Who Are the Squares?
How a dwindling minority of mid-caste teacher’s pets dominate the expert class despite their near-total lack of experience
I’ve written before about the Square University Culture. I don’t mean everybody who attends university — I mean people who are born in comfortable circumstances, advance easily through the educational system, get their university degrees, then find jobs and settle into comfortable lives (generally including marriage, kids, buying a house, fiddling around on the stock market, maybe a dog) until they eventually die. A lot of folks will read the preceding description and say, “But isn’t that everybody?” Hilarious.
There are presently around 2.3 million people incarcerated in the USA. Most of those are poor people with limited education (less than half have a high school diploma), and most of them are in there for drug crimes. Sure, the occasional Martha Stewart or Lori Loughlin can be found in prison, but for the most part I assure you there are precious few squares in the Big House. An additional 4.7 million are not presently housed in a jail or prison, but are on Parole (meaning they were once imprisoned) or Probation (which usually means they were found guilty of a crime but did not serve time inside).
Statistics tell us that roughly 3% of Americans are addicted to illegal drugs. That’s another 9.8 million who can’t be caled Square (a term which originated in the jazz scene to indicate those who didn’t drink or use drugs). You know something else? That population of drug addicts overlaps significantly with the population of incarcerated people — they say around 50% of incarcerated individuals are addicted to illegal drugs, and that jumps to 80% if you include alcoholism. Drugs and Prison are part of a culture together, holding common values, similar backgrounds, enjoying the same music and movies and books, sharing commonalities in language.
It’s not easy to determine how many people are homeless in the USA, but recent statistics put the number between 500,000 and 1.5 million in a given year. Again, statistics tell us that more than half of those people are without a high school diploma (compared to 9% of the overall US population), and an additional 20% have that diploma but nothing beyond it. Another way of looking at this is to say that only around 25% of the 6 million people who are unhoused on a given day have completed college or trade school (compared to 46% of the overall population). You will not be surprised to learn that as much as 80% of the homeless population is addicted to drugs or alcohol. Homeless people are part of the same non-square culture that includes drug addicts and prisoners, and also people who don’t attend university.
Let’s take another look at the non-university-educated demographic — it’s more than half of the people in the USA. If you shift focus instead to people who have “some college” (as the job applications say) but have not achieved a Bachelor’s Degree, that’s roughly 65% of the adult population. That is, only 35% of US adults have graduated from university. How about that 9% with no high school diploma? Think about how 9% of the overall US population (non-graduates of high school) corresponds to over 50% of the prison population and more than 50% of the homeless population. That’s a big bunch of non-squares right there, trading places. They get arrested on the street, they go to prison. They get out of prison, they wind up back on the streets.
These are some groups who are easier to enumerate, because there are studies about them and years of criminological and medical data to reference. There are most definitely lots of freaks who don’t go to prison, get addicted to drugs, or fail to graduate from high school and university. What makes them freaks? It’s not easy to say. Artists are a big category of non-squares — not all of the corporate artists, of which there are legions, but some of them and all of the real-ass painters, musicians, dancers, writers, sculptors, singers, and so on. The historic bond between artists, criminals, and addicts is well established. It says here that there are 2.1 million artists in the United States. I wouldn’t know how to determine what percentage of artists dropped out of school, but from what I know it’s a significant number. You’ll find a lot of decidedly not-square people in radical politics, the world of fetishists and sex perverts, and other walks of life whose membership I don’t know how to measure.
Right about here, you start to think about how some artists are kind of square, and some more than others. There’s a spectrum of squareness — like any element of one’s identity it’s not an absolute, but that doesn’t make it any less real. So you can be a square artist, to whatever degree, but a square who doesn’t make art is more square than you. One can be queer and square, but never as square as a straight square. You can be Black and square, but never as square as a White square.
LGBTQ people (an estimated 4.5% of the US population) are known as a panoply of non-squares, and that reputation is well deserved. I’m a queer person myself. In fact, I am all of the things I have thus far discussed — a high school drop-out, ex-convict, ex-addict, formerly homeless, professional artist. This overlap, once again, is not unique to me and my friends. For example, it’s said that as many as 40% of homeless youths identify as LGBTQ. Statistics show that 16% of transgender adults have been incarcerated in their lives (compared to 2.7% of cisgender adults) and that 13–15 percent of youth in detention identify as LGBT (compared to 2–8% of youth outside). You see the same kind of correlation with drug use, though in the case of graduation the queers come in just ahead of the straights. I’m far from the first person to note that a squaring has come about in the wake of the relatively successful movement for Gay Rights. Mayor Pete is like the spokesmodel for this — he’s married to a nice clean-cut boy, he served in the military, he’s got a house in the suburbs with two happy dogs, and he wants more than life itself for you to vote for him. Ah, but it was freaky poor people who got him there, wilding out at Stonewall and forming groups like ActUp to raise hell in the streets, building radical culture through their music and gatherings, revealing the strength inherent in the underclass.
It’s a strength of numbers for one thing. Stick together against the Squares, and we outnumber them. When artists, criminals, addicts, and queers get together; what results are radical political and cultural movements. Jazz, Communism, Drag, Punk, Hip Hop, Antifa, The Romantics, The Summer of Love — this connection extends across the generations. I always thought about it in terms of The Invisible College and all that, with only certain tendrils to be found through the Academy. These days, you can read Iceberg Slim in college. You can take a class about the 1980s-90s gang war in Los Angeles, which I grew up surrounded by in welfare apartments and weekly-rate motels. The defining mistake of the University Squares is to think that a person who took that class knows more about it than people who were there.
The strength of the freaks (Freak Power, if you will) is also a strength of personal investment, a strength of being trapped in the fight just as surely as the Viet Cong. The squares can visit our world like tourists or invade like GIs, but we’re here to stay. When it comes to rules and regulations used to control drug use, crime, poverty, sex, and yes art and culture too; the stakes are not in a victory of policy or academics but in our own lives. Our solutions and understandings must be sound or we won’t survive the day. Our immersion in these worlds affords a deeper vision beneath the obvious solutions and trite realizations of the dilettante Square, and a broader one too which knows the webs of potential cause and effect like a Go master. Yet our expertise is shunned by the ruling class.
That’s basically what we’re looking at, when we look at the non-squares. It’s artists, criminals, queers, and addicts; and a disproportionate number of us didn’t graduate from school. If 46% of the US adult population graduated from college or trade school, let’s just throw out an estimate and say that 15% of those people would still qualify as non-square by virtue of those aforementioned traits. Maybe that’s a good estimate — maybe 30% or so of the United States citizenry is made up of square-ass university people, who have followed the rules of society and gotten a special piece of paper to prove it. We can find The Squares, as a sculptor finds a horse in a granite block, by cutting away everything that isn’t them.
From that 30% of well-behaved teenagers, Society chooses its leaders and experts. For those of us who are part of the other 70% of the population (all 230 million of us), the prospect of getting a good job is remote. They want to see that diploma, they do background checks to weed out anyone with a criminal history, they make us piss in a cup to screen for drug users, and they are always on the lookout for signs of strangeness. What the 30% did in their youth — sit obediently in class, take notes, write papers, pass tests — allows them access to the leadership class. What the 70% did in our youth — run around the city, get in trouble, face hardship, make art, expand our minds, travel on a shoestring, get to know lots of people with different backgrounds and perspectives, starve, fight, fuck, and survive— this disqualifies us from that class. Without consciously facing the fact, Society has decided to be governed by people who know how to behave within the educational system rather than people who have experienced life outside its walls.
Look at Mark Zuckerberg. He designed a clunky dating app in college, hoovered up a bunch of investment capital, and stumbled into billions. A combination of naivete and old-fashioned amorality led him into bed with the worlds of espionage, surveillance, and politics; and now we’ve all got our lives pinned inexorably to his deceptive and manipulative system that steals everything we have and gives us nothing of benefit in return. Who runs that system? University squares, straight out of college. The previous generation had gadget salesman Steve Jobs, whose Utopian corporatist vision came to jack shit in the end. Just more plastic junk to buy at the store. Their careers stand as a refutation of the concept of meritocracy. They weren’t geniuses or philanthropists or master craftsmen. They were University Squares who played the game and won big.
I was watching that Social Dilemma movie the other night, and this guy says with enormous gravity: “I was the Senior Vice-President of Monetization at Facebook.” Like, oh wow, what an honor! This guy who goes to meetings for a living says he was one of the people who “invented” the Like Button. To his credit, he did seem to recognize the terror he and his colleagues had unleashed upon the Earth with their seemingly-innocent .gif, but he also made it clear that they’d had the best intentions.
“We thought it would spread positivity and happiness throughout the world!” he says. That’s how limited is the scope of a guy who went straight from college kid to millionaire. His contribution to world peace is a few pixels and a counter, an ugly widget which unfortunately collects data on billions of human beings and feeds them into an invisible global web of artificial intelligences beholden to Big Tech. Oops. To the extent that Facebook is innovative at all, it is an innovative marketing strategy. To whatever extent a person like this is intelligent, or hard-working, or ethical; he has squandered those virtues on tricking people out of their time, money, and well-being in the service of the rich and powerful. What the Squares regard as a great success — The Senior Vice President of Monetization! — I regard as a great tragedy. Imagine what fine things he might have done with all that privilege and focus, had he not been diverted into the Square life. We could use folks like him in the refugee camps. Instead they’re in office buildings, going to meetings, making reports, figuring out how to make more money selling crap nobody needs. That’s the American Dream, 2020.
This online data harvesting makes literal a relationship which has always existed between the upper and lower classes: They study us. Politicians and Public Intellectuals squabble over poverty, homelessness, incarceration, immigration, addiction, socialized healthcare, Universal Basic Income, debt forgiveness — concerns in the lives of poor people. I would find it less objectionable if the software kids stuck to software, and the rich kids stuck to matters of the rich (Wall Street? Tennis?); but even their casual approach to power turns toward control of our lives. We’re the barbarians at the gate, the Townies who aren’t invited to the party on campus. From Dominionist Conservatives straight out of bible camp to Grievance Studies graduates whispering in the ear of the DNC, they agree (as I saw someone say on Twitter the other day) on who the protagonists are in American life.
Was there a time when this class of people showed a consistent ability to do good, or even to be correct? The Square University Class of the USA has been responsible for every dirty Finance trick that sank the economy (and will again), Economics that have fully-employed people living on the street and Billionaires ruling the world by default, Medicine that produced the opioid epidemic and generations of dependency and over-medication, Law that gave us mass imprisonment and corporate citizenship, Journalism that is the shameless partisan tool of the power elite, Sociological theory that’s eroded the systems of society and left us normless and isolated, and Art departments that crank out vapid scribbled canvases to be sold to wealthy collectors as long-term investments. The University people took the righteous transformative anger of the Vietnam generation and steered it into Neoliberalism and the DLC. They chewed up the demand for universal healthcare among the Working Class and shit forth the Kafkaesque Affordable Care Act. They took the George Floyd Uprising, a popular revolutionary movement against police murder; and channeled its energy into a best-seller written by a rich white lady who gives speeches at Nike employee retreats. The Squares ruin everything.
The Square University Culture devalues lived experience, and stops short of concrete action. It rewards clever observations, not effective solutions. The barrier for success is not high — a C- will do. What will not do is to show up late, to miss an exam, to anger the professor, to submit work outside the approved format. We are ruled, therefore, not by the great but by the well-behaved. If you live in a big city, you can see it in civic affairs. Are there hungry people in the city? We say, find some food, feed those people. Are there people living on the street? Well, are there buildings for them to live in? Let them live there. No no, say the squares from the university — how charmingly naive you are to think it could be so simple. We must form a committee! All over the USA, working class people of non-square inclinations are banding together under various names (Food Not Bombs, most famously) to feed hungry people for free. All over the USA, they’re being arrested for it, because the Squares made laws against it in one of those committees and they won’t change it back. Nor, sadly, will they take on the task of feeding those hungry people themselves.
Their solution to every problem is to form a committee, hold a series of meetings, produce a report, then allocate funds. The resulting report and attached funds go to a bureaucracy which continues to hold meetings and produce reports. This is what the Universities train them for, with their class discussions and book reports, their cramming sessions and Final Exams. The process persists ad infinitum, as the problem at hand continues to worsen. Homelessness, crime, poverty, education, always discussed but never improved. Unelected developers (University Squares, every one) focusing the city’s resources on building condos that nobody wants and light rails that nobody needs. That’s another thing about University Squares — they’re highly trained bullshitters, having for the most part bullshitted their way through school, yet at the same time they’re highly credulous and therefore susceptible to bullshit. If you’ve ever watched a homeless guy convince a Square to buy a fake Rolex, you know. The Squares haven’t seen that. The Squares haven’t seen shit but a classroom, an office building, a hotel, and a nice house. I can hardly tell them apart up there, ruling the world at every level despite their obvious bumbling inability to understand anything.
In the recapitulated think pieces about the Populist mistrust of authorities like the Press, the Government, the Police, the Medical Industry, and so on; most fail to address the fact that those institutions have earned the People’s mistrust. We see the nature of these authorities — this System — in a way that Squares do not, because we are subject to these authorities in a way they are not. I was just watching the Joe Rogan interview with Dave Chapelle today, and was amused at Joe’s amazed statements about the COVID lockdowns: “The government can tell us what to do! No, no, I mean THE GOVERNOR OF CALIFORNIA can TELL US to DO SOMETHING, and we just have to do it!”
Yeah, Joe. They can.
SO listen, I don’t have a solution exactly. I’m just saying, this unaccomplished 30% of the population shouldn’t have an exclusive dominion over respect and expertise. Criminals should be consulted in plans to end crime and homeless people should be consluted in plans to end homelessness, just as working people should be empowered in corporations and industries that they keep alive through their labor. The ideas of poor people should go into economic policy, without relying on their ability or inclination to get a diploma. I think this sounds ridiculous to a lot of University Squares. Maybe the next time the news wants to understand a protest movement, they should invite the leaders of the movement on TV instead of some nerd with a Masters Degree. To these Squares, including a homeless person in a committee to end homelessness would be like including a chimpanzee in a panel about primatology. That’s the high esteem in which the University Squares hold themselves. It is not possible to understand the world without being initiated into their way of life.
And I say fuck that. More soon.