Column: Despite grave nature of lectures, hope still to be found

Column by Jess Miller

The last few weeks in Chautauqua have featured speakers whose messages are hard to listen to. Issues of chronic income inequality, a justice system that breeds more criminality than it eradicates, widening gaps in access to health care and education, an overabundance of overzealous prosecutors and law enforcement officers, and a lack of commitment to the well-being and education of at-risk youth have all been discussed in the morning lectures.

From Professor Robert Putnam’s story of Miriam and Mary Sue to Wes Moore’s story of the other Wes Moore, from Charles Murray and Chris Hayes’ explanations for the dismantling of once-strong institutions in the U.S., the lectures have been at times in agreement or dichotomous. Some have offered tangible solutions, while others simply state the problem and hope that the information itself is sufficient to inspire others to make a difference.

Putnam, a professor at Harvard and adviser to the past three U.S. presidents, said that while happiness levels, on average, have dropped a bit overall in the past generation, the pursuit of happiness has been a race to the bottom for those occupying the bottom 30 percent of the income bracket. These 30 percent, the working class, are becoming increasingly more polarized from the upper class as their divorce rates skyrocket, their children get shoved through crumbling public schools systems and their chances to attend college decrease as tuition prices go up. Meanwhile, children of college-educated parents often have the benefit of receiving high-quality day care, prep school and increased amounts of time with their parents, the last of which is an indicator of higher IQs and future civic involvement. In turn, they marry college graduates and the cycle repeats. Murray argued that these once-stable institutions of family, religion, vocation and community are becoming seriously undermined, especially with the virtual sinking of families that were once considered middle class into poverty-stricken mire.

Income inequality has grown so troubling that the six heirs of Walmart own as much wealth as the lower 42 percent of Americans, said George Packer, a writer for The New Yorker. While doing research for his book, Packer found what he described as the “unwinding” of America: the frightening growth of CEO salaries compared to average workers, the erosion of unions and protection for the working class, and the exaggerated presence of partisanship in government, brought about by politicians who used C-SPAN and political buzzwords to stir up hatred of the other side.

Increasingly, the criminal justice system is yet another institution that is failing — failing to prevent crime, failing, at times, to charge the actual guilty person, and failing to prevent ex-cons from committing crimes again. Nina Morrison addressed the topic when she talked about her work with the Innocence Project, an organization that fights for people who have been wrongfully convicted and are sentenced to life terms in prison. Fervent prosecutors and law enforcement officers, who are sometimes left without a clue to the crime, instead arrest someone based on little or faulty evidence. The juvenile justice system is even worse, said Wes Moore, because it has the impact of creating criminals for life. Teens with a record can’t get jobs, so they resort to the underworld economy of drugs. In his evening lecture, David Simon’s experience as a crime reporter led him to argue that the war on drugs is being waged with faulty and racist methods, and is actually making cities like Baltimore less safe.

As the morning lecture reporter, I attend each one of these lectures with a clear and open mind, ready and eager to be educated on topics on which I am no expert. But when I am sitting in the audience and listening to these speakers, it is easy to become depressed about the state of our country. It’s easy to feel lost and hopeless, like a person sitting on a train that everyone knows is doomed to crash. Feeling helpless, we desperately search for people to blame: Republicans, Democrats, the media, law enforcement, Hollywood. Or we ignore the problems completely and hope that they go away.

But Chautauqua encourages me for this reason: Instead of placing blame on a certain party or ignoring the problem, people genuinely want to help. On Thursday, Wes Moore commented that he was surprised that the Institution even had a week with the theme of “Crime and Punishment.” That’s a fair point: It’s a difficult conversation to have while on vacation, and how many people in the mostly white, mostly upper-class audience have had a brush with the law, outside of speeding tickets? But the willingness of Chautauquans to learn about such issues that don’t even necessarily affect them is heartening. It’s heartening because when I feel like the only person floating in an ocean of national hysteria and partisanship, against a wave of economic injustice, racism and a failing corrections system, I can be confident that there is a sea of well-informed and ready-to-act citizens behind me. And that moves me more than all of the bad news in the world.

Jess Miller is the Daily’s morning lecture reporter and studies journalism and political communication at Ohio University.