Wednesday, December 14, 2011

American Awakening: Occupy Wall Street, Deconstructing American Mythology, and Creating a Compassionate Society (part 3)

I THINK the economic system and its accompanying culture is perpetuated by the American Mythology and its three main tenets:  the American Dream, Upward Mobility, and American exceptionalism.

The American Dream has come to be a symbol of what we value and strive for.  Americans have been told since their birth and their parents' births that this Dream was for all to attain, if only they worked hard enough for it. The dream of eventually having all you could desire:  a great home, great job, beautiful family, nice possessions, and of course, happiness.  The American Dream is a unique image, a specific group of ideas in each individual's mind, relative to each of the dreamer, while also always remaining a generic symbol for the American way of life. Along with the symbol is the belief that in order to attain your Dream, one must simply put in your time and work hard, make smart choices such as saving money, being innovative, and then reap your benefits down the road (quick aside:  interesting how the rewards of belief structures such as the American Dream & Christianity are always delayed…always something to be received at a later point. No doubt this is at least partly due to the fact that the creators of the “American Dream” also happened to believe in the Christian Creator and the tenets of that faith).  The pursuit of your own American Dream has come to be a primary source of meaning for the day to day lives of Americans, something to continue working diligently towards…and believing in.  But just like the promise of a beautiful afterlife, the American Dream tends be be unfulfilled goals for most people. It begs the question:  Is the concept of the American Dream a misguiding goal? The creation of an ends driven society focused on things to work for while neglecting the importance of learning how to live?  I certainly think so.

Upward social mobility: This is another staple of the great American narrative. It is the concept that individuals can work their way up the economic and social ladder through hard work and/or education and/or plundering.  This has served as not only a rationalization for the successes of a tiny privileged few and your even tinier rags to riches stories, but also for the justification for the perpetual impoverishment of the entrenched lower classes, especially minorities. Despite evidence to the contrary, Americans are still more likely to believe in upward mobility than citizens of any other developed country.

If a person goes from abject poverty to fame and fortune, the narrative that ends up being told over and over is one of hard work, sacrifice, education, and the individuals’ virtues.  We attribute the success almost solely to the individual. The truth is that for the miniscule number of rags to riches stories, they did have to overcome incredible obstacles, work hard, take advantage of opportunities, and just plain out be lucky from time to time.  But this is not the norm. It cannot be the norm. But, this narrative is taken and retold over and over again as evidence that it is possible to move up the ladder of society and that you are solely responsible for making it happen.  But by decoupling the individual from the incredible circumstances that makes for each of these stories possible, a distortion of perception is created. People believe that it too can happen to them. And so they continue to believe the myth…But when we think about the rags to riches from an analytical point of view using statistical odds, we realize that that story is akin to the person who has just won the Powerball lottery. Millions of people think it can happen to them, but it takes extraordinary luck and circumstances for it to happen. 

The other side of the coin, using upward social mobility as a justification for the poor, is just as disingenuous. When discussing a specific person or group of people who have been entrenched in poverty, the narrative being told over and over again usually comes to tell about that person(s) lack of virtue, that they have not worked hard enough, not sacrificed enough.  Lost in this blame game are again…the incredible circumstances that surround the individual(s).  Instead of giving consideration to the effects of growing up surrounded by poverty, the responsibility is placed almost solely on the individuals (and their lack of virtue). 

The truth of the matter is that our economic positioning is most affected by circumstances outside of our control:  what socioeconomic rung of the ladder our parents maintained.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t jive with our belief in upward mobility. We want to and do believe our country is a meritocracy. We want to and do believe it is solely within our hands to attain our dreams, including reaching the top of the ladder. We want to and do believe hard work is justly rewarded.  But, it’s not. At least not to the extent that we want to and do believe.  Bottom line: If you’re born into the lowest quartile of the SES food chain, you have about 1% chance of an intragenerational jump to the top quartile.  If you’re born into the middle class, your percentage of likelihood to do the same increases to 1.8%. If you’re in the middle class, you actually have about an equal chance to move up to the next rung as you do to fall down to the rung below. And as for intergenerational mobility (families moving up the SES ladder through the generations)…well the rate in the United States was second lowest of all developed countries (only the UK has a lower rate). And so despite evidence to the contrary, we continue to have faith in the belief of upward mobility, and continue to perpetuate the myth.
Side Note:  For those with extra time and interest on the topic, here is the basis for my conjectures (no, I didn’t just make these statistics up!):
1. The Economic Mobility ProjectThe Economic Mobility Project is a unique non­partisan collaborative effort of The Pew Charitable Trusts and respected thinkers from four leading policy institutes — The American Enterprise Institute, The Brookings Institution, The Heritage Foundation and The Urban Institute.2. Understanding Mobility in AmericaA report by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank focusing on economic issues.

How could two ideas which have shown to be hollow and ultimately unfruitful for the majority of their believers continue to be so widely believed in? The American Dream and the belief of upward mobility are protected by obedience to the tenet of American Exceptionalism. This is the theory belief that the United States is qualitatively different from better than other countries.

The United States was founded under such pretty wild circumstances by some pretty wild dudes (and by wild I mean wildly wealthy white dudes). They thought they had something pretty special going on.  And by all accounts, they did. They worked to create one of the most free and open societies...for white male landowners.  But they did a great job in making everyone believe they were free! And relative to other countries in the world, people were pretty free. Oh, except for African-Americans. But then again, they were only considered a fraction of a person back then. Moving right along…it seems our country has had this self-image versus reality problem all along.  We want to and do believe in the IDEA of America and all it represents.  We ascribe to the tenets of the belief in America. We want to and do believe in the mostly unfailing awesomeness of America.  Yet these beliefs don’t quite match reality.  Like many religious systems though, our country has used the promise of deferred gratification, obedience to authority, and ostracization of nonbelievers to keep the worshippers coming to service, so to speak.

A heavy dose of humility would do our country a whole lot of good right about now.  A great first step would be to acknowledge and release our feeling of superiority in order to open up room for critique and dialogue about our country and its deep flaws.  A sound second step would be to stop looking outward to other countries for points of comparison and start looking inward.  Instead of comparing our reality to that of another country, let's compare our reality with our ideology. That should be the real test of our country's supposed greatness. We have all of these ideals that we were founded upon, but is this greatness real and more importantly, is it real for all Americans?

When we defer to dogmatic beliefs that distort our perception of our collectively constructed reality, we minimize our ability to clearly see need for change, suffocate those voices trying to draw attention to that reality, and ensure the perpetuation of a status quo that fails to realize the embodiment of our greatest ideals.

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