American Fever Dream
My journey from poverty to an elite gone astray
It never occurred to me that I would attend college. Neither of my parents even had a high school diploma. One has been dead for thirty years; the other was left a 20-year-old widow with two children in the wake of that death. My mom grew up in the Chicago projects and despite everything I’ve gone through, I know she gave me a better life than the one she had. My brother came a decade later. His dad is dead now, too.
My home life was tumultuous. I had countless run-ins with violent boyfriends (and violent grandparents once the boyfriends left and we moved three children and one adult into a single bedroom in their house). My journal counted down the days until I turned 15 and could be legally emancipated. In the meantime, I was berated, belittled, punched, kicked, choked, spit on, and thrown into walls until I’d had enough. It felt like I was living underwater, suffocating. I didn't make it to 15. Leaving home gave me a gasp of air, but making my own way was an exercise in treading water without having learned to swim. It was all I could do to keep from drowning.
On my own, I lied about my age to get work. I slept over at friends' houses or on park benches. I still remember a particularly cold Illinois winter night when my body woke me up violently shivering as if to say “do something or die.” Eventually, the family of one close friend caught on to my painfully consistent attempts to stay over, and a bed was set up for me in the back of an unfinished basement. Another family took me in for the latter portion of my senior year. This new stability was comforting, but I never escaped the feeling of being a burden. That feeling pushed me to rent my first apartment at 17.
More than a decade later, I am now an attorney. I worked a few years in software engineering out of college before moving on to law school and then to a law firm. I work on plaintiff’s class action lawsuits representing “the little guy” against abusive employers and dishonest companies. In many ways, it's a natural fit. Still, in other ways I remain an obvious outsider in my profession. Like most lawyers, I am politically minded. Yet, while my political outlook is deeply informed by my upbringing, I typically do not bring up my past in political discussion. The few times I have didn’t end well. Perhaps surprisingly, to this day every person who has belittled my earlier struggles has been on the political left. This is not a consequence of petty tribalism—after all, I am unmistakably liberal. My sin was apostasy. As a poor liberal, I rose to the Gated Institutions of the modern liberal elite, where I was supposed to adopt the Gated Institutional Narrative. Instead, I smuggled in an understanding of the world entirely foreign to its neatly curated safe spaces.
My “miseducation” started early and not in a classroom. We moved from the city to rural Illinois when I was too young to remember. At home, I took in the perspective of my urban poor mother, but I was otherwise steeped in smalltown America. I have always been politically liberal, and I’ve never had much of a filter for my other quirks. I stuck out like a sore thumb in rural Illinois. Other kids mercilessly bullied me throughout my childhood, which provided a lesson in the consequences of being different. Still, I liked to debate and discuss, especially with adults who knew more than me. It helped sharpen my thinking, as nobody ever just agreed with my left-leaning opinions. It also taught me to connect with people of differing views to find common ground.
The kind of learning that happens in school, however, was not a priority for me. I found it difficult to care. I worked 45–50 hour weeks at McDonald’s for $6.00 an hour (somehow never receiving a single hour of overtime), at times working weeks in a row without a day off. Tired from overwork, I slept through many of my classes. Starting in high school I got into a lot of fights, and I lost track of how many detentions and suspensions I racked up. I never did my homework. And while I failed to see how that should distinguish me from the hordes of students who sat in the hallways each morning copying the work of 1 or 2 bookworms eager to trade answers for a morsel of social capital, it did distinguish us—they got As and I got Ds. This was another early lesson I stubbornly chose not to learn: you get ahead not by aptitude or grit, but by jumping through the hoops set out for you. After a while, I didn’t see the point of hoop-jumping anyway. No college with standards would accept a small-town kid with a 1.7 GPA, and I figured I couldn’t afford college anyway.
I knew the military was a common route for kids without money or other prospects, and so the Marine Corps seemed like a reasonable next step. I joined a recruit pool where my incompetent and dishonest recruiter lied to me about the MOS (military occupational specialty—the term for your job in the Marine Corps or Army) I would be assigned. He was pushed out of the Corps before I was scheduled to ship out to basic, and the recruiter who replaced him was more honest. After learning that I had almost signed away my life for a job I didn’t even know I was assigned, I panicked and backed out. Living in the kind of small-town that revered military service, that choice weighed heavily on me for some time.
With my military plans out the window and only a few weeks before the academic year was slated to begin, some friends pushed me to enroll in a nearby community college. I applied and received my acceptance email an hour later. It felt good to be accepted somewhere. Thus began a new era in my life, where financial aid took the day-to-day pressure off and classes on a myriad of subjects captured my interest. I learned that I loved to learn about anything and everything. I quickly moved to a four-year university, had a son with my girlfriend at the time, and finished my degree as that relationship fell apart and I had to begin negotiating our shared custody. I felt terrible for creating yet another broken home, but I have made sure to be present and impactful in my son’s life.
Socially and politically, my time in higher education was eye-opening. I had always thought the “liberal elite” caricatures coming from small-town conservatives were right-wing talking points, but at my prestigious university bursting with affluent young liberals I found these talking points embodied by real people. As a poor kid who thought he was sneaking his way into the ranks of brilliant thinkers with deep knowledge and broad perspective, what I encountered instead was a class of elites-by-inheritance with no idea how the world worked outside of their crib-to-consulting pipeline. They repeated the same lines, shared the same conclusions, and conspicuously justified their engineered uniformity of thought as having learned “expert consensus.” While this mentality is totally calcified today, I saw the seeds of it forming a decade ago. It was particularly salient to me that their consensus was utterly detached from the realities of the world I had lived in.
The situation worsened when I started law school in 2015. Despite entering one of the most highly ranked law schools in the country, I felt surrounded by anti-intellectualism, bizarre cultish behavior, and genuine hysteria. The examples abound. One of my classmates got a pro bono visit to a prison canceled because she put “human” under the field marked “race” on some paperwork to prove a point. I cannot say whether the prisoners she and other volunteers were supposed to visit ever got legal counsel. I can only say that at other times this same student offered a more precise answer to the question of her racial identity—she was Indian but “identified as black.”
In my Torts class, a woman argued her belief that a fetus was not a human until it fully exited the birth canal and so she reasoned there were no moral implications whatsoever with aborting it on its way out after a full-term pregnancy if that was the mother’s choice. It would be immoral, however, to judge her for choosing to do so. In Criminal Law, a student argued her view that defendants accused of rape should be presumed guilty and be required to affirmatively prove their innocence. In a seminar entitled “Hard Feelings,” we delved into topics such as forgiveness and mercy. A student in that seminar argued the left should abandon free speech principles because conservatives “did it first” during the McCarthy era.
My Philosophy of Law class once planned to have an open discussion on abortion and moral philosophy. Ahead of that discussion, the professor received several emails concerned that this topic could not possibly be met with earnest discussion. He brought up these emails to the class, gave us a well-intentioned lecture on the importance of open discourse, stated we would go forward with the discussion, and asserted that it would be a free and open exchange. He was right on one count. The discussion did go forward, but it was not free, and it was not open.
I attended exactly one meeting of the Poverty Law Society before abandoning that mirage of familiarity. The group didn’t appear to have any regard for the dignity of the individuals in poverty, approaching the topic instead with a sanctimonious and naive “I will be their savior” attitude. Just as bad was the total conflation of being poor with being black. Or in the words of our President, “poor kids are just as bright as white kids.” In the single meeting I attended, every time a different affluent student took their turn telling their story and explaining why we should vote for them to be the president of the Poverty Law Society, the room snapped their fingers in support. I later asked what the deal was with the finger-snapping and was told that many people interpret clapping as “violence.” The Poverty Law Society’s peaceable finger snaps were notably muted, however, when I suggested during discussion that we should give attention to the fact that poor people, like all people, want to feel agency and power over their own lives, and we should offer tools that will help them with that. I made the same point in a different campus discussion, and a classmate responded that it was a “terrifyingly effective argument for conservatism.”
Outside of the classroom, I was routinely shut out of discourse based on immutable group traits, which my classmates were increasingly and openly willing to use to prejudge speakers and preempt dialog. In one discussion, an affluent classmate interrupted me and told me I couldn’t contribute to a conversation on poverty because I was a “straight white male.” Since she was a “female person of color,” this summary dismissal was routine and accepted. In discourse within the Gated Institutions, everything is now about immutable group characteristics. If you share surface-level traits with an “oppressed class,” you are personally oppressed and your voice is elevated. If you shared surface-level traits with an “oppressor class,” however, you’re personally an oppressor or a “colonizer.” Your perspectives can be dismissed without consideration. Your words can even be deemed violence, based solely on the listener’s subjective judgment.
Nor did it make a difference to acknowledge the fact that I never experienced systemic racism before attempting to explain the kinds of systemic adversity I did experience. In the Gated Institutional Narrative, “oppressors” cannot experience any kind of systemic adversity. Thus, my race routinely gave cover to lash out at me for not simply falling in line with the Narrative. It gave the new left, a group that prides itself on compassion, permission to harshly and sometimes cruelly dismiss my life experience, or as one person put it, my “whining” that “white people have problems too.”
This isn’t to say that a breakout disadvantaged racial minority could speak sense to any of these people, either. Those within the Gated Institutions simply will not see outside of the Narrative, instead instinctively putting their education to work in rationalizing away any dissent. Armed with the conviction that they have learned the correct “expert consensus,” they lift up consensus thinkers and ostracize heterodoxy. Their groupthink comes with a degree—a credential to set them apart from the uncredentialed. In their view, these uneducated masses simply can’t understand how the world works, even though their “uneducated” lives come with deep experience in the messy, complex, and often arduous world outside of the Gated Institutions and their safe spaces.
When Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016, I was in my second year of law school. My classmates were uniformly mortified and shocked. Over the next few days, many cried. One student who I saw crying was Muslim, and I felt for her. I was disgusted at our new president-elect, but like many minorities and countless struggling Americans, I was not one bit surprised. While our Gated Institutional Narrative did not permit us to entertain the real possibility that Donald Trump might actually win, my miseducation did. And the people surrounding me had spent the last year demonstrating exactly how a country could go insane enough to elect Donald Trump as president.
Today, all of these people have JDs from one of the highest-ranked law schools in the country. Our employment data is public knowledge. The median starting salary for my graduating class was $190,000 (the median starting salary at every top law school is always the same as the market rate for corporate law firms). About half of my class took jobs with “biglaw” firms—large firms with more than 500 attorneys that typically represent corporate and ultra-rich clients. These firms almost always represent employers against employees, corporations against consumers, white-collar criminals against prosecution, or just help large corporations absorb other large corporations, concentrating markets and reducing overhead (read: jobs) to ‘increase shareholder value.’ Critically to the public image of those firms, they do all of those things with an increasingly ethnically and gender-diverse team of lawyers. Any moral harm to the work they do is laundered through the all-important shield of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Most of my fellow law graduates are not only amassing wealth and comfort, but they have never been physically unsafe in their entire lives. Yet paradoxically, they increasingly feel unsafe because of words. From the haven of their swanky apartments in the Gold Coast in Chicago or the Upper East Side of Manhattan, they Tweet in support of silencing speech—now synonymous with violence. They endorse utopian and deeply unpopular ideas like abolishing the police for all of us, including for the less advantaged who are under threat of more harm than mere words or handclapping can inflict. While many of us outside the Gated Institutions have had first-hand experience with bad policing and emphatically support significant reform, the elite genuinely does not know that the disadvantaged (including disadvantaged black people) overwhelmingly oppose abolishing the police. This problem is emblematic of a pervasive pattern: engrossed in its a priori universe, this elite cannot grasp or even imagine the real problems that exist outside of its walled-off safe spaces.
Instead of listening and learning from these (actually) diverse perspectives, the elite holds up racial tokens to support the Narrative (a dehumanizing practice the left can at least recognize as sinister when we call out the political right for doing it). This gives truth to the lie—they claim to give “lived experience” primacy, but they only accept the lived experience of pre-selected views permitted within the Gated Institutions. Sometimes these tokens are already-affluent minorities who came from the same crib-to-consulting pipeline with the Narrative as their birthright. Other times they are newly minted elites of diverse color whose cost-of-admission into the Gated Institutions is to adopt the Narrative, attack divergent thought, and serve 5-7 years in mergers and acquisitions with a fast track to partner. Diversity, equity, and inclusion.
After time and reflection, I now call these people what they are—illiberal. They demand consensus, abhor true scientific skepticism or rigorous thought, ignore experiences inconvenient to the Narrative, and cast speech as “violence” to justify their advocacy to ban it. And while this illiberal movement did not swallow up all my classmates (I met some brilliant and thoughtful minds during my time in law school) it was far too widespread to discount.
Conservative friends often ask why I don’t just become conservative, or libertarian. I still find this question bizarre. As illiberal as these elite "liberals" are, I fail to see how that should alter my worldview or foundational principles. I still believe in progressive taxes, robust safety nets, the need for universal healthcare, guaranteed family leave, police reform, and continued efforts to rectify structural inequality (racial, class-based, sex, gender, and otherwise). I wrote an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in 2016 opposing Trump’s Muslim travel ban. I’ve helped immigrants naturalize. I’ve worked on appellate cases for the wrongfully convicted (and the rightfully convicted but over-sentenced). Today, I represent employees whose wages have been stolen from them, workers who have suffered from discrimination in the workplace, and consumers defrauded by unscrupulous corporations. I don’t speak the words of the illiberal elite’s new orthodoxy. My actions make my progressivism clear.
Yet, as long as today’s progressive movement is popularly defined by hyper-proscriptive elites and uber-online ideologues who confuse groupthink with “expert consensus,” disavow reasoning in favor of selectively curated “lived experience” tailored to support the Narrative, obsess over semantics while ignoring the real conditions of adversity, and refuse to consider any modifications to their narrow, deceptively under-educated worldviews, I have little faith in progress. Nor does simply “joining the other team” solve anything. In fact, our society would be in even worse shape if the extremes of the right had all of the cultural and economic power that now resides with the illiberal elite on the left.
After all these years, I still feel homeless. This time I don’t know what to do.