Just when I get a break from the second job, along comes jury duty. Where I live, I’m desperately trying to avoid getting on a trial for a gang murder or something. After catching bits of campaign rhetoric lately, I’m not even sure I should be allowed to serve on a jury.
All week a question has been nagging me, making it hard to think about librarianship or anything else. Am I a “real American” or an “east coast elite”? It may seem a trivial question, perhaps even a false dichotomy created in the fallacious mind of a fervent ideologue, but then again, maybe it’s not. I’ve been trying to work my way through the implications, because if I’m not a real American, ordinary and hard working, then I really have no business participating in the upcoming election, and I certainly shouldn’t have to serve on a jury.
Could I be an east coast elite? Boy, that would be nice. I’d like to be an east coast elite. It’s been a dream of mine ever since I was a youngster growing up poor in Louisiana. I do live on the east coast, there’s no doubt about that. I live right in central New Jersey, about an hour from the ocean, and I’ve lived either here or just across the Delaware River in eastern Pennsylvania for almost seven years. I’m almost a native at this point, and even know what people mean when they say they’re going "down the shore."
I’m also relatively well educated compared to most Americans. I finished college and have a graduate degree or two, just like most of you. I’ve read a lot of books, including some really hard ones. Were I to attend a cocktail party (which east coast elites apparently do every day), while sipping my single-malt scotch or my dry martini, I could discuss phenomenology, post-structuralism, enjambment, the Markan priority, the fetishization of commodities, or the law of diminishing returns and more or less know what I’m talking about. I listen to classical music on one of my many local public radio stations. I can recite poetry from memory. I value education and high culture and all that sort of thing. I don’t eat meat. Yesterday I even had a latte. It was good.
Then there’s my child. She goes to a private school. Not one of those $20,000 a year private schools that populate the New Jersey landscape, but it’s still private. She’s in the fourth grade and studies subjects like Latin, Greek, history, and geography. That’s pretty elite. She reads a lot of books herself, so she’ll probably grow up to be one of those intellectual types. Plus, she’s tall and athletic and the most adorable child in the world, so real Americans would probably envy her. (I’d put up a photo, but it would just make you feel bad at how inadequate your own children are.)
There are also my political views. Unlike those real Americans, I don’t pay a lot of attention to people’s race, religion, or sexual orientation. I have no problem voting for a black man for President. I think homosexuals should actually be treated like other citizens and have rights and stuff. I think the worldview of most religious fundamentalists is overly simplistic, but as long as they’re not shouting at me or trying to forcibly convert me to their views, I don’t really care what they do. I feel the same way about atheists. “Socialized” medicine doesn’t bother me at all; in fact, I think Medicare is a good thing. Welfare? Fine by me. If we’re hard nosed about it, we can say we don’t want people starving in the streets and blocking traffic. If we’re proponents of liberal democracy, we can say that no people would consent to be governed by a state that would let them starve. If we’re compassionate, we can consider it what Catholics call the preferential option for the poor.
Also, I work at Princeton, which, you may have heard, is one of those snooty Ivy League universities. Princeton is really rich, too. You’re probably aware of that. And a lot of the students are rich as well. Over half of them need no financial aid, and the tuition and fees are approaching fifty grand a year at this point. Imagine having an extra $50K to spend every year, more if there are multiple children in the family going to Princeton, which often happens. My job, such that it is, is more or less intellectual work and requires very little physical labor. In fact, I made a vow to myself never to take the elevator just so I wouldn’t fall into the sedentary librarian’s habit of expanding too much.
On the other hand, while I work at an Ivy League university, I didn’t go to one. All my degrees are from mere state universities. One of those state universities is even in the South, which is just about unforgivable from an east coast elite perspective. Also, being a librarian at an Ivy League university lacks the cultural capital of being a professor at one. Does librarian counts as an elite profession? Considering the stereotypes about librarians in this country, I’m sure it doesn’t. Librarians are always second class citizens of a sort on a university campus. And then there’s my pay. It’s not bad as librarian pay goes, but I’m never going to be rich, and I sure couldn’t afford to send my child to Princeton. I don’t even make enough to use “summer” as a verb. So my job doesn’t qualify me as an east coast elite, even if it disqualifies me as a real American.
And while I do live in what one of my former colleagues called “the socialist republic of New Jersey,” my neighborhood isn’t fancy or anything. There aren’t any drug dealers or coal miners that I know of, but there aren’t any Ivy League professors or Wall Street types, either. It’s just a standard, boring, middle-class kind of neighborhood. One of my neighbors does own a Hummer, but I think the Hummer might be larger and more expensive than his actual house. About the best that can be said of my city is that we have the state capital here, and that’s not saying much. I get from my modest house to my modest job in a modest eight-year-old Ford. I could be wrong here, but I’m almost positive east coast elites don’t drive Fords. We can probably take that as axiomatic.
Thus, I’m torn. Real Americans would presumably scorn my political, intellectual, and cultural habits and values and probably my diction as well, while east coast elites would disdain my state university degrees, my middling job, and my humble family background. I’m caught on the horns of a dilemma, and I’m not sure I can escape. My only hope is that I can use this argument to persuade the attorneys that being neither a real American nor an east coast elite means I shouldn’t have to serve on a jury for a murder trial. It’s not much, but it may be all I have here in political limbo.