Friday, November 25, 2011

The American Myth of Self-Determinism

Not many people these days know much about Horatio Alger, but most of us know about his legacy. I find that most people who do know about him are either very old, or well read. I'm neither; I heard about him through the book and movie "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

Not being one to horde what little knowledge I do possess, I can tell you that Alger was a 19th century author known for writing children's stories. Alger helped popularize rags-to-riches tales, and in part, helped lay the foundations for what became known as the "American Dream." Alger's stories tended to focus on young men who come from humble beginnings and, through hard work and good moral character, rise to the top.

There is something simultaneously virtuous and naive in his work. On one hand, it's undeniable that perseverance and ethics are important traits to imbue upon the young. On the other hand, the idea that your success or failure in life entirely rests on your actions alone is a concept that is as ridiculous today as it was when he first wrote it.

The era in which his work was most popular came to be known historically as the "Gilded Age," a term coined by Mark Twain for the era following the Civil War. Again, most people may not know what gilding is, but I am happy to share with you that to "gild" something is to cover it with a thin layer of gold. Twain so named this time the "Gilded Age" as a take on "golden age;" it appeared golden, but only on the surface.

Alger's work became popular at a time when America was growing at a rapid pace. Hundreds of miles of rail were being laid down, factories were springing up across the Northeast, and a new class of super-wealthy private businessmen began to emerge, with individuals like JD Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and JP Morgan earning millions at a time when a penny still bought you a magazine with an Horatio Alger story inside.

The "American Dream" trope had always been there (though not explicitly by that name), especially from the European perspective. America had been, and still was at that time, the land of opportunity for many people in Europe, or even just a place for people to get a second chance. By Alger's time, however, he saw a sharp decline in the work ethic and morality of those around him (especially those born in America, as opposed to immigrants seeking opportunity), and he chose to focus on promoting the idea of self-determinism and honesty.

And thererin lies the rub: it is patently absurd to both promote the idea of self-determinism and that of honesty, because self-determinism is a fallacy. It's true that if you are born with nothing, you will almost undoubtedly have to work for everything you get, but if you happened to be a child in the Vanderbilt family, you very well may live a life of opulence without so much as working a day in your life.

That part, I can live with.

What is disheartening, however, is that most poor people work their hands to the bone, both in that time and in this one, and yet they will often see very little pay-off for their effort. Generational poverty is a reality, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. There are families where both parents have tirelessly worked multiple jobs going back a century or more, and they have little to show for it. Their children cannot hope for much more than to labor in futility until they, too, die, having not reached their full potential. "Working-class" is what we call it when we are trying to flatter them, but really, they are the perpetually lower-class.

The myth that you determine your own fate persists, however, because of people like my father. He was the first person in his family to graduate from college, and he has had job titles including words like "Executive" and "Vice President," and currently has a title that includes both. I'm proud of him, and I know he worked hard, but I also know he didn't work any harder than millions of other people. If all it took was hard work, more people would have achieved what he achieved, but his station in life is the result of what would be called "opportunity" by capitalists, and "luck" by cynics.

The truth is, there is so much outside of our control. I sense that I have perhaps not worked as hard as he has, though I'm no slouch; I still manage to accomplish quite a bit in a day, even though I could just sit on my ass while unemployed and do absolutely nothing, thanks to his hard work and "opportunity." But the truth is, I just have not been given opportunities like he has, and this is largely not because I have not gone looking for it, but because there simply isn't a lot of opportunity out there right now at this moment

Personally, I'm an optimist. I know that my father, like all people who experience upward economic mobility, was not catapulted to their current status overnight. I am not out applying for jobs as an executive and getting frustrated at my inability to instantly be on top. My father also graduated during economically hard times, granted they were not as bad as they are now, and like him, I am confident that all things change. But I have to wonder... would my father be so "lucky" if he had to cope with the financial strains of today while he was in the situation he was in when he started?

What I mean is... I can afford to be confident. I can afford to be patient. I can afford wait out the storm. I can afford these luxuries of opportunity because I come from a moderately wealthy family. Scratch that... after discussing my father's current finances, I can safely say I am the beneficiary of a 1%er's good graces. He didn't come from the bottom; he came from the middle. But now he's at the top, and by familial association, I am coming from the top, as well. The world is a different place now, and I question whether someone like my father (who I have immense respect for) could succeed in this day and age.

My father worked a few hours a week and put himself through college, and he graduated with no debt. I worked during college, and I graduated with student loan debt of over $100,000. If my father, coming from his family, was in my position, he would have six-figure debt and would perhaps still be looking for a job, as I am. However, because I am who I am, my father cut a check and paid off my student loans this year in one fell swoop, something his own father never could have afforded to do for him. My father doesn't love me more than his father loved him, he just has the means to do more for me than his father ever could have done.

I get angry when I see people criticizing the poor, especially older individuals who grew up and made their place in life during a very different time, or who come from families that were not truly poor. I don't think most people ever remove themselves from their privileged lives, where they feel entitled to all the advantages they received by virtue of which vagina they were laboriously pushed from at birth. Most poor people aren't poor by any fault of their own, they are poor by virtue of birth, and many of those who do make it have to work harder for the same results than those born into better situations.

What is most depressing, however, is that so much hard work goes unrewarded among the working class. I wish hard work was rewarded. I wish everyone truly could make something of themselves. I wish self-determinism was a part of our reality. I wish it were so, but it is not.

Which leads me back to Horatio Alger. Alger came from an affluent minister family and attended Harvard, so he didn't live the stories he told. And for all his talk of morality and personal responsibility, Alger lost his job in 1866 as the pastor of a Massachusetts church for molesting young boys. But I will give him this: he promoted honesty, and he never denied the accusations. He simply moved to New York City, continued publishing stories for young boys, and never faced justice for his crimes. How's that for personal responsibility?

The difference between men like Horatio Alger and myself is not so much our outlook on life (which is still quite at odds), it's that I don't need to write fictional stories to illustrate how I think the world works; the truth is enough.

The truth is this: I've found a strange trend. Those who truly come from poor backgrounds and make it don't preach so much about hard work and morality, they talk of giving opportunities to the poor, while those who have everything handed to them are generally the ones who never shut the hell up about how the only way to get ahead in life is hard work.

Personally, I would find it easy to say I have what I have because of my hard work. I did work hard, both in my education and while employed. It's not a lie, it's the truth, but I also know that my hard work is nothing special. I know that when opportunity comes (and it so often does for affluent white males such as myself), I will grab hold of it. But someday, when I look back on my life, I refuse to pretend I did everything myself. I will know I had help, from my family, from friends, from my wonderful wife, from society, and from whoever gives me the opportunity to succeed. I won't hog the credit, I will be grateful, and I will do my best to extend opportunities to others, because giving someone the chance to succeed is not only the greatest gift you can give someone, it's the only way anyone's hard work can really pay off.

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