religion who have done so much to popularize the myth of expressive individualism, finely distilled in that divorce-justifying epigram, “You have one life to live, life is short, and do what you feel is right.” (One young person told me that in an interview.)
As R. R. Reno has put it in the pages of First Things, the crisis that we confront today is not a crisis of freedom, but “a crisis of solidarity.” Businesses are free to market their products, young men and women are free to have sex and pursue happiness with whom they will, and companies are free to pay their workers low wages. Norms that upheld decency in romantic relationships have been upended in the name of sexual freedom, and a sense of the company’s responsibility for the worker and his family has been upended in the name of free markets. Moreover, as Charles Murray said in Coming Apart, norms of “seemliness” and neighborliness meant that it once would have been unseemly for the wealthy to isolate themselves in gated subdivisions; you didn’t want to be thought of as a “big shot.” But those norms have been upended as part of the Great Deregulation.
Like the barber in Melville’s novel, more of us find that the times are fit for a sign: “NO TRUST.” No trust for the company that delivers your paycheck. No trust for the men who want to lie with you and lie to you. No trust for the women who want to weasel you in with a baby. No trust for the institution (marriage) that is supposed to be a rock, but that is really just a piece of paper. And no trust for the psychiatrists, psychologists, and pastors who are supposed to help you heal; they either judge you for your tattoos or tattoo you with a disorder—that, or they’re just wolves dressed like sheep.
These are exaggerations, of course. But they represent the experiences of growing numbers of working-class men and women, especially as the idealism of their teens and twenties fades, and they experience more betrayals. The much-reported “dying of the whites” is just one example of how the alienation-that-leads-to-exclusion is very grave, indeed.
What, then, can we do? How do we as society go about rebuilding trust?
Here is what we cannot do. We cannot rebuild trust by hoping that free contraception and free sex automatically redound to gender cooperation and stable families, any more than we can expect that free markets automatically redound to economic equity. It’s magical thinking.
The key word there is automatically. Yes, we must respect the freedom of the person to make his or her own choices about sex and family; laws criminalizing premarital sex and adultery are a thing of the past. And we must respect the freedom of the person in the marketplace; communism failed, and not even Bernie Sanders proposes that government “own the means of production.” We need freedom, but from the boardroom to the bedroom, we need people who exercise their freedom for solidarity: solidarity at work, solidarity in family life, solidarity in their neighborhoods.
We need people who exercise their freedom for solidarity.
What if we had more companies like Costco and Hobby Lobby, which pay their employees generously? What about a new alliance between business leaders and workers to create workplace associations hospitable to both employers and employees? What if more long-married couples made it a point to invite into their homes and build friendships with a couple in a fragile relationship?
There is an alternative to the solidarity option: the Trump option. When there is no trust, there is a surprising allure to the all-mighty, all-certain, all-bombast Big Man who rips into the bozos running the country and who, according to one electrician, “doesn’t take crap from anybody.” By appealing to people’s distrust, he seizes their trust. But what if their trust turns out, once more, to have been unjustified?