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American Dream: The myth of the self-made man (social class in america) November 27, 2005

Posted by Matt Hurst in Uncategorized.
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We Americans are great storytellers. So good we sometimes believe it. Our myths are legendary throughout the world, and we even have an entire film industry celebrated around the world. It’s our way of exporting our culture, and sometimes it imports itself back here in the form of immigrants seeking the American Dream. We keep hearing how good we have it here, but comparisons to a third world country or another aren’t fair.
One of those myths lays at the heart of the american dream – that someone determined enough to work hard and play fair can be whatever they want to be. America, the capitalist icon of the world, is the world’s marketplace (and vice versa) because of our inventiveness and hard work. That’s partly true – we do work longer than any other first world country on average. As for those free markets, I have the misfortune of informing the freepers/lurkers out there about a political disposition forming this reality – while the modern progressive movement shares it’s roots in early 20th century socialism through the endorsement of social welfare programs, the free market imperialism of the modern Republican movement shares its beliefs in common with classical liberalism. But that’s just political science clouding culture, right?

Back on subject, let’s talk about the self-made man. The possibility, nay even the right, of self-determination is at the core of the American Dream. We hold those socially mobile individuals up as an example for everyone to see; and to understand that with and idea and a focus to work hard they too can earn the life they deserve. Even then though, we are usually told that timing and a lucky meeting perhaps, combined with these charecter qualities to lead their idea to success. But we relegate that as an aside.
You hear it all the time from tax paying citizens – why should I pay my hard earned money to help out a bunch of lazy ingrates who aren’t working at all? OR why should I reward them for their squalor? Why you ask, instead of how each of you got there. Maybe you were born like me, a white male (in the most powerful country on earth) to relatively successful parents, and they were born a black female around the same time. Chances are that your parents lived in a suburban neighborhood, in a good school district, where your standard of living was reasonable and food was in the refrigerator most of the time. They were born into a poor community (with a minimum of new investment), in a bad school district (not as much tax revenue), where stability might only be a missed paycheck or medical emergency away. Already your education, itself supported by a more stable envioronment, has elevated your chances of employment or investment; college education is within reach, increasing your standard of living. Our friend not so fortunate in birth because of social construction, faces lower job prospects and will have a harder time educating themselves in an environment less conductive to learning; college is a distant dream, countered by a reality of survival.

Now you’re telling me that your parents worked very hard to get where they are today, and that they are self-made people. Your parents, in futile effort to cut their own taxes on your behest, forgot the lessons of sacrifice their parents made to make America the greatest country on earth. Our parent’s generation ahd the largest collegiate enrollment in terms of percentage of graduates from high school, payed for by their parents taxes – which created the GI Bill and massive grants, not to mention the lowest rate college loans. Not only that, but our grandparent’s generation didn’t earn the standard of living that gave their children such great educations by themselves. No, they worked hard with unions to create a standard of livable wages and benefits through their work that made for a stable environment (hence resistance to unstable challenges to the establishment) and a growing economy for more jobs. They had been doing it since the new deal, and until recently every president had ended their terms with positive job creation figures. Union were strongs and supported the family, while higher taxes created a safety net for those in between jobs to sustain that stability.
Your parents were given opportunity by theirs, as do we now. Their is little arguement that class exists in America, but social mobility is continually impaired in an environment where the safety net keeps getting thinner. More importantly, your social mobility upward is most often effected by who you were born to instead of how hard you work. Tell a janitor that he isn’t working hard enough, or ask a vacationing executive how hard he works, and they’ll both have the same answer for differing capacities.

I am often reluctant to reveal my own fortunate disposition. I was born into it, but it took death to create the extra paradox of this discussion. I am afraid of how people would judge me if they knew when I meet them. It really shoudn’t matter, though I don’t deserve the money; they ought to judge me on my charecter and personality, as I do them. If someone who meets me is favorable of my monentary fortune, would I even want to be friends with someone who only thinks me better because of money? Likewise, I understand that I will be thought less of by people who work hard for their money, because I have not earned mine. I admire those people, because they have real charecter and know what is right. I want the last group as friends, but I stand the chance of turning them away if they knew how lucky I am. It’s really complicated, and I need their trust so that they can understand why, and that I am not a materialistic person. I live comparatively better than many of my peers, but I don’t throw my money around in people’s faces. Frankly, I don’t need to or want to, and so I live rather simply in a one-bedroom apartment within close range to my school with second hand clothing. I don’t need much more than that (and an availible refrigerator. I only offer this aside for full disclosure – I know the American Dream is just that, and I am no happier for my fortune. It’s all how you can use it – opportunity and assistance

Then we get to the worst of it – the people who will never need to work a single day of their life because of their luck of birth. Sometimes these people do work at the top of employment, by taking advantage of the opportunities they have for elite education and qualified employment. However, among them are the investor class. We have eliminated the so-called “double dividend tax”, which taxes earning on stock investments. These people, who have been born in opportunity can simply use their money to make more money. They came into that money not through luck, but disposition and pre-existing assets. They know nothing of debt, and are allowed to live the american dream by earning money through the work of others. Do they instigate employment? Sometimes. More often, they have adopted the corporate model of profit before people. They own the airwaves and spread the myth. But they live it without the same merit as the self-made man, who is fewer and further in between under the glass ceiling these people never really face.

Is the American Dream possible? Can we work our way to the top? More often than not, our standard of living (class) is the result of opportunity we were given by our families, our society. This system that rewards the well off with education and employment to those already at the top at birth, does take effort to actualize. But around every corner of youth and adulthood lie challenges that can be destructive of those efforts for some and inconsequencial for others. The risk of falling to peril is always there, but whether a net to catch as and give a hand up (not a hand out) is largely a situation we create. We all deserve a fair shot, but we cut down others by being selfish. If we’re all in this together we can grow stronger and opportunity better, as exhibited by our grandparents. The glass ceiling stands, and will always be out of reach for some of us. Sure, America offers opportunity; for some, but not all.

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