Moving on

Today will be my last day, for quite a while or perhaps ever, as a professional social worker.  I’ll go in to the office to tie up a shockingly small number of loose ends, make one final home visit to hand off one last case, and be back home this evening unemployed for the two weeks it will take to finish packing, move to Colorado, and set up house.  Just like the past two mornings I’m up early, though today I just gave in and got out of bed, in hopes that doing this would put order to my thoughts and the ensuing peace earned would do more good than a bit more sleep.  And just like the past two mornings I’ll leave the house and go through the day with a subtle, burning anxiety riding in my stomach, because one of the following must be true:

-Russian hackers tampered with voter returns.

-Millions of Americans want Donald Trump as their president.

I must assume it is the later, because as appalling as that is the other option is even worse.  And I’m not talking about the disaffected folks who as Michael Moore explained so well voted for Trump out of alienation or unthinking hereditary misogyny or simple malaise, but those far smaller number who made a more deliberate choice.  Those people who thought and think that Trump isn’t the least worst option, but a genuinely good one.  I can respect the structural reasons why a populist would be appealing in 2016, understand why any Democrat would have an uphill road in the shadow of Obama, and have no problem blaming Hillary Clinton for a campaign at once timid and arrogant, but can’t make the leap to Trump being an acceptable choice.  As president I hope he disrupts American political culture in an enduring fashion, uses his unpredictability as an asset to make progress on the thorny international problems in which we are currently swimming, and is ideologically pragmatic in a way his pre-campaign actions would suggest, but I can’t let go of how bad a role model he has been, nationally and globally, for the last year.

I was, in hindsight, extraordinarily lucky to have been in Egypt in early 2010, not quite a year into the Obama presidency and right after his speech in Cairo.  The reception we got as Americans was extraordinary, and had everything to do with our president.  Being hailed on the street and harangued by shopkeepers became routine, and I could not help but be proud that the fame usually given the US by virtue of simple economics was finally being earned much better.  That Trump enthuses people like Marine Le Pen only enforces my pessimism.

The last eight years have, inevitably, made me more of a lefty.  Today you don’t find many Republicans in social work, and the few which come easily to mind are only conspicuous as bad practitioners, folks whose work suffered due to both laziness and myopia.  Graduate school set me well on the road to seeing how structural poverty is, how transgenerational mental illness and social maladaption are what make social and economic mobility so intransigent, and by extension so expensive to facilitate.  JD Vance chose a good year to publish, and as a result has gotten lots of time on TV news this fall.  I think his explanation of Trump’s appeal in unimpeachable, but the press has given almost no attention to his thesis that economic factors and the structure of government programs have conspired to create learned helplessness, which is as significant a factor as any in promulgating poverty.  And by extension, the disaffection which made Donald Trump president.

Early in my six year tenure I gave up writing here about the job I’ll soon leave.  The daily grind of social work is a tough thing to put into words, in no small part because the job simultaneously requires intense emotional investment and profound personal detachment.  This paradox is clearly embodied in all the good meta-analyses of mental health treatment outcomes, which universally show that the best predictor of positive outcomes is the consistent perception, by the client, that the therapist/doctor/worker has genuine empathy and emotional regard.  Different studies of the same data show that exploitation of the worker-client relationship, often in the form of sexual relationships, is a disconcertingly widespread problem.  I’ve had more you-can’t-make-this-shit-up moments in the last six years than I can hope to easily remember, a significant minority of them involving fellow social workers, but have always held back from telling those stories due to concerns over confidentiality.  I want to let myself go from that, at least a little, before I forget too much.

It is easy and simple, as a social worker, to blame and be hostile towards your clients.  I’ve had plenty of cases for which society currently has no good solution.  Violent or suicidal 10 year olds, for example, are generally not served in most group homes, residential treatment centers, or even hospitals.  The police are also generally flummoxed by the mother of an 4th grader who calls for help because she can’t control her son and is afraid he might follow through on his threat to cut off his own hand with a kitchen knife.  There are, thankfully, not enough of these cases for specific services to have evolved for them, at least in Montana.

Most of my cases have not been like that.  Most of them have had solutions which both had a decent chance of working and were, for a professional conveniently removed from the daily chaos, obvious.  The difficulty is in herding someone towards the obvious, ideally having them embrace the ideas as their own, and sustaining that commitment through the year or two or three it takes for changing habits to show rewards.  I don’t have too many questions left, in a broad sense, about what works, about what can get a family to break the hereditary pattern of high school dropouts, teen pregnancy, absent fathers, and intrafamily emotional abuse.  The big question I have left is where do we, as a society, draw the line.  How many years of therapy, billed to the government at 65 dollars an hour and with parental non-involvement, should be allowed before  the family is cut off?  Talk therapy is great for some kids, especially girls, even if the family isn’t bought in and the weekly dropoff just serves to check mom’s mental box of parental responsibility, but in the end it is no substitute for doing something.  How many weeks and years of case management, for children currently billed to the state of Montana (and through to the feds) at over 72 dollars per hour, is justified absent progress or at least investment?  How many times does a family get to ignore a recommendation, if the service in question is paid for by the state?

As Vance points out in the aforementioned interview, questions like this are an almost invisible tightrope, stretched between learned helplessness, which social services without question reinforcement, and economic privilege.  If historical factors and the circumstances into which they are born are largely responsible for folks being unable to extract themselves from poverty, who are college educated professionals to arbitrate what they should or should not do?

My concern with Donald Trump is at base that he has been nothing more than a spectacular fraud.  While he has implicitly held himself up as the embodiment of the American Dream (of bootstrapping social mobility), his personal history proves that dream to be the fiction it almost certainly always has been.  And unlike past presidents (two prominent examples are both named Roosevelt) there is little evidence that he’ll transcend his background and act out of anything other than his own view of the world.  In this I sincerely hope I am mistaken.

16 responses to “Moving on”

  1. Nice post Dave, and I can feel a lot of what you are saying. I work in academia and the disconnect between practice and result is frustrating, and I can see how it has contributed to our current situation. Likewise, though I don’t feel it’s the answer. My greatest concern though isn’t the differing stances at the heart of political issues, but the emotions, particularly the hate, ignorance, entitlement, and anger, that are with which those issues are addressed and upon which people act.

    Anyway, I appreciate you being frank about your position, and I am happy for you to be getting at least a break from the social work. I spent a couple summers with a social welfare program and saw only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what you work with. And it is unbelievably draining.

  2. Kudos to you for the good work you have done to improve the human condition. As regards the election, Trump did not win. Like Bush before he lost the actual vote(the electoral college is an anachronism that needs to be abolished), millions of eligible voters of color were turned away from the polls, and there was vote stealing via electronic voting machines. See these articles. The USA has been fascist for at least 16 years now. CODE RED: Computerized Election Theft and The New American Century ).

  3. I’m not sure Trump will last 4 years. He has no idea what the job is going to be like and clearly won’t be able to handle it realistically. He will have people all around him putting him in a straight jacket to stop him from being destructive

  4. Hi Dave, I’ve followed your comments here and on backpackinglight with interest over the past year or so. Your posts on baselayers and especially infant clothing have been outstanding (especially so when as with the kid subject there is very little review anywhere else). While as an anthropologist I don’t think I would be in agreement with your endorsement of Vance, I have to say that the range and concern of your work and this post have taken my regard for your writing to a new level. I just wanted to stop “lurking” for a moment to say that I hope you continue to post and that your transition goes well.

    1. Cheers Christopher. Much appreciated.

  5. Excellent post, one of my favorites actually. I worked in social services for years, in a few different capacities. I kept seeing references to what you did for work, but couldn’t ever pin it down lol. Best of luck on your new path.

  6. Thanks for taking the time to write this, Dave. I’ve been at a complete loss for words since the election.

  7. Could not have been said better, Dave. And welcome to CO.

    1. Thanks Tom! Snowed the day after we arrived, now 45 and sunny. Can’t ask for better.

  8. I’m no expert on structural poverty, trans generational mental illness, social maladaptation, intransigent social and economic mobility, or how expensive they are to facilitate, but I’ll tell you what, after more than 60 years of observing American society in the media it seems to me that the disintegration of our society began in the 1960’s when moral relativism was instituted by academia.

    After that, society moved into an “anything goes” philosophy. And, that’s understandable since moral relativism is basically a rationalization for having no morals at all. The result is that a huge portion of the population has lost all ability to determine right and wrong.

    I remember hippies in the 1960’s, encouraging everyone to express their individuality. But, they eventually cut their hair and beards and got jobs. We have people today who have taken their individuality to such an extreme that they are incapable of obtaining a job and holding it (complete body tattoos and piercings for instance).

    Because of moral relativism we are told we must tolerate intolerable behavior or we are racist, sexist, xenophobes. So, basically, we have become a nation of enablers. People are now remaining in a narcissistic, infantile state well into their 40’s and beyond because nobody is allowed to criticize bad behavior. It might hurt their self-esteem. Shame is completely out of the question.

    The reason Trump was elected was because we are in the midst of a cultural war. It’s the ideology of moral relativism at war with the ideology of moral absolutism (based on Judeo/Christian values – Western Civilization). I’m not terribly religious but I can sure appreciate the values of Western Culture in structuring a highly successful society.

    Because we are a Republic verses an often claimed Democracy (mob rule) those people in the fly-over states that cling to their God (moral absolutism) and their guns were able to elect a law-and-order candidate who is despised by both parties rather than a deeply entrenched, corrupt, career politician who would have continued implementing the failed policies of the previous administration.

    1. Perhaps the moral relativism you see as a disintegration is really just a progression…where as Judeo-Christian morals in a simplified way elevated us above animal behavior and gave us a structure larger than survival of the fittest, maybe it’s not really moral relativism, but a new way of thinking that allows for even greater inclusion, especially as the world and the powers within it become more complicated. I mean, many of the Western values you mention, are no longer so strongly held in the birthplace of those values, Europe, and many of those countries by many measures (life expectancy, happiness, etc) are outdistancing us.

      As for the Donald Trump himself, I think much of the objection is just that he doesn’t represent the the values his supporters claim they are after. He’s a philanderer, rude, an accused predator, often uneducated, often willing to sacrifice his values for a $ (notice for all his talk of Merry Xmas, Trump hotels still offer Happy Holidays). The law and order thing honestly makes absolutely no sense as he preached abusing criminals and mocks the FBI. There’s a lot of reaction to him, specifically, that I don’t think there would if for instance the president was again W. Bush, because Bush at least fit better the values he was supposed to have been elected to represent.

      1. I’m not sure I know what this new way of thinking is that you say allows for greater inclusion. If it is not moral relativism are you referring to diversity or multiculturalism?

        The paradox of moral relativism is that, while it suggests that no culture or value system is morally superior to any other, it is in a battle to establish itself as the new morally superior authority.
        The problem with this is that in moral relativism all views are considered equal and it will not tolerate intolerance. The supposedly antiauthoritarian position of moral relativism is in itself oppressively totalitarian. Ultimately, moral relativism’s only purpose is to dominate and control others. It’s a tyranny of tolerance.

        Western Culture has evolved over the last 2,500 years from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the present and has resulted in civilizations with the highest standards of living in history. It is astounding that in just 50 years some would casually throw out the centuries old tried-and-true standards claiming that its disintegration is progress and would replace it with a concept that has no standards and is promoted by academia where failure has no consequences.

        Perhaps we are led to believe that Europeans are outdistancing us in happiness because they have no freedom of speech. However, if they do complain about things they may disagree with they could be prosecuted under hate speech laws and bankrupted through lengthy litigation.

        Even if it means the certain death of a culture, moral relativism demands tolerance. It also allows censure and even violence against any individual or group it deems intolerant of its views. For example, since Christianity and Judaism both follow moral absolutism they are allowed to be ridiculed and even violently attacked. Conversely, Islam which obligates violence against the weakest among us – nonbelievers, women, children, and homosexuals – it must be tolerated as it is of a different culture and we have no right to pass judgment.

        I only know what I read; see on TV; or hear on the radio. If everything is going so well in Europe how did Marine Le Penn surface? What I’ve been seeing in the news is that Europe is going through some rather tumultuous political developments most of which have to do with the forced toleration of the intolerable.

        As for Trump, I’m guessing you’re too young to remember the Bill Clinton administration. There were few on the left that spoke out about his behavior as a predator, philanderer, etc., while he was in office. Now, suddenly with Trump it’s a “Yuge” issue.

        1. With Clinton, they did impeach him and try to hold him accountable…I am not too young to remember the whole process. But on the other side I would consider the change in how we address Trump in comparison to Clinton progress. Most importantly, I’m not going to excuse wrongs now because someone else got away with it. That’s a very low level ethic…and I would hope certainly not part of the Western tradition you proposing.

          I also would not agree that the new standard is moral relativism. I think many things are wrong, and many things are unacceptable and the people I share views with do as well…and I don’t think we have to accept everything. I think moral relativism is a way term that does not fit the progressive agenda but rather is used to pigeon hole it and limits discussion about what their actual goal is (inclusion, diversity, progress) bc it essentially reduces them to having no position, which just isn’t the case. It’s the same thing as term racist to describe conservatives.

          There is clearly right or wrong. And while I appreciate what Western culture has offered the world it has a lot of growth left.

          As for Europe it has problems, no doubt. I’m not foolish enough to believe though that we are better than them in every way…and I’m open to taking what could improve us.

    2. Thanks for writing John.

      “Moral relativism” is a red herring. Had you been born in 1600 you’d be saying something very similar about the influence of Locke. It is the nature of culture in the moment to see change, especially change which upends the assumptions they grew up with, and read nihilism into it. And not without good cause, as it is easier to seize on the destructive side of anything. Everyone remembers Nietzsche for writing that god is dead, few remember (or bothered to learn about) his railing against nihilism or espousing anti-anti-naturalism.

      Law and order candidates have generally been dog whistling to a nostalgia whose self image is necessarily clouded by distance. It is difficult to blame folks born around the second world war; they saw the country’s population more than double in their lifetimes, and even if you don’t believe that to be too many people there is no way for a society to grow that fast without some ugliness. As a country we have some reckoning ahead, but I don’t think hewing closer to puritan ethics would have saved us any trouble.

      1. Dave,

        I wish I was as self-assured as you are about moral relativism being just a distraction but when I see what is going on in the world I’m a bit concerned about what I’m leaving my children and grandchildren.

        If there is any doubt as to how extremely oppressive and totalitarian moral relativism can be you have only to look to Europe or American college campuses where anyone with an opposing view is shut down through laws or other violent means, to see the proof. See my post above.

        You mention the influence of Locke. Since I know nothing about Locke I Googled him and got this:

        “…The philosopher and member of the Royal Society, John Locke, in his 1690s Letters Concerning Toleration, laid the foundations of law which now protect freedom of thought. Locke argued for the separation of religious authority from civil authority, so that a person’s religious persuasion could not be held against them in court. This is now considered a fundamental human right. Much of Locke’s philosophy influenced and was influenced by Freemasonry and the Royal Society.”;_ylt=A0SO8yzN.Cda6dUAjSRXNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTEyMW41cXU3BGNvbG8DZ3ExBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDQjQ0ODJfMQRzZWMDc2M-?qid=20110918055610AAcYsrd

        From this, I don’t think Locke would have supported moral relativism since it, ultimately, shuts down freedom of thought. Also, I don’t think he would have supported the mass immigration of Islam which is a theocracy with its own set of laws which are considered to be higher than any nation’s laws.

        Moreover, I don’t think Locke would have supported President Obama and his Attorney General Loretta Lynch when they sought to prosecute climate change deniers. Not only does it shut down free speech but it goes completely against the definition of scientific research – a proposed explanation of something based on available knowledge, for something yet to be explained and subject to further experimentation.

        Now imagine if Obama had a supreme court that was majority liberal and a climate change denier was prosecuted. Our free speech laws could quite easily slip away just like in Europe and Canada.

        If moral relativism is a red herring then what is the important or relevant issue? Are you suggesting that it is merely fear of change that is the more important issue?

        You may be on to something as this truly is a sea-change in philosophies from moral absolutism with its morals and standards; where the individual is independent, highly valued, and self- governing; verses moral relativism that has no morals or standards; places more importance on the collective than the individual; and self-governance is surrendered to the state allowing its residents to remain in a child-like, dependent status their whole life subject to fierce punishment for any an opposing view. That is scary.

        Regarding law and order – without it you get a Detroit, a Baltimore, a Newark, and/or a Chicago – all the places that need it most to protect the vulnerable who can’t get out of bad neighborhoods. New York City was revived through the firm and consistent application of law and order (just like you do with children unless you want them walking all over you). Today the safety and cleanliness it has known is slowly slipping away as laws are relaxed or not enforced.

        I’ve never been able to understand how liberals reconcile the fact that they support labor but fail to enforce immigration laws. Flooding the country with unskilled workers by the millions only drives down labor costs and makes it harder for Americans to find jobs, especially those that need them the most – young black men needing to get their foot in the door of employment to gain experience for future high wage jobs.

        Anyway, I’m old so the future is yours. I just hope that whoever is left doesn’t nonchalantly surrender their hard fought rights and become dependent on a government that could easily turn totalitarian and lead to some serious ugliness like, maybe, a “cleansing.”

        1. Moral relativism isn’t a distraction, it’s a phantasm. It is the shadow on the wall thrown by a form people created to make sense of their world. The existence of facts doesn’t mean that as humans we have unmediated access to them, and the fact that our access to them is created by our own experience doesn’t mean that seeking knowledge is futile.

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