Do we have an official, state-sponsored religion in America? Sure we do. It's a pervasive and exclusionary belief system to which every university, public bureaucracy and major corporation subscribes. High schools, colleges and graduate schools tailor their curricula to meet its demands; no responsible person dares speak out against it.
If you deviate from its norms, or dare to publicly disrespect its fundamental tenets, you'll find your career on the skids, your future in question; indeed, you may never get another job, and you may be forced to quit the one you have.
Virtually no one can escape from its smothering grasp; in fact, two prominent Coloradans recently left their jobs in disgrace because they violated its norms. Nope, it's not secular humanism, or radical Islam, or evangelical Christianity. It doesn't have anything to do with Republicans, or gay rights, or guns, or evolution, or abortion; it's far more powerful than any of these.
Let's call it "Credentialism." It's the belief that one's paper/electronic persona is more substantial than the person, and that the meta-reality of the rsum is holy, and must remain forever undefiled.
In other words, inflate your rsum a little bit -- put in a degree you haven't got, a job that you never really had -- and you're dead meat.
Let's consider the cases of ex-CSU women's basketball coach Tom Collen, and former United States Olympic Committee President Sandy Baldwin. No one denies that they're exceptionally good at what they do. Collen took a nothingburger program and turned it into a national powerhouse in a just a couple of years, while Baldwin is, by all accounts, bright, talented and highly effective.
But because they fudged a bit on their rsums, misleading their bosses about what they accomplished -- or actually failed to accomplish 10 or 15 years ago -- they're history. And just as Notre Dame did when they fired their newly-hired football coach for the same venal sin, the institutions in question huffed and puffed sanctimoniously. This is serious stuff! We can't allow the fair name of (fill in the blank) to be besmirched! We have a grave responsibility to the public! And most of us, no doubt, pretended to believe all this nonsense.
Why? Because we believe in Credentialism, the unforgiving dogma of the information age. We want to believe in the security, accuracy and inviolability of information, whether it's embodied in a credit card transaction on the Web, or a jobseeker's rsum. If we file an accurate and timely tax return, we want others to do the same. We create and absorb vast rivers of information, and we need to trust it; we need to believe that it corresponds with an outer reality.
So when the Tom Collens and Sandy Baldwins get caught cheating, we nod approvingly as their jobs and reputations are sacrificed to our stern God.
But what if it's all bogus? What if degrees and experience have nothing to do with one's ability to do a job? What if the years spent going to college, going to grad school, acquiring skills that will be obsolete in a few years, are essentially wasted? What if Bill Gates -- an unpleasant, asocial college dropout who never even had a rsum -- is an appropriate role model?
He's not, and that's why Credentialism is such a great religion. Sure, we need a few folks like Gates, but they create themselves; we don't have to. What the country needs are folks who are reliable, hardworking and capable, and have shown that they can function effectively in an irrational system.
An MBA tells the world that you're one of the Mandarinate, ready to play by the rules and do the Empire's work.
Believe, play fair, prosper -- live in Briargate. Question, cheat, get caught -- let's hope it doesn't rain, because you're gonna be living under the bridge with the other unbelievers.
But if credentials are meaningless tribal symbols, we need to find another way of evaluating those who aspire to elective office. That's why, in an upcoming column, we'll present a new type of voter's guide, one that will grade our pols on a multivalent scale: Dull, Ordinary, Interesting, Eccentric, Annoying, Bizarre, Crazy.
The guide will likely be flexible; most of our leaders fall into more than one category (e.g., both annoying and crazy).
As opposed to a tedious summary of policy positions and past achievements, it'll offer the information you need to make your choices.
Stay tuned ...