Bootstraps and Blame

bootstraps

In my next few blog posts, I’ll expand on some of the terse statements in my Declaration of Interdependence. We already have a Declaration of Independence, but it seemed to me that today we need to counterbalance the American ideal of independence with a bit more awareness of our interdependence, and thus the counter-proclamation:

“Personal independence and individual effort are vital, but no one is totally self-made. Most of us get where we are through a combination of work and advantages, but we frequently misremember that. It doesn’t diminish our story to acknowledge our interdependence. Each of us owes a debt to our society.”

In American politics we repeatedly tell one of two stories about how individuals become who they are. One is a tale of independence and self-reliance: “I worked hard to get where I am; I earned everything I have.” The alternate story emphasizes external forces — personal trauma, poverty, racism, sexism, class, history: “I am where I am because of what happened to me.” The former is usually a narrative of success, the latter of failure; one is pitched as an empowering tale, while the other is about powerlessness.

Stories of being on the bottom make us squirm, unless of course the person hits bottom and bounces. We’re fine with hearing about failure – in fact we like it — as long as it leads inevitably to success (a narrative so sellable that some call it “failure porn”). We can’t get enough of stories of disability as long as they get turned into inspirational narratives, as long as those external factors get transformed into character-building hurdles to overcome in the race to success, as long as they avoid unhelpful, self-defeating talk about “blame.”

In the political sphere, the “blame” narrative and the “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” story are typically phrased as an either/or: either people wallow in their victimhood doing nothing or they need to pull up their big boy panties and work their way out of their circumstances. That has always seemed like a false choice to me. Why can’t you acknowledge the harsh reality of discrimination and trauma; call for change to those realities; and acknowledge that individual action is also necessary? Why isn’t this a “both/and?”

Why is it so hard for conservatives to focus on the soul-wounding forces of racism/sexism, as opposed to nodding toward them briefly before preaching about the importance of individual hard work? Why is it so difficult for liberals to acknowledge that perhaps not all poor people are industrious and noble, that the poor can be just as lazy and as unmotivated to quit bad habits as any of us, that effective social programs require individuals to buy into them?

The bootstraps story tends to treat disenfranchisement as backdrop. It’s an escape tale. Nothing changes except the individual’s position; everything else about the situation stays the same. The situation is simply an inevitable part of “the way things are.” You can’t eradicate poverty, after all. Even if politicians like LBJ declare a “war on poverty,” we know we can’t win that war. This provokes some Christians to pull out the Bible verse about “the poor ye have always with you” (out of context, by the way) instead of talking about Christ’s consistent advocacy for the poor. And all societies have been racist and sexist, of course; we’re no different. People will just have to accept that we will have poverty or racism or sexism with us always and then try to rise above those problems through individual effort (maybe with the help of a “hand up” – not a handout — extended by charity).

It is true, of course, that we can’t utterly eliminate poverty/racism/sexism, but as I note in the Declaration, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Just because we lack a perfect solution doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be working to make things better. Just because other societies have been racist/sexist doesn’t excuse our own bias. Instead, we need to take responsibility for our own particular history of prejudice. Poverty, racism, and sexism are not immovable, excusable, tolerable backdrops.

If individuals can work their way past the disadvantages of their bad situation, that allows us to believe that maybe things aren’t so bad after all. Such individual success stories therefore provide a great excuse for political inaction. Maybe we don’t need to be that concerned about combating racism/sexism/poverty. Maybe charity will be enough; no need for a commensurate push for justice.

We can even work ourselves around to say that disadvantages are really advantages, that our children are too soft today, that they would be better if they had gone through the school of hard knocks like we did back in the good old days. And there is something to be said for the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” theory of character development, but we only halfway believe this, and then only as a nostalgic abstraction.

No one really chooses the harder path. No middle class parents send their child to an underfunded school so that they can go through some hard knocks. We believe that advantages are advantages and that we should play the system to give those benefits to our loved ones. (The Declaration acknowledges “the temptation to save ourselves and our loved ones and no one else.”) Judging by our actions, we don’t really believe in the character-building power of disadvantages except in the past.

One could argue that the focus on self-reliance is actually kinder than encouraging people to dwell on their victimhood. This is “tough love.” Blaming your situation isn’t going to help anything, after all. The only thing that will benefit you is the decision to rise above, to take responsibility for yourself, to turn your back on your situation and get over it.

There are several problems with the “just say no”/”just do it”/”get over it” advice. First is that word “just,” which makes the decision to change sound easy. I do believe that the individual decision is crucial; nothing changes for you until that moment when you make that choice. But when you’ve got the weight of society/history on you, it does a disservice to focus solely on “just” flipping a mental switch, no matter how crucial that switch is. That’s only part of the story.

Another difficulty is that such advice does no good unless the person is ready to receive it. Actual change is a difficult process, and timing is crucial. Hearing the message to “move on” is only part of the solution; being ready to hear that message is probably even more important. And the source of that targeted advice is important as well. Usually it takes a trusted friend who knows your particular circumstances to intervene at the right time. Individual change is a highly personal matter.

But broadcasting that people should “get over it” is the opposite of personal. It instead sends the message that people aren’t being listened to, that they are being given one-size -fits-all advice by someone with inadequate perspective. If you’re a man telling a woman that she should ignore sexism and move on, good luck with that. If you’re a white person telling black people that you don’t think race is such a barrier anymore, that’s a tall order. If you don’t have standing within the community, why should members of that community listen to you?

(Communicating across communities is difficult, particularly if you truly want to do something more than hear yourself talk. Even well-meaning “inspirational” content from outsiders can sound very different when it lands within the community. When a person with a disability receives a bootstraps story sent from a well-meaning, able friend, that is often accompanied by an implicit challenge: “This person overcame their diabetes/dyslexia/disability; why can’t you? What’s wrong with you? All it clearly takes is will.”)

If conservatives are truly trying to get people to rise above their circumstances, then they’re not being very successful at getting their message across. The disempowered receive the message as uncaring. If this is tough love, it’s not working. It sounds like self-justification, congratulating oneself on one’s own success.

If it’s all about individual effort, if difficult circumstances can be transcended on the way to success by “just getting over it,” then we can apply a kind of reverse logic: our own success must therefore be earned. We got where we are because we worked harder than others, and so hard work is really the moral of our story. This allows us to downplay – or better yet, forget — any assistance we got along the way. We renarrativize our story with ourselves as the lone hero. If we made it without assistance (structural or otherwise), why should anyone else get any?

Again, let me be clear: I do believe in hard work. I believe that determination, drive, and discipline are crucial. But I don’t believe that those of us with some financial security can congratulate ourselves on being necessarily more worthy. Yes, persistence is required for success, but being in a precarious position doesn’t mean you haven’t been working hard. We tend to blame the poor for their poverty because the alternative is unthinkable: maybe if things had been different, we would be the ones living precariously.

It’s pretty easy for me to make my own story all about me. I started as the child of working class parents with a high school education, and I went to public school. I worked hard, both in school and outside, to prepare myself for an upper echelon college. I bought books on SAT and ACT preparation and drilled myself on vocabulary words I never heard in rural Tennessee. A book called Success in High School laid out the literary canon for me (from Hardy to Huxley), and I tackled a classic a week, determined to make up for my perceived deficiency in not having a prep school education (I later learned that this “catching up” exercise made me more well-read than virtually any of my Duke classmates). Hard work in college, followed by hard work in the corporate world, in graduate school, in academic publishing and teaching, in administrative service. I have no doubt that my drive and ambition led me to my current position.

And yet in this story of the meritocracy at work, I think about the numerous advantages I had along the way, particularly early on. Having parents who had an almost religious faith in education and reading was a huge benefit. The same is true for some key teachers showing an interest in me. Some of my privileges were small but vital. My auto bodyman father was able to provide me with my own car (a ’72 Oldsmobile Delta 88, back in the days when you could sleep in your car but you couldn’t drive your house). I never made a car payment till I was married, in my 30s, a father, and a homeowner. My first wife had bought a house before we were married, so she was comfortable with the terrifying process of getting a mortgage, which gave me the confidence that we could buy a home while we were in grad school, which turned into a financial windfall for us.

It’s easy to forget these advantages (of knowledge, of material goods) when telling the story of my path to one of the most economically stable jobs in Western civilization (a tenured university professor). But at the time these were significant privileges that not everyone had, and I materially benefited from each without really earning them. I was either born into them or married into them. Entering an elite university from a rural public school was probably as close as you’ll get to pure meritocracy, and I benefited from that diploma for years afterward. I saw how the word “Duke” opened doors for me, a great demonstration of how privilege works.

Most of us have a great deal riding on our own bootstraps story. That narrative is fundamental to both our understanding of who we are and our construction of how the world works; that’s why this material can be so politically touchy. I can see why discussions of white class privilege can endanger a sense of our personal identity as being fought for, won, and deserved (and we on the left need to keep that personal investment in mind when we address privilege). My message here is that it doesn’t diminish our story of hard work if we also acknowledge the advantages we had along the way. If you’re going to tell your bootstraps story, it’s ok to mention the things that gave you a leg up. In fact, it is honorable and honest to do so. And it doesn’t destabilize your own political identity.

I try not to mix the political side of my blog with the Christianity side, but it has always struck me how similar the language of “privilege” and “blessings” are. Christians often talk about being “blessed,” which is an acknowledgment that their situation is not entirely based on their own efforts, that their lot in life goes beyond what they “deserve.” Talking about your blessings is an attempt to reorient yourself toward your environment, to see the good things in your life as coming from God, to remind yourself that you participate in an economy of supernatural forces that goes beyond your own individual exertion. Remembering your blessings is a way to guard against pride, against seeing everything in your life as your own creation (lest we should boast).

This humility seems not that far from acknowledging the privileges and advantages that were important to your life story; the big difference is that privilege lacks the religious underpinnings of blessedness. And yet many conservative Christians who talk about being “blessed” balk at the idea of white class privilege. If you can accept the religious version of undeserved grace, why not at least recognize the logic of the secular version?

If life can be thought of as a race with “success” (however defined) as the finish line, then we should acknowledge that the racers have very different starting points. Certainly it requires effort for all to complete the race, but some have a lot farther to travel. We all know this; no one chooses a disadvantaged starting point. What we need to do is both admit that the race is hard and that it is not fair. One admission doesn’t cancel out the other. We need both stories, particularly in the political realm today. We need to acknowledge, understand, and combat racism, sexism, and poverty, and we need to encourage individual effort. There is little progress without both.

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