The Bootstraps BS

It’s hard to comprehend that the United States has such insane economic inequality with very little happening to change it. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has a net worth of over $100 billion while countless others are trying to scrape by in debt or homelessness. The contrast between a handful of people with tens of billions of dollars and everyone else couldn’t be starker. And yet, it continues to get worse—without a lot of collective action or governmental change. What the hell?

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the disparity and callousness, and it seems clear that it has a lot to do with the ol’ bootstraps myth. You know, the idea that every American can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they choose to do so, and rise to great wealth and social standing. A handful of people have a net worth of billions of dollars because they’re the smartest and hardest-working. The homeless man shooting up on the streets of San Francisco is there because he hasn’t pulled himself up by the bootstraps. He made bad choices or is lazy or isn’t taking advantage of his opportunities.

So the myth goes. And so class divides persist and worsen. A particular person’s situation is deemed the inevitable outcome of how hard they’re trying. Stark inequality throughout the whole country is shrugged at as the resulting separation between the people who tried hard and the people who didn’t.

A widely referenced 2009 Pew survey suggested that a majority of Americans think this way. 71% to 21%, those surveyed said that “personal attributes, like hard work and drive, are more important to economic mobility than external conditions.” If you’re financially successful, you’re an all-American bootstrapper. If you’re struggling, you’re an outcast from the American social contract and you’ve only got yourself to blame.

If economic and social standing are the outcomes of personal character, why would anyone think much of it or work to change it? That’s just the way it is. If you think someday that could be me with billions if I work hard enough!, you probably want things to stay as they are. I’m gonna be in the top income bracket one day, so don’t tax it too much. And don’t give people a *handout* or a leg up who aren’t trying as hard as I am.

But, of course, none of this is really how it works. Wealth in the United States is not some perfectly laissez-faire, unbiased, meritocratic system–where those who have the most worked the hardest and those who are destitute are there because of their lack of effort. Some of the people who are absurdly wealthy just goof around all day. They coast as their fortune–often starting as a sizable inheritance–grows. Meanwhile, millions of middle class and poor Americans hardly have time to rest—working long hours or trying to live out of their car or on the street. America’s inequality, and the particular people who are rich and poor, are not simply the outcomes of effort.

The disparities start at birth, then later continue in second, third, and twentieth chances for some while oppression and shaming for others. Consider how bootstrapping is linked to race and sex. White men with a huge advantage of inheritance and a foot in the door from their white, male buddies are proclaimed to have gotten to the top by virtuousness and industriousness.

While “welfare queens,” “ungrateful” black and brown people, and “reckless” single moms are believed to have every opportunity and support they could need, yet fail to rise up the ladder. They’re accused of not trying, and considered a terrible burden on society. Sometimes a black CEO, or a single mom hustling through night classes, get spotlit as the good, bootstrapping individuals that other black people and women should aspire to be like. The bootstraps bullshit is fully weaponized by loading it with racism and sexism.

The harsh, simple truth is that the majority of us are going to go through costly personal tragedies and uncontrollable struggles to make ends meet. It’s not easy to afford all your material needs all of the time, or to live through the traumas you can’t do anything to prevent.

When you’re knocked down, it’s difficult to recover in America. The United States doesn’t have anything close to a foundational system of social services that other countries do, which ensure that whatever you aspire to and whatever kind of luck you encounter in life, you’ll still have your basic needs provided for. Things like universal healthcare with virtually zero patient cost. Elder care. Child care. Housing. Robust maternity and paternity leave. And more.

In Texas, a 38-year-old teacher, Heather Holland, recently died of complications from the flu when she couldn’t afford the $116 copay for a prescription. Some internet assholes very unhelpfully chimed in to say that she should have had a rainy day fund to cover something like that. That’s some classic bootstrap shaming.

I’ve mentioned before that close to half of Americans couldn’t cover an emergency $400 expense if they needed to. It’s not just Heather Holland and her supposed moral failings. Many unexpected expenses are a lot more than $116 or $400. Cancer treatments can cost tens of thousands of dollars per month. Who’s got a rainy day fund for that? There is no perfect lifestyle and financial plan to prevent everything and afford everything.

While Jeff Bezos sits on billions, hundreds of Amazon employees are in the supplemental nutrition assistance program (formerly known as food stamps). These sad realities say a lot more about the way wealth is immorally distributed than whether or not individual people are trying hard enough to make it.

But our inequality-generating system is rarely challenged in public. The bootstraps myth obscures the crazy head-starts given to some, stifling structural prejudices against others, and the dire need for a strong social support system. People in debt or poverty or failing health are told you need to do better or you failed, so figure out how to get out of it.

That’s really the best this country can do? That’s all we owe to each other?

Everyone deserves to have their basic needs taken care of. Everyone should be supported through misfortune. Not because people are trying hard enough, but because we’re all human beings who want to enjoy life in the face of universal challenges.

Embrace or Erase

I don’t know what it’s like to be pulled over by the police because that’s yet to happen to me as a driver. I especially do not know what it’s like to be pulled over as a Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, or person of any other race because that will never happen to me as a white man.

I’ve never had a talk with family about how I might be profiled, and how it’s essential to do everything exactly the right way (or better) so that I’m not persecuted or violated because that doesn’t happen to people with white privilege. I’ve been spit on a few times, and threatened with violence of various kinds, but I think that was more to do with people who were not of sound mind than expressing hatred for who I am. Those incidents were minor in comparison to what many Americans who are not white men experience. I can’t even begin to imagine what some people have gone through and continue to endure. We need more people to be able to tell their stories openly, and for their stories to be genuinely heard and addressed.

As much as I want to believe with President Obama that “we’re not as divided as we seem,” it’s nearly impossible to understate the tension–apparent or real–throughout the United States. Black men murdered during routine police calls, and officers gunned down are not isolated, one-off occurrences–they’re symptomatic of broader, embedded ways of thinking and acting.

Many of us are uncomfortable and even outright aggressive when we encounter difference, conflict, paradox, and contradiction as we cross paths with other people. Instead of allowing those instances to be an opportunity for deeper learning and greater humanity, we try and eliminate the tension in whatever way we can. Avoidance, belittling, ignoring, striking, disparaging, and more. By doing so, we dehumanizing ourselves and others.

In short, we erase instead of embrace.

As we bump into the lives of our fellow humans, we always have a choice. We can choose to learn from others, expanding our understanding and appreciation of the complexity and interconnectedness of all people. Or, we can choose to close up and try to shut down, minimize, and erase them–even to the most violent and complete erasure: murder.

Difference challenges us. For many, different means strange, repulsive, vulgar, or inferior. But different simply is different. We each have a history and identity that makes us distinct from any other human on the planet.

When we’re confronted by difference in other people, we are always at the crossroads of embrace or erase.

When you encounter someone who is of a different race, gender, religion, or another identifier, what if you saw that difference as an opportunity to grow in understanding and humanity?

They’re human and you’re human–just in different ways.

We’re hindered and shaped, of course, by history. Every previous act colors the present and how we perceive others. This is especially true if we perceive someone to be part of a group or the kind of person that’s a threat to us. White America perpetrated at least two original sins: the genocide and oppression of countless Native American tribes, and the incomprehensible horrors of Black slavery (there is also some overlap between the two). Those are just two broad sweeps of history among millions of other acts of inhumanity over the last few hundred years that have informed and patterned the present. Erasure has become structural and infiltrated all levels of American society. Blacks, Native Americans, women, people who are mentally ill, and others are still unequal and unjustly treated today. Not just by an ignorant asshole or two, but by the machinery of modern American society: economy, criminal justice, media framing and representation, healthcare, education, and the rest.

Acts of violence–citizen to policeman, policeman to citizen, or between anyone else–perpetuate and exacerbate distrust, and reduce the potential for embrace in future encounters.

For safety, we separate into ingroups and outgroups: us and them. If someone is us, we’ll start out more trusting. They’re less of a threat because they’re more like me. If someone is them, we’re wary from the get-go. This person is not really like me, so I need to be on guard.

To break through the history and the structural dehumanization, we will each have to be patient and attentive. We will have to lower our guard a bit and let difference, paradox, and conflict wash over us until our understanding is opened up and increased. We will have to get into the gritty realness of each other’s pain, oppression, uniqueness, experience, hopes, and fears. There will need to be some deep listening, owning up, apologizing, forgiveness, advocacy, and activism.

As such openness spreads through more and more individuals in one-on-one encounters, it will begin to permeate society at large. Not instantly, deterministically, or completely. But we need a steady, intentional movement of replacing structural erase with structural embrace. Neighborhoods to cities to states to the country as a whole (including social media and the rest of cyberspace).

That’s not to say it’s easy for anyone. It takes a tremendous amount of willpower to overcome experience, history, and what’s comfortable. Avoidance, belittling, violence–erase–are easier. Maybe even safer for you, though certainly not for the people you erase.

Embrace is our only hope, however difficult in practice, of moving toward a society that is more fully alive and flourishing. We each, ourselves, want a society where we feel safe, are able to openly be who we are, and receive respect from the rest of the community. That kind of society will never arrive without including, understanding, and empowering–without embracing–everyone we’ve deemed to be other. We’re all in this together.

 

This Week in Upgrades: April 4

Hello, Monday. Hello, April! Were you sufficiently fooled on Friday? If I’m honest, I’m not a huge fan of the April 1st shenanigans. Netflix’s John Stamos bit was pretty good, though.

This week did give us this video of a barn owl learning to fly, so there’s really nothing to complain about. Owls are the coolest.

Speaking of animals, ever wonder how cats always land on their feet?

Civil Eats continued the conversation about “other people’s food” that The Sporkful started. Let’s keep talking about this, yeah?

This may be a strategy to save the world’s fish. Highly recommend The End of the Line if you haven’t seen it.

Do you know what chocolate looks like before it turns into the bar you have stashed away? Quite a process.

Many factory-farm chickens cannot even stand by the time they reach maturity. Whole Foods is starting a movement for slower-growing chickens for the sake of animal welfare. Good on you, guys.

Is wine better out of a can? The “beer-ification” of wine.

If all goes according to plan, electric cars will be the future of autos. Over the weekend, nearly 300,000 reservations were made for the Model 3, Tesla’s everyman electric car. Here’s everything we know about this make or break vehicle.

More about “being a man”: superheroes and the changing ideal male body.

Have a fantastic week!

 

This Week in Upgrades: March 28

Oh, hello! It’s the start of another week, and I’ve got Upgrades to make your Monday better. Hopefully you had a wonderful Easter if that’s your thing, or just a great weekend.

Does it feel more like Spring now? The New York Times had a cool feature this week on the ways nature tells us it definitely is the Spring season: the smell of bacteria in the soil, the return of gray whales, and more. Check it out. (How neat is that?)

Unfortunately, this week also showed signs that climate change is really starting to take its toll. A new paper by the father of global warming science suggests sea level rise will be greater than expected over the next several decades, and this year may have been one of the last Iditarod races in Alaska because there’s no snow for it anymore. The time to act for the sake of our future and the future of the planet is now, clearly.

So many interesting and important human things on the inter-webs in the last week. Here are just some of them:

As demand for grass-fed dairy grows, how do we maintain standards for it? Do you look for grass-fed at the grocery store? How do you decide what’s good?

Speaking of food standards, is it wrong if the best chef of Mexican cuisine is not Mexican? A new series on the podcast The Sporkful explores “other people’s food“.

Also in food, there’s a Madagascar vanilla shortage. Some vanilla ice cream enthusiasts are worried. It’s always the things you take for granted.

Glass-blowing is awesome. Here’s a very enjoyable 10 minute film of pros doing their thing. Love the guy smoking a pipe at the same time.

British English is more than a great accent. Here are 41 things Brits say differently than Americans.

Increasingly, teachers cannot afford to live in the communities they teach. This is a problem. How do we get educators properly compensated for the difficult, vital work they do?

Thanks to medical innovation, people are living longer and longer. That’s great, but there are some important things we need to talk about.

In excellent nature news, after 140 years, a herd of plains bison will return to their native Montana home to roam free as millions of their ancestors once did.

 

Let’s Let People Be People

I am riveted by the current presidential campaign. Each presidential election is historic and interesting in its own way. But this one is different. Traditional candidates and predictable narratives are being subverted. There seems to be a groundswell of desire to move beyond the status quo in dramatic ways. In the long run, we’ll see what that means concretely: who wins and what (if anything) changes in society. Right now the race is still up in the air. I hope you’re enjoying watching and participating as much as I am. We need as many people as possible to be invested in this process.

But even in an unpredictable and entertaining race, some things never change. I’ve been especially bothered in recent weeks by the lazy use of stereotypical identity attributes to bunch people into monoliths. Media, candidates, pundits, and others do this regularly. African-Americans must all think and vote one way because they’re African-American. Elderly people must think and vote the same way because they’re elderly. Pick out a single trait or two–an age range, a gender, an income level, a race or ethnicity, a religion–and you can probably find some commentary about how that whole group of people is essentially homogenous.

One among many examples: last night in the Democratic Debate, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had a spirited exchange over the significance of Henry Kissinger being a valued mentor of Hillary Clinton. In the short time since the debate, I’ve heard Anderson Cooper and others on CNN, my local NPR station, and various tweets say something sarcastic like, “I bet that played well with Millennials–since they have no idea who Kissinger is.”

Surely some younger adults don’t know. But quite possibly some do know and have an opinion about it. Why assume an entire age range of the country fits into a uniform group of don’t know and couldn’t care less? And who’s to say a younger person can’t deem it important and figure it out? Between Internet searches, books, documentaries, and other sources, it’s pretty easy to give yourself a decent introductory lesson in things you don’t know. I’m inclined to believe that a number of people care enough to do so–and not just the ones that fit into a nonspecific age range reduced to “Millennials.”

Analogous things could be said about how predominant voices are talking about Hispanics who live in Nevada, African-Americans who live in South Carolina, young women, older women, and many others.

We should all be insulted by this. We can do better.

Identity generalizations may be convenient for a stump speech or a news segment. But they certainly do not represent or empower the individual human beings they are made about. You are a complex person. I (like to think I) am a complex person. Despite the fact that you may belong in a fundamental way to this or that race, class, or generation, you have a unique web of motivations, interests, knowledge, experiences, and beliefs. So does the person next to you. However much we are like others who share certain identity traits, there are meaningful idiosyncrasies that make each of us profoundly different from one another.

So let’s move beyond lazily and simplistically grouping people together. Let’s call it out and challenge it whenever we see it–from national media to our conversations with each other. Let’s let people be people.