Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Alger's Bootstraps

Today is the birthday of Horatio Alger, the man whose dime store novels helped cement the "rags to riches" if only you work hard myth in our collective conscience. Rags to riches is not completely accurate, of course. It was more rags to middle class. The modern day version might be something like Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car":

You got a fast car
And we go cruising to entertain ourselves
You still ain't got a job
And I work in a market as a checkout girl
I know things will get better
You'll find work and I'll get promoted
We'll move out of the shelter
Buy a big house and live in the suburbs
The question is, to what degree is this realistic? Certainly, there is a naivite and a willful disregard for sociological factors and barriers that make social climbing difficult, if not impossible in some cases. We have education inequality, wealth and health disparities, and institutionalized racism and classism. There is no doubt that the "personal responsibility" rhetoric of the right is an attempt to cage and frame, to keep us from even discussing social programs that work because those programs cost money, but is there a sense in which this pull yourself up by your bootstraps talk is warranted? We hear it from Bill Cosby, for example.

Yet, when we look at, say, the Stanford prison experiment and we know that most people when put in certain life contexts would behave in a certain way that keeps them and those around them from succeeding in living good lives. These are facts on the ground. But, surely, on some level we want to condemn most people for doing what most people would do. How do we divide up responsibility between social causes and individual causes?

Should it be a longer view? Instead of individuals, should we look across generations? That one can raise their children up the ladder, if not themselves?

How seriously should we take Alger's picture? How responsible are we for our social status and position?