Would You Rather Be a Mule?

I have a soft spot for the song “Swinging on a Star”, first sung by Bing Crosby in the 1944 film Going My Way. Crosby’s character, a sort of proto-Vatican II priest who ends up befriending a group of wayward boys in a plot that now has all sorts of creepy resonance, writes the song for the boys’ choir in order to impress a music executive. The basic message is two-fold: go to school to improve yourself, and if you improve yourself, anything is possible.

The film and the song are both artifacts of a more optimistic–or if you like, cornball–cultural spirit than the present, for all that they appeared during World War II. But what interests me most about the song is its absolutely middle-American, totally mainstream celebration of education and the straight-faced promise that if you pursue education, “you could be anything you wish”. (If you don’t want to get educated, you’re a pig, a fish, a mule, a monkey, stuck in various kinds of willful ignorance.)

Most historians would be quick to point out that in 1944, this promise wasn’t on offer to anyone but white men, and not even really to most of them if we’re talking about higher education. After the war, the GI Bill opened things up some, and the social transformations of the 1960s and 1970s still further. The road we’ve travelled since then is pretty complex: the social capital produced by higher education has diffused throughout the society, the bachelor’s degree has become increasingly necessary for employment, and the gap between educational haves and have-nots has become sharply visible and associated, justly or not, with wider income inequality.

Unpacking how we got to the point where education (elementary, secondary and higher) is seen by Americans as broadly necessary but also increasingly the subject of anxiety, anger and scorn is a serious challenge. Let’s leave it at this for now: nostalgia is a trap if it makes us forget that there was not a golden age where the majority of Americans had as much access to as much education as they wanted, but there was a point in the past where the value of education was part of the American consensus, accepted across the social and political spectrum. That much has changed, and it’s a meaningful change.

Not just education is caught up in that shift. The promise of the Crosby song, “you could be anything you wish”, now seems not just innocent but mockingly cruel in contemporary American life. Neither of the presidential candidates really seems to believe in anything like this vision any longer. The closest you get is some rhetoric about helping people who follow the rules, or trying to allow the middle class back in the game, or something. How we imagine ourselves matters as much as what we are, and Americans don’t really seem to imagine themselves as people on the move, people chasing their hopes and dreams, people with hustle and imagination. If you’re in the elect, you want to hold on tight, and shake a lot of sticks at everyone else: knuckle down, don’t complain, settle for what you can hold on to, don’t expect too much. You don’t have the skills for tomorrow and you won’t be able to get them.

Believing that we could be what we wanted to be, untrue as it ever was, mattered.


It mattered as a kind of social “soft power”, an engine of hope and energy. Strivers have kept on going in American life in the most improbable of circumstances: in Harlem in the 1920s, in immigrant neighborhoods in American cities, in mining towns at the end of the 19th Century. Often education has been part of their dreams, sometimes it’s been something else: gold mining, starting small businesses, running a farm, working a good job.

Now that seems increasingly like a sick joke. And it’s not the only joke of that kind now. In a recent New York Times report on abuses by Islamist forces in northern Mali, they managed to speak to a representative of the militants. He said, “‘We have bad memories of you because of Falluja and Afghanistan…You are not well placed to talk about liberty, when we see what is happening in Guantánamo, Iraq and Palestine.”

Again, it’s not as if this is a new complaint against the US: dictators and torturers have long tried to turn the tables, complaining of hypocrisy. Nostalgia is a trap here too. But there’s again a big difference between countenancing tyranny and torture behind closed doors, off the books, against the law, and changing the law to actively legitimize torture, assassination and military brutality. One of the things that struck me in my recent trip to the archives is how much internal concern there was within national security bureaucracies with legality and even morality in American foreign policy. “Soft power” mattered, and it was seen as resting on genuine commitments and sustained practices, not just slick rhetoric. There’s a reason that folks inside the CIA and other intelligence agencies freaked out about the Church Commission–because some of what they’d done was illegal, and they still worried about the consequences of illegality.

When a Cold War authoritarian accused the US of being a pot calling the kettle black, that charge was often easy to rebut, either in terms of proportionality or in absolute terms of truth and falsehood. I remember a classic Doonesbury cartoon that pointed out what a prisoner exchange between the US and USSR would look like, with the US getting artists, scientists, philosophers and the USSR getting, well, almost no one. But when a Tuareg rebel associated with mass abuses of human rights in Mali shrugs and suggests the US doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on, the charge drives home in a deeply painful way. Realpolitik has its problems at any point, but legalizing and sanctioning abuse and assassination opens the gates of hell pretty wide.

The current Administration hasn’t checked or reversed that direction. If anything, they’ve accelerated it. There is nowhere to turn inside the halls of national political power for relief or diligence. The only thing Congress seems worried about is leaks disclosing our involvement in information warfare and assassination, not with the behavior itself. You can only comfort yourself that these kinds of tactics are used only on bad people as long as they are only used by us against far away targets. Rather like poison gas in World War I, using them at all more or less makes inevitable their eventual use by all factions, sides and parties in increasingly casual and ubiquitous ways. There’s a reason beyond morality for centuries of struggle to maintain international standards of conduct in war and in peace: to put limits on the consequences of conflict and competition in an interconnected world.

It’s the silence in the halls of power that matters. That there is no one in political leadership left to speak for the naive, corny optimism of a particular version of the American Dream. No one who really believes in education except in the barest, most functionalist terms. No elected official or high executive leader who is bothered or worried about the legalization of a Presidential power to assassinate citizens, sanction torture, sabotage the infrastructure that supports free speech and communication.

The question for us now is not what happens to a dream deferred but to dreams that are forgotten–and what happens when you have no dreams to speak of.

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