by Barry Edelson


Letting the Side Down

An ideological divide pits the great against the good


If you ever took a course in Sociology, you may remember the famous case study in which a millenarian preacher gathered his flock on a particular day and time to witness the end of the world. When the prophesied armageddon failed to materialize, the faithful did not abandon the fold, as common sense would predict. Instead, their commitment to their faith, and to their leader, only intensified. This turn of events, so contradictory in logical terms, is perhaps best explained by the psychologist Ernest Becker, who wrote, "When you put all your eggs in one basket you must clutch that basket for dear life."

It is difficult to say whether Americans are more susceptible to the pursuit of ideals than other peoples of the Earth, but there are any number of ideological baskets that we clutch as though our lives depended on them. We know the narrative only too well: we are all supposed to want to be rich, famous, thin and beautiful. The operative word is "want": whether or not these goals are achievable is not important. We must want them. Anyone who does not want them is simply letting the side down. If you could bet your life in Las Vegas against odds of a thousand to one — not just your money, but literally your survival — you would be celebrated nationally as a fool. But every day, we place our faith in stock tips, lottery tickets, American Idol, hair coloring and skin cream, upon which the odds of personal transformation are far longer than if we simply wagered our souls on the craps table.

Perhaps the problem here is innumeracy. If it seems extraordinary that the world's factories can continue to churn out toothpaste and tee shirts and toy trucks and a million others goods year after year, and never run out of customers, it is only because we simply do not grasp how many of us there are. We see celebrities parade endlessly across our screens every day, and we imagine that the odds of becoming a celebrity ourselves must be favorable. By the same token, we have little sense of how many places are available in the Ivy League compared to the number of students whose parents are convinced they belong there, or how many picks there are in the NBA or NFL draft compared to those who believe themselves sufficiently talented to be chosen. We see extremely large houses being built, and read ceaselessly about excessively wealthy men and women, and we are convinced that becoming one of them is just a matter of time and luck. All of those Hollywood stars, pop legends, sports heroes and business tycoons are human beings, and I'm a human being, so why not me?

We might call this the Joe the Plumber illusion. Rather than opt for health insurance and a pension guaranteed by the government, a surprising number of Americans who struggle from week to week just to put bread on the table, honestly seem to believe that free enterprise has the better odds. Finding out that our supposedly free markets are not particularly free, because powerful interests spend vast sums buying the votes of our elected representatives to make sure that the table is tilted in their direction, is like those parishioners finding out that the world isn't going to end this morning after all. It is undeniable that most people have little to show for all their years of work, and never will. More than 40 percent of Americans have less than $10,000 in savings, and more than 25 percent have less than $1,000 (i.e., nothing whatsoever saved for retirement), according to a survey by the Employment Benefit Research Institute in 2010. One would think that all of these struggling working people — if they are fortunate enough even to be working at the moment — would understand the reality of their own financial predicament. But reality is beside the point. The only thing that really matters is having faith in the system.

The recent eruption of hostility toward teachers and other public sector workers is emblematic of this divide between the dream and the reality. A reader posted a question on a newspaper's website last week, in response to another reader's teacher-bashing diatribe: If teaching is such an easy job, with long holidays, good pay and great benefits, then why aren't you teaching? The answer is not because most people know that teaching isn't the cushy career that its most ardent critics declare it to be. Nor is it because almost everybody has a story about a bad and/or lazy teacher they had way back when, because almost everybody also has a story about a wonderful teacher who changed the way they see the world. Neither is it only that teachers are on the public dime, because no serious person thinks we can do without teachers or sanitation workers or fire fighters or police officers.

Perhaps the real reason for this upsurge in animosity is because public employees are perceived to be sell-outs: by accepting the health plan and the job security and the pension, instead of trusting in the dizzying capitalist roulette wheel that most other people are trapped upon in these miserable times, they have settled for less than they could get. Teachers have not just chosen a different career path. They represent a different vision entirely of the much-vaunted American dream, one that values security and stability over the risks and rigors of entrepreneurship. Those who speak disdainfully of government workers often sound as if they were forced to live among infidels. There is nothing more discomfiting than watching someone else reject the accepted orthodoxy and get away with it.

It was not always like this. Until the middle of the 20th century, the American dream meant that even working-class families could aspire to a comfortable middle class existence, including home ownership and a realistic opportunity for their children to move up the economic ladder. Somewhere along the way, this ideal was replaced with a more lofty but far less attainable one, which emphasized fame, riches and reaching the pinnacle of one's profession. As a consequence, public schools stopped offering vocational training, children were inculcated with the false, even destructive, idea that stardom is the ultimate object of life, and that they themselves were all stars in the making (q.v., "Hoop Dreams"). Anyone who adheres to the outdated notion that money, fame and physical perfection are not prerequisites for a fulfilling existence is a heretic, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Worst of all, heretics who happen to be on the public payroll, by virtue of taxation, are obstacles to others who are trying to climb the ladder of success (however few would actually make it anyway).

A good life is no longer good enough. Now we must all aspire to greatness, no matter how many others, who could have been shown a better way, are left to themselves by the side of the road.

April 10, 2011


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