Recently, New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote a compelling reflection on achievement as an act of defiance. Life, he tells us, is like a hill, and when you are born at the bottom of that hill, you have a choice between climbing or staying at the bottom.
But this was no “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps” harangue.
The article began with a forthright acknowledgment of the outsized role played by luck and favor in our society–with Blow’s recognition that what separates the comfortable from the needy is rarely as simple as hard work and diligence. As he prefaces his discussion:
I don’t buy into the mythology that most poor people are willfully and contentedly poor, happy to live with the help of handouts from a benevolent big government that is equally happy to keep them dependent.
These are all arguments based on shame, meant to distance traditional power structures from emerging ones, to allow for draconian policy arguments from supposedly caring people. These arguments require faith in personal failure as justification for calling our fellow citizens feckless or doctrinally disfavored.
Those who espouse such arguments must root for failures so that they’re proved right. They need their worst convictions to be affirmed: that other people’s woes are due solely to their bad choices and bad behaviors; that there are no systematic suppressors at play; that the way to success is wide open to all those who would only choose it.
Blow endorses effort and hard work for their own sake, with eyes wide open to the hard facts of life–that is, that although effort and hard work cannot guarantee reward, not working hard will pretty much guarantee failure. He accepts life on its own terms (as Jimmy Carter once said, fundamentally unfair) without using those terms as an excuse for giving up.
We are obligated to play the hand we’re dealt, even when the deck is stacked against us. And the deck is stacked against a lot of people.
I don’t think I am the only person who is incredibly tired of those self-satisfied folks who–having been born on or near the top of the hill–not only brag about their prowess as climbers, but sneer at the “losers” stuck below. (My grandmother used to describe them as “born on 3d base and think they’ve hit a triple.”)
I’m tired of the self-proclaimed, “self-made” businessman (almost always a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant heterosexual male) who is incapable of recognizing his dependence on the social infrastructure that privileged him over more marginalized folks, and unwilling or unable to experience gratitude for his good fortune.
I’m especially tired of the self-congratulatory “smart businessman” who takes advantage of tax loopholes (excuse me, “incentives”) to drive his effective tax rate below that of his secretary, but who nevertheless considers himself morally superior to the “takers” who don’t make enough money to owe federal income taxes.
I’m tired of self-deception and double standards and people who prefer not to see the hill that Charles Blow so eloquently describes.
And I’m really, really tired of the ideologues with vested interests who are spreading the mythology.