Saturday, October 4, 2008


I'm thrilled to introduce the newest contributor to Rustbelt Intellectual, John David Skrentny. John is currently professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, but don't let the fact that he grades papers and writes lectures sitting in a lawn chair under the bright blue skies of the Torrey Pines delude you into thinking that he's not a Rustbelt Intellectual through and through.

In fact, John is the original Rustbelt Intellectual. A native of Highland, Indiana, a near suburb of Gary, John grew up driving past the steel mills along Cline Avenue, fishing in the befouled waters of Lake Calumet, and visiting his grandparents in Gary's old Hungarian neighborhood (pictured above). Nearly twenty years ago, when John left his home state to attend graduate school at Harvard, he found himself in the orbit of the last great New York Intellectuals, notably Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell, who had taken up residence in leafy Cambridge. The children and grandchildren of immigrants, the New York Intellectuals grew up in the heady but intensely fractious world of the city's Jewish socialists, where apartment buildings were controlled by one or another leftist sect and where arguments over Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin were as common as street brawls and fought with the same intensity. But by the late 1980s, many the surviving New York Intellectuals, still brilliant and argumentative, had moved to the political right.

John and I attended Harvard at the same time and, after the fact, we discovered that we had many friends in common and even attended a few memorable parties together. But we never met there--or if we did, neither of us remember. It wasn't until we were both assistant professors at another Ivy League institution that we found that our shared Rustbelt roots gave us a shared perspective on politics didn't quite fit in with the elitism of many of our East Coast colleagues.

Attracted by the cosmopolitanism of the urban East Coast, but repelled by its pretensions (what we called the "Harvard-o-centric view of the universe"), we found ourselves having to explain the quirky politics of our families, our relatives, our neighbors, the people we grew up with to our East Coast friends. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Midwestern "Reagan Democrats," a term that described many of our relatives, became the subject of intense scrutiny by pollsters, pundits, and political scientists--and derision in our own circles. But so many of those commentators treated blue-collar and middle-class Midwesterners as an exotic species. John and I found ourselves having to explain the politics of race, rights, and justice--the everyday notions of fairness and difference--that shaped and sometimes distorted the politics of people like those in our extended families.

Back then, in the self-satisfied precincts of Harvard Square, John rebelliously coined the term "Rustbelt Intellectual," describing an identity that captured the two-ness of coming from modest Midwestern origins but finding ourselves in the self-proclaimed (if greatly exaggerated) Athens of America. Like the New York intellectuals, we were products of the disputatious politics of our white ethnic families. Just as the New York Intellectuals leaned right, away from their socialist backgrounds, we Rustbelt Intellectuals leaned left, away from our Reagan Democrat roots. And just as the New York Intellectuals could never fully escape their origins in Brooklyn and the Bronx, even as they thrived in the goyische precincts of Cambridge, so too were we the products of Gary and Detroit, shaped by the Catholic sensibilities of our families, deeply tied to our troubled home towns, attracted by the economic populism of some of the Rustbelt's more compelling political figures, and, at the same time, battling against the demons of race and unacknowledged white identity politics that colored the politics of Michigan and Indiana.

I hope you find John's distinctive political voice a refreshing addition to this blog. We don't always agree politically, but John is one of the most thoughtful analysts of contemporary American politics and culture. It's great to have him aboard as an occasional contributor.