The Paradox of the Student Debtor

Someone — I can’t remember who, perhaps in a Sojourners article in the last year or so — remarked that when it comes to responsibility, what’s morally good for a society is morally terrible for an individual, and vice versa. In other words, it’s a bad sign if an individual attributes all their misfortunes to the machinations of evil structures and does not undertake to do anything about it themselves; but it’s an equally bad sign if a society blames the individual alone for whatever has befallen them and scoffs at the idea that bad structures should be addressed.

I’ve been chewing on that observation for a while, not sure what, if anything, I wanted to say about it. But then the exact meeting place of those opposing truths arrived when President Biden announced that he would use existing law to a) forgive $10k of student debt for people making under $125,000 a year b) forgive another $10k for the people in that group who received Pell Grants and c) reduce the income-based repayment cap by half, from 10% to 5%, without the burden of further interest. And both the right and the left lost their shit.

The right, of course, are incensed that bailouts should be dished out to individuals who promised to pay back a loan and have only themselves to blame if they are in difficult straits because of it. The left, meanwhile, are furious with Biden because the emancipation didn’t extend to all educational debt for every borrower.

Sounds like he hit it about right, then.

Great lashing waves of sound and fury have been lapping upon the shores of my social media feeds, and I find myself simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with most of it. Yes, it’s pure hypocrisy to accept forgiveness of a PPP loan taken out during the pandemic and then turn around to scarify individuals who’ve been paying back on the standard plan for years and owe more now than when they started. No, no one held a gun to people’s heads and made them go to college. Yes, the academy is fucked six ways from Sunday and serves neither its faculty nor its students nor the market in which its graduates are expected to participate nor anyone else except perhaps the administrators and the offices of what is so benignly called “Development.” No, this is not just a problem affecting people fool enough to get a liberal arts degree. Yes, a real civilized society would want to make it easier for people to get the kind of education that suits their interests and not have to thread a political needle with a camel to make it happen. No, it is not bad faith that Biden didn’t use a bigger camel.

If there’s a better way of demonstrating that the original slogan is just as nonsensical, I don’t know what it is.

Political risk as it may be, President Biden’s action (supported by the policy positions of Vice-President Harris) is a structural action: it is aimed at groups of people whose disadvantages due to socio-economic and/or minority status made getting a post-secondary degree an undue burden. It strikes at the reason why tuition stopped being free and began an exponential climb, which is this: that the practical function of a college education in this country is to provide a gatekeeping hurdle to class mobility, racial equality, and gender parity.

Clearing that gate is the reason why many people go to college. It’s also the reason why many people want to withhold debt relief — I’ve seen at least two conservative people complain where other people can see them that this will suppress military enlistment. Withholding debt relief, like withholding modern healthcare and a host of other social benefits, is a mechanism for them to escape having to stoop to negotiate with their inferiors.

The thing is, though — the academy sucks as a gate. It neither holds a monopoly on knowledge nor offers a real entrance to social elevation. If you were not a person of means when you walked in, the odds are against you being a person of means after you walk out.

But I didn’t care, because that’s not what I wanted out of my education. I wanted to leave home. I wanted to take classes that didn’t bore me to the pitch of rage. I wanted to live in a community with people my age in like-minded pursuits. I wanted to interact with mentors and read things I’d never heard of and play music and argue in a common room at 1 a.m. and earn my stripes as a writer. And that’s what I got. It was worth every penny I took out to pay for it. I’m morally, spiritually, and intellectually a better person than I would have been if I hadn’t done it.

So, the system is stupid. Granted. But I didn’t mind undertaking the difficulty of paying back loans. What I minded was being vulnerable to people who would spit on those difficulties by turning them into impossibilities. I dreaded putting my trust in the United States Congress, that wise and august body, to avoid doing things like excluding educational loans from bankruptcy protection, or setting the yearly interest rate so that it would add to the balance faster than you could pay it down. (Did the United States Congress, in fact, avoid doing those things? Did they hell.)

As a fellow taxpayer who’s been a contributing member of society for a while now, I don’t mind owning a responsibility like educational debt. I consider all the years of misery and underemployment and paperwork and this and that to be my business. Forgive my loans? Just don’t actively shit on my efforts to pay them. And maybe exclude them not from bankruptcy protection but from credit scoring.

My granddad wore that same expression when he told us we could play with his putter weight but “if you break something, I’ll make you a track star.”

Debt relief of any amount is an amazing boon. And as it happens, I stand to benefit from a), b), and c) of the president’s plan. It represents a huge relief and will make it much easier for me to do what I intended to do in this stage of my life. But it’s not something that was owed to me personally. It’s just that there are a lot of people like me (and really, don’t you smell a rat when so many millions of ordinary folks are just running to stand still on educational debt? that’s not just a neighborhood but the population of Florida full of irresponsible people not worth knowing, if you’re that cynical), and doing this is, as I said, a calculated, structural way to address several decades’ worth of compounded inequality.

Because the meeting point of an individual’s responsibility and a society’s responsibility hinges on two questions: Who do you want to be? and What are you going to do?

I know the answer to those questions for myself. And I know how I want the society I live in to answer those questions. You can’t always do what’s fair. But sometimes you can do what’s right.

Now here are some birds.

The Burden of Proof is On You

And now for a brief rant.

The pundit class may be inexhaustibly devoted to the spit-warm take that we should sympathize with and seek to mollify these anti-public-health sadopopulist wombat cubes with weeping sores where their empathy should be. But I’m well past exhausted and cracked the needle on the annoyance knob long ago.

Never mind if it’s possible to make these anti-vaxxing, anti-masking, pestilence-spreading, mass-murder-policy-platforming corkbrains crumbled in the bottom of a jug of thirty-cent wine feel like the rest of us don’t look down on them. They’re like that dude in Christy who bullied the title character and then she nursed him through typhoid fever, only to have him snarf down some hardboiled eggs and perforate his weakened bowel when her back was turned. Very tragic, but it’s not his name on the cover of the book.

Nope. It is not our obligation to prove a goddamned thing — not about vaccines, not about COVID, not about Tromp and his cupcake coupsters, nada, zip, zilch. You, Greg Abbott; you, you obnoxious shouter at staff in a Walmart; you, you Facebook swastika-jockey projection-artist; you are the ones with the burden of proof.

YOU prove that you’re not a heaving pile of mass-murdering maggot-brains whose motto, like Hell’s in Paradise Lost, is “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” YOU prove your good faith to US, and maybe you’ll be able to step foot out of your house without getting booed to Ultima Thule and back for the rest of your life.

Or, of course, we might be nice. But we don’t have to be.

On Self-Perception

This post begins with a story of two tweets, one of which I will link and one of which I will not.

Earlier this week, I ran across a tweet from someone who didn’t want to give oxygen to some person’s anti-trans screed, but screenshotted part of it to discuss one particular aspect of it. The highlighted text wasn’t what drew my eye, though. The screed-writer was so outraged by trans people demanding that society validate their self-perception that the phrase was italicized. It was this italicized phrase that caught my eye.

I thought: “Why, yes. Yes, that is exactly what is expected of you, Unknown Screedist. I’m sorry to hear that you find your moral duty so repugnant.”

Everybody has their particular moral lodestone, and this has always been mine: People get to say who they are. Yes, even if you’re 99.44% sure they’re wrong. Yes, even if you would really prefer they name themselves something else. Yes, even if they make you look bad by association.

If nothing else, holding to this principle insulates you from committing the No True Scotsman fallacy of argument. And here is the second tweet, fresh off the internets this morning:

It was clear the terrorists perceived themselves to be Christians. It was “confusing” to be attacked by people who acted not like Jesus Christ, but by the mob who demanded his crucifixion. We are used to thinking of “terrorist” and “Christian” to be mutually exclusive categories of person. But they aren’t. People get to say who they are. If a person committed to a terroristic act says they’re a Christian, I won’t gainsay them. I will note that their idea of worshiping God bears an awfully strong resemblance to the domination system that Jesus Christ came to dismantle, but I can’t force them to internalize that.

And I won’t. Because forcing other people to internalize what you think they are is the core impetus of fascism. It’s what some people find so appealing about our disgraced former president, and some of us others find so chilling: that offhand, pseudo-reasonable tone in which he said things like, Well, what can you do? Democrats are just evil. They’re just bad people. Any act of violence against Bad People is therefore justified, is lifted out of the sad category of terrorism into the shining platform of holy war.

This is the entire purpose of the rule of law: not to separate the Good People from the Bad People, but to uphold or deprecate certain acts according to their vital importance. It’s vitally important to fascists — and to people whose life’s investment has been placed in our social structures — that gender conformity be enforced. It’s vitally important to them not only that they think of themselves as the flower of Christianity, but that the rest of us are forced to acknowledge that we are not Christians at all if we are not like them. Defining people and codifying them is the basis of their ideal state: not the rule of law.

So my advice, for anyone who cares for it, is this: don’t play the game. Let people say who they are. Let the tree be judged by its fruit. Let no stroke or dot of the law be subverted by a crusade to prove to people who they are. That is a game for fools and fascists.

Every person has a right to the proving ground of their own self-perception. And I’ve committed not to invade.

This ain’t your usual Stadium Rock

According to Mark Polizzotti, when Nikita Khrushchev declared “We will bury you,” his immediate translators did not do the Russian phrase any favors. Rather than issuing a direct threat, Polizzotti says, Khrushchev was saying that they would survive, outlast, be vindicated by the eventual demise of, the West. Not that anyone in the West cared for nuance at the time; believing your enemy to be wholly malevolent is a time-honored tradition in wars both cold and hot.

It’s possible Khrushchev knew this and didn’t feel like he had much to lose no matter how the phrase was translated. If so, I get the sentiment.

This morning I went down to the absentee polling place set up by my local election authority and banked my vote. I don’t usually vote absentee, though if I lived in a state with proper early voting I would certainly do that — but I wanted to get the basics out of the way ASAP. Now to the next thing: getting everyone I know and care about to do the same thing however they may.

Just do it. Just vote, as soon as you can. Why? Because the only possible answer to this revanchist zombie confederacy of misogynists, white supremacists, and white-collar thieves is to bury. them.

Bury them in an avalanche of votes, everywhere. Everywhere. You don’t live in a swing state? I don’t either. I don’t care. Bury them. You didn’t begin with wanting an ideologically unexciting septuagenarian white man at the top of your side of the ticket? I didn’t either. I don’t care. Bury them.

And if you’re already on the same page with me, I have an offer to make.

For at least fifteen years I’ve been following journalist Al Giordano for my electoral politics news. And for the last five years or so I’ve been subscribed to his newsletter, América, which he puts out on a semi-regular basis. He’s the most level-headed, light-hearted source of politics news in this country (and out of it). And when someone comes to him freaking out — and let’s be real, there’s plenty to freak out about — his answer is invariably, What are you doing about it?

Today, this is what I’m doing about it: I’m offering to subscribe an impecunious fellow-traveler to a year’s worth of Al’s América newsletter. The subscription fee is an $80 contribution to the nonprofit Fund for Authentic Journalism, which trains journalists and community organizers for effective work on the ground where they live. Besides the newsletter, subscribers get full access to the Fund’s website, Organize and Win — and thereby to a whole community of ordinary folks across the country and overseas who are doing things, however and wherever they can, to make a difference. This is good value even in a year that is not frickin’ 2020.

It so happens that I have $80 right now, and I want to subscribe someone who doesn’t to a gold mine of good reporting. If you have $80, you should subscribe too. The pandemic has hit everybody in the pocketbook, some harder than others, and the Fund for Authentic Journalism like many nonprofits depends on donations and subscriptions for its bread and butter. So if you would like this subscription and need the scholarship, don’t be shy, drop me a line by email, comment, or social media message, and I will give your preferred email address to Al for the subscription rolls with my donation. You won’t be sorry!

And, in closing: VOTE.