Monday, June 6, 2016

Two Young Men and Politics

Basketball Coach Bobby Knight, Photo Wikimedia Commons

Personally, I’m scared at the prospect of a Trump presidency, but when I heard Bobby Knight endorsing him on the radio, it did cross my mind that maybe there is something heartening about the way huge numbers of people seem prepared to vote for a grand view of what they want to be as a People.

At least that’s what Bobby Knight is doing.  He says he supports Trump because he’s the candidate who’s most likely to make our Nation great again.  If life is like sports, greatness assumes dominance, there can only be one world champion.  But it can still be us if we can muster the commitment to hold on to the title.

There will be costs, the players all need to be prepared to rise to the challenge.  And even as they do a lot of them will get sidelined, or injured or retired, or never make it off the bench.  But they’re still part of the team that breaks records and exceeds all expectations. Great teams raise the level of the whole game to heights that inspire multitudes.

I know I am a little susceptible to examples where people define their interests more broadly than their personal wealth and status, because I believe they help prove personal wealth and status aren’t the real measures of value in human life.

That’s one of the reasons I appreciate Brian Cerullo, who served as Field Manager for Theresa Mah’s (victorious!) campaign for State Rep from the 2nd District.  [Candidate Mah was profiled on The Hardscrabbler in August 2015.]

Brian is also driven by a vision greater than his own wealth and status.  It’s a different vision than the one you hear championed by Trump and Knight, but not entirely different. He also reminds me of someone I knew 20 years ago.  Brian might be something like what Bill would have been like, if he’d arrived a couple decades down the road.

The Reagans at the 1981 Inaugural Parade, Photo Wikimedia Commons

Brian was born during the Reagan Administration.  That makes him a Millennial, the new generation everyone speculates about.  They might be exceptionally socially accepting and community minded, but maybe also narcissistic (all that social media), or craving too much affirmation in the workplace (too many trophies when they were kids).

I’m from Generation X myself.   They called us Slackers.  We were known for living too long in our parents’ basements, maybe also for our political apathy.  We’re the generation who missed the threats of widening income inequality and the growing power of corporations because we were too wrapped up in the authenticity of our social markers -- our tastes in alternative rock, the nuances of our identities.  Maybe that was because we still assumed we’d have access to the national prosperity, even if we hadn’t achieved it yet.

Young Goethe contemplating a Silhouette

My friend Bill was the kind of young man Bobby Knight would want on his team, or should have if he could see what he was looking at.  He was raised Irish Catholic in a small, hardworking town in Massachusetts.  His father was an argumentative drunk.  His mother struggled to raise 3 boys on her own.   Bill was the oldest, he kept his brothers in line.  He’d tell them “You’re just going to have to work a little harder than everyone else,” because it’s what he told himself.  He was smart, brave, determined to make his mark in the world.  But over and over again, the world wouldn’t have him.

First he tried the football field, when that didn’t pan out he turned his attention to his education – to the liberal arts in fact.  Not the touchy, feely liberal arts, but the most stern and unforgiving undergraduate program he could find. Great Books, great souled men and all that.

His social markers expressed a little different because of it.  He came out with a peculiar nostalgia for an aristocratic society where men once had the courage to think and act independently, as opposed to the society of obedient sheep where we find ourselves now.

Partly, the change has to do with how in a society of equals, we’re left struggling against the drag toward the lowest common denominator.

Partly, it’s the hazard of the modern world itself.  As science extends its reach, life becomes ever more technical, our field of vision narrows.  We have to specialize.  Burrow into the “tunnels of the specialized disciplines” in the phrase of a novelist.  We lose sight of ourselves in context of the world, of history, we forget the big questions, about meaning and dignity.

Bill used to drive me nuts, arguing the first part.  It implies that people need the false confidence they get from social distinction to think for themselves.  Without it, they tuck their head down and conform, and in a society like ours it’s not even because they’re  afraid society will turn on them if they don’t, they’re afraid it’ll just ignore them altogether.

As far as I was concerned, Bill defied his own arguments.  In the Old World, wouldn’t he be laboring in a field somewhere, without a lot of time to cultivate grand thoughts?  In this one, they saved him.  They lit up his conversation, they sustained him through his struggles, they lifted his eyes to a horizon beyond where he was standing at that particular moment.

Bill graduated in the late-1980s, straight into the slough of a recession, and he couldn’t find a job.  He was smart, articulate, though he wasn’t polished, he was always a little rumpled, and he had an angry edge that might have been growing, getting edgier.  I thought Bill was better than other people and I was always a little surprised when they couldn’t tell, but then you could imagine reasons he might not rank a favorite among the be-suited men of business who came recruiting at the university.

When the world seemed closed to him, he made access to a wider one through novels – Emma Bovary yearning for something beyond the ordinary, or those macho heroes from Joseph Conrad novels, facing the limits of their moral fortitude in uncharted places outside the bounds of civilization.

Still, Bill freely admitted he’d been on the verge of desperation when he finally got a job.  It was a position as a clerk on the trading floor at the Chicago Board of Trade.  It was perfect for him.

Swirl of Action on the CBOT Trading Floor, Photo Getty Images

At the time, a lot of the guys I knew seemed to pass through those trading pits.  They’d put in some time clerking first, literally writing trades down on slips of paper and carrying them across the room, and if they didn’t get fired for some catastrophic notation error they’d graduate to a position as a trader where they’d have a chance to make real money, to live the successful life – summer afternoons on a golf course, maybe a boat with girls on it.

Bill had a lust for all those things that money could buy.  He wanted to see the world, to travel, to appreciate the best experiences the modern world has to offer.  But the trading pits represented more than that.

Electronic trading was in its infancy then, it would be another decade before it emptied the trading floors, and the CBOT was still making the case open outcry was the most efficient way for buyer and seller to arrive at a fair price.  It was also a hyper masculine environment that reminded Bill of the locker room.  It drew on his strengths.

In the commodities pits, traders stood shoulder to shoulder among peers, they were a platform where a man of good character, strong nerves and trust in his wits could assert himself.

Bill’s employer wasn’t sure of him at first.  It took a long time before they’d submit the application to graduate him to a position as a floor trader.  And when they did, the CBOT shot it down.  They’d say it was on account of his student loans, which Bill fumed was ridiculous, no one he knew had been sidelined on such a flimsy pretext.  To hear him talk the floor was full of debtors and bankrupts scratching out second chances.

Then, when his application finally cleared the hurdles at the CBOT, it got hung up again by federal regulators.  Eventually they were telling Bill it was just one guy, one sanctimonious bureaucrat with too much power on his hands.

Bill drank and he fumed, but he kept his head.  It was like he’d woken up in one of his favorite Eastern European novels, where men of courage and some sense are perpetually thwarted by a great, stupid bureaucracy.  And by the narrow minded functionaries who, from a creeping sense of their own inferiority, perpetuate it.

At least the traders he worked for were behind him now.  They floated appeal after appeal on his behalf.  And eventually his application passed.  He didn’t fly out to the coast to assault that bureaucrat.  He cleared the hurdles, he started making the money.  Hopefully it afforded him the experiences he wanted, or at least the sense of being able to take action, and have it come to something.

Crain's Chicago Business features images and stories

Today electronic trading has narrowed that particular avenue toward the national prosperity.  The portals for entry to commodity trading are through specialized disciplines, like computer programming, writing algorithms.

I don’t think the specialized disciplines necessarily drive us into narrow tunnels, at least not so deep that we can’t step back, attempt to place our personal experience in a broader horizon.  But they do limit access, raise the barrier to entry, make it harder for a young person with more nerve than experience to find a path.

And that is impoverishing.  Because even though it’s true that wealth and status aren’t the real measures of value in human life, it’s also true that certain base levels are pre-requisites: material security, but also agency, that sense that effort comes to something.  That’s the great advantage those players trying their chances in the trading pits had over the hapless heroes of the comic novels, struggling through syrup in an anonymous bureaucracy.
Brian Cerullo, far right (in this photo only),
at a Rally for Mayoral Candidate Chuy Garcia
For Brian Cerullo, taking the stage 20 years later, the scene has changed, but he plays something like the same character Bill once did.  Brian is also smart, articulate, he’s got the edge, but when it finds a productive outlet it’s like a current that can engage random strangers about things that really matter.

They share some family dynamics.  The angry father, the valiant mother, a little oppressed.  Brian grew up in rural Connecticut.  His mother was an immigrant from Malta, an olive skinned woman with an accent, struggling to raise sons on her own, in close vicinity to a lot of privileged Yankees.

Brian’s father grew up blue collar in Buffalo, New York.  Brian says there’s something about that mindset he never lost, even though he went to school, became an engineer.  He made a success of it.  Today, he travels the world advising third world governments on building power plants.  But he just spends his wages on dissolute pleasures – the international business class version of a boat with girls on it.

And Brian watches as the tide has begun to turn against his father now, late in his career, because the native sons who worked for him in those third world countries, the ones who needed an American engineer to supervise their technical projects, have sent their own sons to universities.  Now their sons are engineers, they’re supervising the projects Brian’s father once did. 

Later, Brian would translate experiences he had visiting his father on overseas assignments into his liberal education.  He describes looking at pictures of childhood birthday parties the family celebrated in Central American countries, and picking out notorious generals from the crowd.   “That’s when it first occurred to me maybe my Dad isn’t just working for the good guys.”

He describes being driven through teeming streets of an Indian city in a chauffeured car, with the windows rolled up, and seeing a brown boy his own age begging on the street.  The boy was crippled, his legs weren’t just broken, they were smashed like someone had driven over them with steel treads.  And being told “No, you can’t give him money.  It just perpetuates the cycle.  His parents probably did that to him so he could collect more alms.”

Back in Connecticut, Brian was a troubled student.  He had too much energy, too little self control, he scored high on IQ tests but it didn’t do him any good if he couldn’t sit still at a desk.  He did graduate high school; he did get a university education.  He studied philosophy, psychology, sociology – every possible approach to understanding human character aside from Great Books.

Today when he goes out door knocking he says the conversation he still wants to have with householders he meets isn’t just “What do you want to change about your neighborhood?” but “How do you know who you are?”

He graduated from school into adulthood just after the economy collapsed.  He may not have struggled as long as Bill to get his first job.  But it still took several false steps to find work where he could effect something, if you ask him about it, he’s no stranger to the corrosive powers of self doubt of joblessness and uncertainty.

First, he worked at a residential facility for disabled youth just outside Boston – kids who fell somewhere on the autism spectrum.  The facility used behavior modification techniques to help them master simple life skills.  The work was demanding; the progress was incremental.  The kids might never function on their own.  After a year and a half he found himself wondering “Will my work in this field ever do more than deal with symptoms?”

It occurred to him that if he went back to school to study social dynamics his work might inform policy change that could make people’s lives better on a larger scale.  That’s how he came to Chicago - as a non matriculated student in Sociology at Bill’s old alma mater.  It was just a shaky foothold, but he came with all his determination to work his way in. 

Close up though, he could see how tenuous academic life had become.  Even if you were successful, you could labor for a decade to get that doctoral degree, then work as an adjunct professor pulling in a couple thousand dollars for each class.

Meanwhile, over the summer, he attended a weeklong organizing training by National People’s Action, and it changed the way he saw his life.  He looked at his father, his stunted world view, and at his mother, struggling bravely but hemmed in by resentments.  He saw the origins of some of his own. It’s where he first began to put those pieces together in a larger context of society and the world. 

When Bill’s education lifted his eyes past his own situation, he set his struggles in a world stage where noble individuals all struggle not to sink in a sea of ignorant masses.  Brian set his in a world ruled by the opposite dynamic.  Part of that’s probably personal difference, but it’s also true that the world has changed.

American Hostages in Iran, Photo Wikimedia Commons

My own first memories of the world at large trace back to the late 1970s: stagflation and the Iranian hostage crisis, especially that daring rescue attempt that just crashed in the desert.  I didn’t understand the subtleties, I just remember the sinking sense that we were failing at everything, and that gentle President Carter and all his best advisers didn't know how fix it. 

Today, conservative pundits sometimes trace The Great Inflation of the 1970s back to Great Society excess: overreaching unions and social welfare programs, too much prosperity for too many people.  They say economists were stumped by the combination of stagnant growth and mounting inflation until President Reagan came in and let Volcker raise interest rates, ignoring the high costs in high unemployment, slashing social spending, making it up with record spending on arms.

In the 30 years since, the recessions have been brief, the periods of expansion have been long, the national wealth greater than ever before.  All that helps disguise the fact that it’s only making a few people richer.  So that even in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, as economists line up urging governments to spend more to avoid a deflationary spiral, you’ve got all these 50-somethings rooting for austerity.  They’re still running from the long inflation they remember from their youth.

Brian’s cohort has come up in the environment Bill’s and mine helped create.  We liberalized markets, peeled back the big government of the Great Society years, we let the New York bankers drive.   Now our wealth is built on a financial system that races until it crashes and has to be bailed out by millions of little guy taxpayers who won’t catch a break on their own debts.  And there might be no greater glory to being the richest, most powerful Nation on earth -- just a series of small wars, won quickly, without making anything better.

Brian spent some time in Zuccotti Park, back in the 2010s, where the Occupy Wall Street movement camped out.  He remembers it being exciting, but it felt a little pointless, lots of energy with no clear goal.

In Chicago, a few years later, things were different.  That first spring after the organizing training, Brian volunteered on Election Day for Will Guzzardi– one of a new crop of independent democrats who’ve been winning races for local office.  Guzzardi won his race for State Representative that day, Brian still remembers the tremendous energy of the group effort.

“Throughout our shitty, exploitative history, my people were good at conquering other people,” he says now “good at storming beaches, raping and pillaging.” In political organizing he’s found an opening to channel and transform his aggressive energies into persuasive and developmental ones.

It was Reclaim Chicago – a joint project of The People’s Lobby and National Nurses United – that brought Brian to Bridgeport.  Reclaim Chicago works to elect “officials who put the needs of people and the health of the planet ahead of corporate profits.”  They supported Maureen Sullivan’s campaign for Alderman of the 11th Ward.  Sullivan didn’t win that race.  But not long after that Brian was hired as a Field Manager for Theresa Mah’s campaign for State Representative.

Mah won the Democratic primary, as an independent democrat challenging the presumptive heir of the retiring incumbent.  After the election, Brian says they knew it would be a close race, but they’d tallied up their confirmed voters and calculated how many random ones might choose her at the ballot box, and they thought she would win.  They were just stunned by the turn out.  They anticipated a modest turnout, tracking with previous contests in that race; in the end there were over 20,000.

They say that was partly thanks to the Bernie Sanders campaign.  Today, Brian is still working with a coalition of progressive organizations trying to harness that energy, and to keep those Sanders supporters engaged.  They’ve been orchestrating a series of monthly actions called “Moral Mondays,”  peaceful protests at the doorsteps of big financial powers.  They want a state budget that works for the 99%, and makes corporations and the very wealthy shoulder a fair share of the costs.

Public Action Outside the CBOT, Photo Moral Mondays Illinois

Last time I met up with Brian, he’d just come from a meeting to train leaders to play roles at the next Moral Monday event.  He was working with a young woman who was going to be negotiating with police – that is, try to engage in a calm dialogue about whether the officers would make arrests, or just hand out citations.  She’d let them know which demonstrators would leave quietly after the police warning, and which ones would stand their ground and go to jail. 

Women can be good at it, they may be perceived as less confrontational.  Brian was playing the cop in this particular scenario, he might have been drawing on that default aggression from his ancestor’s “exploitative history”.  The young woman he was training started to cry.  They talked it out, he says, and she’s ready to negotiate.  “She might still cry,” he says, if some cop tries to intimidate her. “But she won’t stop negotiating.”

Brian says he doesn’t particularly identify with the Millenial label.  He sees his peers as differentiated individuals, working things out for themselves.  It may be too early to tell how they’ll take the reins of history.  But if a lot of the guys who might have spent their energies in the commodities pits throw them into organizing for political change instead, it could mark some kind of generational progress.

When I think of how I’d like to see our nation made great again, I don’t visualize an elite team prodded to excellence by a coach known for his bully tactics, or a handful of champions at the very top.  I’d rather see something more like a thousand young women standing face to face with authority, even if it’s shouting at them, and negotiating on behalf of their peers.

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