“I’m 32, Mr. Dunn, and I’m here celebrating the fact that I spent another year scraping dishes and waitressing, which is what I have been doing since 13 … other truth is, my brother’s in prison, my sister cheats on welfare by pretending one of her babies is still alive, my daddy’s dead, and my momma weighs 312 lbs. If I was thinking straight, I’d go back home, find a used trailer, buy a deep fryer and some Oreos. Problem is, this is the only thing I ever felt good doing. If I’m too old for this, then I got nothing. That enough truth to suit you?” Maggie Fitzgerald, Million Dollar Baby
Few movie scenes remain vivid in my mind. But when Fitzgerald, in a stunning portrayal by Hillary Swank, faced off with Frankie Dunn the boxing manager, played by Clint Eastwood, the imprint endured. So when I read that the founder of Facebook and multiple billionaire Mark Zuckerberg had taken a road trip to better understand America, the scene flashed back.
As Fitzgerald’s plaintive dialogue reveals, she is a waitress who had grown up in a hardscrabble family. She was also a pretty good boxer who had come to Dunn’s gymnasium to ask him to manage her career.
Eastwood’s Dunn was an edgy traditionalist who didn’t see the boxing ring as a fit place for a woman.
Dunn didn’t understand Fitzgerald and Zuckerberg will need more than a road trip to understand America.
Zuckerberg finished high school at Phillips Exeter Academy and college at Harvard. He is said to be the fifth-richest man in the world. He is, of course, the founder of Facebook, and a road trip will not provide a real connection to a world he has never occupied.
My road trip began in 1986 when I came to Washington and continued in 1993 when my wife and I moved to Manhattan. Decreasingly, I found, did I work or play with people who shared my background. In some ways when I left my home state, Missouri, I left a public world and entered a private one.
Most of my new peers and associates attended private elementary and secondary schools and colleges. I was a public-school guy in a private-school world.
Age invites reflection. Having spent the back end of my career in the digital industry, my reflections are in part informed by that fact. And the fact is that the digital age rewards, and often in outsized ways, those who were shaped from an early age to compete algorithmically. David Brooks wrote a column recently in which he talked about the pediacrats: “It’s the pediacracy, stupid. Over the past few decades, upper-middle-class Americans have embraced behavior codes that put cultivating successful children at the center of life. As soon as they get money, they turn it into investments in their kids.”
Commenting on a book in the same column, “The Sum of Small Things,” by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, Brooks notes, “To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food, truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.”
My East Coast field trip, or to be more honest, residency, brought me fully into this world. I am, from time to time, still disoriented, but never more so than when I puzzle about what might be done to bring America together again.
I believe it is safe to say that most coastal, upper-middle-class residents were shocked by the election of President Donald Trump. I was surprised, but not shocked, having had the good fortune of experiencing much of America’s diversity.
When we chose to end national service, we unwittingly chose to end meaningful assimilation. Most unfortunately, we turned characterization over to character actors directed by often condescending film directors. Empathy was not possible.
Zuckerberg is a poster boy for disruption and the enormous economic leverage enjoyed by the tech elite. He was private school all the way. He enjoys an elite intellect and voracious ambition. Most Americans are not on the road to high technology riches or even the rewards that come to those in the upper echelons of value-added work.
The Swank character was willing to do what was necessary regardless of where her work landed her on the social ladder. Likewise, many who voted for Trump were willing to do what they thought necessary to shake up the political world.
Movie-goers know how Million Dollar Baby ended.
It is impossible to know how this wrenching chapter in America’s political life will end. But, let me hazard a guess.
Trump will ultimately fail. He knows neither America nor political leadership. It is not enough to exploit anger; successful presidents must also understand America’s generous nature and how to tap its energy. I am not talking about larger budgets, but the respect we want and extend to others.
I also do not believe the next president will come from the corporate world. Those who know America best have served in its armed forces, the only popular institution. I believe Americans will once again turn for leadership to those who know America best.
Al Sikes’ leadership helped shape the arc of 21st century communication technologies from positions as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and then President of Hearst New Media. In 2004, the Manhattan Institute chose Sikes as one of eight winners of the Social Entrepreneurship Award for having founded READ ALLIANCE, which trains teenagers to tutor children with reading deficiencies. Sikes second book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow was recently published by Koehler Books.