Monday, June 08, 2015

"Cultural critic" stirs up secondary controversy by bragging about defaulting on student loan: i.e., what is a real "writer"?

A Facebook friend posted an angry comment about this op-ed in the New York Times by Lee Siegel Sunday, “Why I defaulted on my student loans”, here.  He's proud of this! Indeed, the article opens up a can of worms for me.  Don’t misconstrue, I don’t have a student loan or other debt problem (in fact, after my own William and Mary expulsion in 1961, my parents actually paid for the tuition to “live at home” and go to GWU, when the tuition was orders of magnitude less than it is now – and in graduate school, I paid my own way with teaching and research (computer programming) assistantships – and, yes, I had some pre-DADT military service).  
Siegel gets into some typical “class warfare” left-wing sorts of arguments, that are more or less true. Indeed, a lot of people who are stable financially are luckier (come from wealthier families that gave them head starts).  Indeed, a lot of inherited or rentier wealth or excessive executive compensation is in some way “underserved”.  I’ve heard a lot of that before (particularly when I “came of age” in the 60s and 70s).   But then he says, don’t take bad credit seriously (funny to someone who worked in the credit industry for six years in the 1980s from an IT perspective, and later as a debt collector) or marry or “love” someone with good credit.  That’s pretty silly, at best; at worst, it’s offensive. 

What’s more provocative is that he says that taking any job to pay the bills was beneath him.  We all know, that kind of attitude doesn’t cut it.  I my post 9/11, post-career-ending-at-age 58 layoff in 2001, I’ve worked some minimum wage jobs or had a taste of what the “low wage” world lives on.  Fortunately (maybe like Barbara Ehrenreich) I had a cushion and avoided the worst.  

He says he didn’t want to waste his life on a job that didn’t reflect his “particular usefulness to society”.  Well, anything that pays a wage at all reflects his real “usefulness”.  If working at McDonalds at minimum wage is the best he can do, then that’s his usefulness.  Does he even have the self-discipline to work wearing a uniform in a regimented job?  Can he even work?  There is a bit Maosim, I know, in my reaction.  He wouldn’t survive a “free market cultural revolution.”  

In "fairness" to Siegel, I suspect that he found that a lot of lucrative jobs involved pimping somebody else's ideas and work rather than his own.  (Even Wall Street sometimes is like that.)  "Sales" as a career, used to be respected.  Now, nobody wants to be called or contacted cold by a "sales person: and it's viewed as a second-rate career by a lot of us.  My father was a "wholesale" sales professional and built a world around it as I grew up in the 1950s.  I deeply respect how my parents built their world and how they raised me.  But my parents didn't grasp how radically the world would change during my own life.  My dad's life paradigm doesn't really exist today.  
That raises, of course, another question.  What did Siegel get his degree in?  What were his skills?  I know college kids now with enough skills (mostly in server programming, developing apps, sometimes even security) to earn a living while still in college and start their “adult lives” (car, apartment, credit cards) in a new city (albeit a college town, away from the parents’ nest), and they love it.  True, I don’t see them as often.   

He says he would have to give up what became his self-expressive vocation – being a “writer”, now.  I guess he didn’t major in journalism.  He could have started as a local reporter.  True, newspapers are having a harder time.  Maybe he could have gone into local television station.  (I know folks at WLJA and WRC in the DC area, and a little bit of the TV world from previous roots in Texas).  Maybe he could have gone to Vox, which advertises for openings (I know people there).  

At this point, it’s well to point to some other articles about Siegel’s “online reputation”.  The visitor can check for herself, like here or the Wikipeida article on his controversy (as a “cultural critic”) here.  
There’s then the obvious column, how much does he make from his columns now? 
Let’s then get into the area, who deserves to be called a “writer” anyway?  Author’s Guild says (or used to say) that it is only someone who gets advances for his work (when getting a book published).  Some people feel that a real writer is someone who can be hired to “write what other people want” (an old chestnut from Writers Digest) or will “pay for”.   That sounds like free market idea doesn’t it? 
A variation of this idea is that an “author” should be able to write about others besides himself.  For example, in many of my posts, and especially in the first book where I went into great detail about gays in the military, I did tell the stories of several servicemembers based on my own debriefing them.  But I also compared their narratives to my own (which presents an unusual paradox).  It’s true that I cover a lot topics and concerns, but can usually almost any controversial concern back to some circumstance previous in my own life – perhaps decades ago.  Is this real writing?  I think it is, but it is sometimes harder to get people to “pay” for it, because it isn’t exactly what they “want” – but maybe the “truth” that they need. 
Then this leads to the practice of  “amateur” blogging (mine, indeed with some “cultural criticism”) from people who make relatively little (they may have other wealth or other income) from actual self-publishing but have the “freedom” to say what they (not others) want – in a sense, to get readers to go (intellectually) vegan (like Bill Clinton) and “eat their vegetables” and broccoli (yup, George W. Bush hates it).  Such a blogger (or author) fills the gap that he or she feels established partisan politics and paid lobbyists won’t touch. 
This is not for everyone.  I’ve explained before that this is different from niche blogging, which has become a business of its own with its own skill set (as so well explained by Australian “BlogTyrant” Ramsay Taplin (like this post )). The impulse toward this kind of writing occurs later in life, particularly if one thinks one’s experiences or life narrative has something unusual enough that it needs to be kept out in front of the public, in perpetuity. 
For 31+ years (after grad school and Army service) I worked in mainframe IT as an “individual contributor”.  I didn’t self-publish until 27 of these years had passed. But once I did, there was no turning back.  Putting out double-edged and controversial (possibly self-deprecating in the minds of some people) autobiographical material (to help contribute to a major debate, which started with “don’t ask don’t tell”) can create “conflicts of interest” in the workplace and lead (if gratuitous and not self-supporting) lead to implicit content questions (that is, indirect enticement) that I have presented here before.  In legal and business areas, a lot of this is still very murky, even in 2015.  The Supreme Court, however, has consistently supported self-generated speech and broadcast whenever the legal complications arrive on their bench.
So, in the long run. I don’t see why Siegel couldn’t have earned a good enough living to pay his debts and gradually migrate to writing what he really wanted and needed to say later in life.  That’s what I (sort of) did. 

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