As 2016 rolled to a close, the musician George Michael died — one of many celebrity deaths that turned social media into a sea of crocodile tears. I wasn’t particularly connected to Michael or his music, but I grew up in the generation that watched his butt wiggle on TV as he sang “gotta’ have faith-a-faith-a-faith.”
Death is the separation of the soul from the body, a fact that somehow becomes more powerful when most of what you know about a person is that they swing a shapely keister. It only serves to illustrate how much we don’t know about our fellows, or ourselves.
Just a few minutes of cable news or a casual scroll through an average American’s internet reading and you’d think the world was beyond repair. But there’s a lot we don’t know.
In “A History of Global Living Conditions in 5 Charts” by Max Rosen, published at OurWorldinData.org in December 2016, the author analyzes 200 years of global data on factors like literacy, health, freedom, fertility and one of humanity’s most vexing problems: poverty.
“In 1820 only a tiny elite enjoyed higher standards of living, while the vast majority of people lived in conditions that we would call extreme poverty today,” writes Rosen. “Since then the share of extremely poor people fell continuously. More and more world regions industrialized and thereby increased productivity which made it possible to lift more people out of poverty: In 1950 three-quarters of the world were living in extreme poverty; in 1981 it was still 44 percent. For last year the research suggests that the share in extreme poverty has fallen below 10 percent.
“That is a huge achievement, for me as a researcher who focuses on growth and inequality maybe the biggest achievement of all in the last two centuries,” concludes Rosen.
Our attitudes, however, do not reflect this remarkable accomplishment. According to Rosen, only 6 percent of Americans think things are getting better. That number is only slightly better in other industrialized countries. Perhaps this is because America spent much of the last three generations ahead of the global curve. We made the internet that feeds us cat videos and increasingly sophisticated propaganda. We built the machines that eliminated the jobs once held by our mothers and fathers. Things were great! But now what?
As I wrote after the election, rural Minnesota held no shortage of grievances against the progress of modern times. That’s certainly how rural people voted. It’s important to know that these frustrations stem not from destitution, but from the sense that something vitally important is being lost.
Adam Belz of the Minneapolis Star Tribune explored poverty in Minnesota with a three-part series. The Dec. 29 entry focused on the often unheralded poverty-fighting tools of growing up in a rural area.
“The key factor for all children is to grow up in a place where different economic classes live together, [Standford researcher Raj Chetty] said. In cities, the rich and poor live largely separate lives, and in the country everyone grows up together.
“‘All classes are forced to interact in a small town,’ said [Ben] Winchester, the [University of Minnesota Extension] sociologist. ‘Rugged individualism got our population here, but community keeps us here.’”
This jibes with my experience growing up in relative poverty on the Iron Range. I attended a small school where getting along with people was more important than separating by socioeconomic status — something that often happens at larger schools. We shared experiences with our whole class, creating unlikely friendships and lifelong connections to place, even if some of us moved away for opportunities.
But the schools are getting smaller. Too small. The thought of chasing some unknown tech-driven career in the big city appeals to some, but doing so comes at the cost of a very precious sense of community and belonging.
In “The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern Economy,” Victor Tan Chen writes in the Dec. 21 edition of The Atlantic that what’s missing is some version of faith. Not just religious faith, but faith in institutions and community. Many see the swirling eddy of astounding technical process as a danger, not as an adventurous journey to the future.
As a result, people find refuge in simply saying no to social and economic progress. Nostalgia becomes a soft pillow for the chronic pain that pills and television fail to ease. And with this nostalgia comes distrust of others. Even our families become suspect.
While advantageous to those who seek to divide us, such false comfort will do no good. We must be wedded to the truth of our situation — a blend of good news and bad.
“When people are not so intent on blaming others for their sins—cultural and economic—they can deal more kindly with one another,” writes Chen.
Rosen finds a similar sentiment: “Freedom is impossible without faith in free people. And if we are not aware of our history and falsely believe the opposite of what is true we risk losing faith in each other.”
Wiling away winter in the woods of Northern Minnesota, I want the things people have always wanted: a connection to people, a sense that my work matters, hope for my children. Most people want some version of these things. These are matters of the soul, not the pocketbook or ballot box. To remain a free people, we must seek and freely provide sustenance to the souls of our people. No glittering idols, partisan sniping or celebrity gossip can fill this void.
What can? Only “faith-a-faith-a-faith” in something beyond ourselves — a greater purpose for our lives on earth — whether that comes in the public square or in our most private meditations. If nothing else, faith in each other. The best public policy addresses these personal matters, whether it means to our not. So do the best people.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Jan. 8, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.