The Revolt of the Baristas

For several weeks, nearly every night, I have a déjà vu experience.

First, I watch Fox News where I see crowds of younger people in dark clothing breaking things, setting buildings on fire, and assaulting police. (I infer they are younger people because of the suppleness of their movements.)

Then, I switch to French news on “Vingt-trois heures.” There, I see young people in large French cities, breaking shop windows, damaging and burning cars, and assaulting police.

The supposed reason for the continuing rioting in several major American cities is police brutality toward Blacks and racial injustice in general.

The rioting on wealthy business arteries of French cities was, as of recently, occasioned by the victory of a favorite soccer club in an important tournament. A week later, the defeat of the same soccer club occasioned the same kind of behavior except worse, by what I am sure were the same people.

No common cause to these similar conducts, you might think. That seems true but the behaviors are so strikingly similar, I am not satisfied with this observation. I have to ask, what do the rioters have in common on the two sides of the Atlantic. Your answer may be as good as mine – probably better – but here is my take:

Two things.

First, both youngish Americans and youngish French people are counting on a high degree of impunity. Both American society and French society have gone wobbly on punishment in the past thirty years (the years of the “participation prize” for school children). Used to be, in France (where I grew up) that you did not set cars afire because there was the off-chance it would earn you several years of your beautiful youth in prison. No more. The police makes little effort to catch the perpetrators anyway. The charging authorities let them go with an admonition, maybe even a severe warning. In the US, the civil authorities often order the police to do nothing, to “stand down” in the face of looting and arson. And they refuse legitimate help. Here, the elected authorities are part- time rioters in their hearts – for whatever reason. The local DAs in Demo strongholds routinely release rioters on their own recognizance. It’s almost a custom.

It seems to me that in any group, from pre-kindergarten on, there are some who will not regulate themselves unless they feel threatened by powerful and likely punishment. Perhaps, it’s a constant proportion of any society. Remove the fear of punishment, it’s 100% certain someone will do something extreme, destructive, or violent. I don’t like this comment but I am pretty sure it’s right.

The second thing the rioting in France and in the US have in common is that they seem to involve people who don’t feel they have a stake in the current social arrangements. In the French case, it’s easy to guess who they are (a strong guess, actually). Bear with me. In the sixties and seventies, various French governments built massive, decent housing projects outside Paris and other big cities (again: “decent”). I was there myself, working as a minor government city planner. The above-board objective was to move people out of slums. It’s too easy to forget that the plan worked fine in this respect. With rising prosperity, inevitably, the new towns and cities became largely occupied by new immigrants.

Those who burn private cars on the Champs Elysees in Paris recently are their children and grandchildren. The immigrants themselves, like immigrants everywhere, tend to work hard to save, and to retain the strict mores of their mostly rural origins. Their children go haywire because the same mores can’t be applied in an urban, developed society. (“Daughter: You may go to the cinema once a month accompanied by your two cousins; no boys.” “Dad: You are kidding right?”) Misery is rarely or never an issue. In the French welfare state, it’s difficult to go hungry or cold. I have often observed that the French rioters are amazingly well dressed by American college standards, for example. Incidentally, the same children of immigrants frequently have several college degrees, sometimes advanced degrees. But, fact is, ordinary French universities are pretty bad. Further fact is that in a slow growing or immobile economy like France’s, few college degrees matter to the chance of employment anyway. The rioters feel that they don’t have a stake in French society, perhaps because they don’t.

Seen from TV and given their agility and sturdiness, American rioters seem to be in their twenties to early thirties; they are “millenials.” I don’t know what really animates them because I don’t believe their slogans. It’s not only that they are badly under-informed. (For example they seem to believe that policemen killing African Americans is common practice. It’s not. See my recent article on “Systemic Racism” for figures.) It’s also that they have not specified what remedies they want to the ills they denounce. An “end to capitalism” does not sound to me like a genuine demand. Neither does the eradication of a kind of racism that, I think, hardly exists in America any more. The impression is made stronger by the fact that they don’t have a replacement program for what they seem bent on destroying. (“Socialization of the means of production” anyone?) Their destructiveness inspires fear and it may be its only objective.

I don’t know well where the American rioters come from, sociologically and intellectually. They are the cohort that marries late or not at all. It is said that many never hope to become home owners, that they see themselves as renters for life. Few buy cars (possibly a healthy choice in every way eliminating a normal American drain on one’s finances). I think that they firmly believe that the Social Security programs to which they contribute through their paychecks will be long gone by their retirement age. (I hear this all the time, in progressive Santa Cruz, California.) I hypothesize that many of those young people have had the worst higher education experience possible. Let me say right away that I don’t blame much so-called “indoctrination” by leftist teachers; leftists are just not very good at what they do. Most students don’t pay attention, in general anyway. Why would they pay attention to Leftie propaganda? Rather it seems to me that many spend years in college studying next to nothing and in vain.

Roughly, there are two main kinds of courses study in American higher education. The first, covering engineers and accountants, and indirectly, medical doctors and vets, for example have a fairly straightforward payoff: Get your degree, win a fairly well paying job quickly. Graduates of these fields seldom have a sense of futility about their schooling though they may be scantily educated (by my exalted standards). The second kind of course of studies was first modeled in the 19th century to serve the children of the moneyed elites. I mean “Liberal Arts” in the broadest sense. Its purpose was first to help young people form judgment and second, to impart to them a language common to the elites of several Western countries. For obvious reasons, degrees in such areas were not linked to jobs (although they may have been a pre-requisite to political careers). Many, most of the majors following this pattern are pretty worthless to most of their graduates. A social critic – whose name escapes me unfortunately – once stated that American universities and colleges graduate each year 10,000 times more journalism majors that there are journalism openings.

As a rule, the Liberal Arts only lead to jobs through much flexibility of both graduates and employers. Thus, in good times, big banks readily hire History and Political Science majors into their lower management ranks on the assumption that they are reasonably articulate and also trainable. Then there are the graduates in Women’s Studies and Environmental Studies who may end up less educated than they were on graduating from high school. It’s not that one could not, in principle acquire habits of intellectual rigor though endeavors focusing on women or on the environments. The problem is that the spirit of inquiry in such fields (and many more) was strangled from the start by an ideological hold. (One women’s studies program, at UC Santa Cruz , is even called “Feminist Studies,” touching candidness!) It seems to me that more and more Liberal Arts disciplines are falling into the same pit, beginning with Modern Languages. There, majors who are Anglos regularly graduate totally unable to read a newspaper in Spanish but well versed in the injustices perpetrated on Hispanic immigrants since the mid 19th century.

Those LA graduates who have trouble finding good employment probably don’t know that they are pretty useless. After all, most never got bad grades. They received at least Bs all along. And why should instructors, especially the growing proportion on fragile, renewable contracts look for trouble by producing non-conforming grade curves? The grading standard is pretty much the same almost (almost) everywhere: You do the work more or less: A; you don’t do the work: B. But nothing will induce disaffection more surely than going unrewarded when one has the sentiment of having done what’s required by the situation. That’s the situation on ten of thousands of new graduates produced each year. And many of those come out burdened by lifetime debts. (Another rich topic, obviously.)

Incidentally, I am in no way opining that higher education studies should always lead to gainful employment. I am arguing instead that many, most, possible almost all LA students shouldn’t be in colleges or universities at all, at least in the manner of the conventional four-year degree (now five or six years).

The college graduates I have in mind, people in their twenties, tend to make work choices that correspond to their life experience devoid of effort. In my town, one hundred will compete for a job as a barista in one of the of several thriving coffee shops while five miles away, jobs picking vegetables that pay 50% or twice more go begging. I suspect the preference is partly because you can’t dress well in the fields and because they, the fields, don’t provide much by way of casual human warmth the way Starbucks routinely does.

Go ahead, feel free to like this analysis. I don’t like it much myself. It’s too anecdotal; it’s too ad hoc. It’s lacking in structural depth. It barely nicks the surface. It’s sociologically poor. At best, it’s unfinished. Why don’t you give it a try?

A last comment: a part of my old brain is temped by the paradoxical thought that the determinedly democratic revolt in Belorussia belongs on the same page as the mindless destructiveness in France and the neo-Bolshevik rioting in large American cities.

20 thoughts on “The Revolt of the Baristas

  1. I am in my early 60s, American, and went to supposedly decent colleges and universities in the USA: Two years at Bard, two at Boston University. But I also spent three years studying at Ecole Blaise Pascal in Paris (age 10-12). I learned more and remember more from those three years with Madame De Lyons than anything I “learned” in an American high school or college in the ’70s. Of course, even in France back then we knew that most French universities were crap, so you studied really, really hard for your Bacc so you go to a good one and become a government employee. Americans didn’t know this. They thought they were being educated. And the colleges today (I paid for three sons to go through them) are almost universally terrible. The professors who have any brains don’t teach and most “professors” had the same terrible education I got in the ’70s.

  2. “It seems to me that in any group, from pre-kindergarten on, there are some who will not regulate themselves unless they feel threatened by powerful and likely punishment. Perhaps, it’s a constant proportion of any society. Remove the fear of punishment, it’s 100% certain someone will do something extreme, destructive, or violent. I don’t like this comment but I am pretty sure it’s right.”

    I strongly suspect that lots of similar comments were made at the time of Libius Severus, plus or minus a century or so–the advent of barbarism is likely going to look pretty much the same no matter when it occurs. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I think I’m seeing these days. For some, what they can’t control, what they can’t understand, they seek only to destroy.

  3. I submit that many of the supposedly well educated US protestors are very well aware of their own uselessness and are lashing out in large part because of this realization. Despite the high number of the utterly clueless, there must be at least some who have achieved self-awareness. These are probably the leaders.

  4. I can find almost nothing in your analyses that is incorrect. Other then we have a society that likely brings out sociopathic and narcissistic tendencies.

    My kids are in college:

    1) daughter 1 decided to go to an expensive nursing school. $50k a year, but marked down with generous scholarships to $18K. We have gotten her through the system with just $20k in college debt. Her school was marked with several very questionable requirements for ethnic studies. No doubt required to support the useless professors that teach them.100% of last year graduating classes had jobs before graduation. She’ll start her first job at $70k a year.

    2) Daughter 2 went to a very inexpensive college and received massive scholarships. Majored in geology. Cost around $10k per year. She’ll graduate with < $10k in loans. 100% of last year graduating classes had jobs before graduation. She'll start a job at $60k a year.

    3) Daughter 3. Sigh. Went to a cheap college, zero debt (I insisted on that). Majored in Botany, English, now psychology. Not impressed with anything she is learning – it's all just performative garbage. I've told her she can continue college indefinitely, but she has a much better chance setting her sights on becoming a manager at the local pizza parlor. She's easily the smartest of the three – so smart she doesn't have to listen to me.

    What people need more than money is the need purpose. All people need purpose. We have created and educated a large number of people that have no purpose.They could go away tomorrow and the world would scarcely notice. What happens when you have a group of narcissistic sociopaths and you tell them they don't matter? Simple. They will wreck everything until they do matter.

    • Your thesis is attractive. What’s lacking in it is any evidence that thirty, forty, fifty years ago. young people of college age tended to have a purpose. I think few did. ( I went to college in the sixties.)

  5. I graduated in the mid-1970’s with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from a quite respectable university in Chicago. Had about $2,500 in student loans, payable at 3% simple interest. The somewhat high inflation of the late ’70’s/early ’80’s induced me to string out the payments as long as possible. Most of my college education was paid for by Pell ( ? ) grants, so no repayment required. Have almost always been employed, even in relatively bad recessions.

    • Those with any sort of a an engineering degree are rarely a problem, to themselves or to others. However, I am explicitly not proposing that young people should pursue practical degrees. If it were possible still to major in English the old fashioned way, it would be wonderful.

    • Neoliberalism is a contagious mental illness. Reagan let them run free for 50 years, it’s long past time to round them all back up.

    • It’s not enough to assert it for it yo become true. It’s not even clear the word “neoliberalism ” has much of a shared meaning, except as an invective in some quarters.

  6. Mostly fact free conjecture, spun out of a narrative you’ve largely created in your own head. Why not use data and journalism? Here’s an example from Texas of the police tracking down suspected protestors months after the initial event: https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/21/texas-dps-police-brutality-protesters/

    And here’s an example from the citadel of Antifa itself, California, where cops are again arresting young people for suspected crimes from earlier in the summer: https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-08-26/los-angeles-arrests-summer-unrest

    Admittedly, we won’t have charges on conviction rates for a while. But it’s clear that police departments are investing significant resources in tracking down young people responsible for even small bits of property damage. Perhaps this idea you have – of young people running amok, police being held back by reckless Democratic DAs – is the exact message that those television images you’re taking in nightly have been designed to convey? Maybe the intuition that your analysis is “sociologically poor” is right on the money after all?

    • Fair point, I shouldn’t have grabbed that first links that came up. Here’s the most accurate assessment I’ve seen, with 10,000 estimated arrests as of early June: https://apnews.com/bb2404f9b13c8b53b94c73f818f6a0b7

      I don’t know, 10,000 seems like a lot to me! That’s not even including protests in July or August, nor does it include on-going investigations in cities like LA and other places. Again, we don’t have conviction rates so maybe a majority of these will be thrown out. But there are clearly repercussions for protesting. The trope of these being lethargic baristas wreaking havoc while a castrated police force watches on helplessly is just a complete media driven fabrication.

    • genezip. I posted a reply to this. I don’t know where it went. I don’t think a “majority” (50%+1) will get off without repercussion. I think all of them will. Or perhaps, one or two will be charged (charged). Being arrested is not a repercussion, it’s a certificate giving one bragging rights. Did I make up the idea that some DAs flatly refuse to charge those arrested in the context of BLM demonstrations?

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