Wyoming is no longer immune to the grievances and resentments that have infected our nation. We need look no further than the shouting matches during our school board meetings; parents angry at teachers; teachers fearful of speaking out; and, most disheartening, now even first graders disrespectfully sassing their teachers.
Self-conceit doesn’t absolve those of us with livable earnings and successful careers, of responsibility for conditions producing the incivilities and bad behavior that threaten the foundation of our democracy. How did we get to this point? What must we do to address legitimate grievances? To renew our moral and civic life?
Centuries ago, clergy and citizens defined success as salvation through good works and faith, or by unearned faith alone. In modern times, it has been all about worldly success. “New Age” preachers tell their mega-churchgoers that wealth is a sign of God’s love for them. The key to that success: a four-year college degree. The more prestigious the college, the higher the earnings lifelong. Now we’re learning that the doctrine of self-centeredness combined with reliance on the free market for achieving public good, is enormously destructive to our social fabric. The focus on money has resulted in vast inequalities, subjective indignity of much work, and a disempowerment of ordinary citizens.
Who is to say that a private equity manager profiting on misfortune is contributing more to society than a long-distance truck driver earning $45,000 per year or a home-health provider getting $15 per hour: the one working overnight to deliver fresh produce, the other enabling an elderly person to remain at home? For those of us who, by chance, have earned college degrees, it is wrong and arrogant to categorize even a few of the roughly three-quarters of our fellow Wyomingites without four-year college degrees as somehow undeserving of our respect. (The book to read: The Tyranny of Merit by Michael J. Sandel.)
Dislocations in our energy sector, scarcity of the jobs that young people seek today, and great disparities in personal wealth surely have aggravated the discontentment. But our unease goes deeper. Over the past half-century, many of us have moved to Wyoming to escape turmoil, whether urban, domestic, business or campus; looking to be left alone to enjoy our lives and the sense of freedom inspired by the beauty and vastness of our state. But now that isolation is disappearing.
As Wyomingites, regardless of political persuasion, our preferred option is to blame the federal government for every ill. But now, taking advantage of the whole range of discontents, political extremists are exploiting our don’t-tread-on-me sentiment to separate us from our own state and local governments; deflecting our elected leaders to take up their ideological agenda. As we lose confidence in our leaders’ abilities to govern on our behalf, we become suspicious of our friends and neighbors. And voila, we’ve frayed our social fabric.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, no matter our denials, it is that we humans need and depend on each other. We must show a bit more humility and treat with esteem our fellow citizens who provide the services and produce the goods that enable all of us to live worthwhile lives. Taking such individual action alone will lower the temperature and help close the divide.
As a former history teacher, I cannot help but observe that, as with our jury system, our form of democracy cannot leave political judgments to others. Governing requires practical wisdom and a sense of right and wrong. Strikingly, the cultural unrest that began decades ago coincides in time with the decline in moral and civic education offered in our public schools, colleges, and universities. Long term, if we’re serious about retaining as much as possible of Wyoming as a small town with long streets, we have a solemn duty to reform the education establishment, and seek additional ways to create a better-informed citizenry.