A Story About Bootstraps

[Content Note: Privilege.]

Politicians love stories about people who "came from nothing" and Made It Big in America. It doesn't matter if it's the Republican National Convention or a Democratic gubernatorial debate or any venue at all where a politician can name some Average American zie met on the Campaign Trail who has the Greatest Story about Achieving the American Dream.

We hear these stories in US politics all the time.

The inner city kid who grew up to be a war hero. The single teen mom who now runs her own successful business. The immigrant who came here with nothing and now owns the restaurant where he started as a busboy.

We love movies about people who "overcame." We love stories about Exceptional People who "rose above" their meager circumstances.

And people—especially people who have a vested interest in the fairy tale of the American Dream, particularly as it is used to deny the existence of privilege—love to tell these sorts of stories about themselves. Created narratives, carefully edited narratives, about how they Made It without any help from anyone.

It's that carefully edited thing that's always the kicker.

And I'm not even talking about failing to mention that it matters if you were the beneficiary of government programs that made sure you had electricity, or mail, or passable roads, or clean drinking water, or food, or shelter, or healthcare, or a loan.

We all tend to leave that stuff out, even though we shouldn't.

I'm talking about leaving out details that aren't just details. To shape your struggle into a narrative of bootstraps, when maybe it wasn't exactly so.

Recently, Iain and I were joking about what his personal narrative would be if he ran for office in the US. [These details shared with his permission.] It would be an inspiring tale of a poor, homeless, unemployed immigrant who arrived in America with $50 to his name, one suitcase, and the clothes on his back; who never took a hand-out from anyone.

"And now, just 12 years later, here I stand before you as a homeowner, a successful businessman, and YOUR CANDIDATE FOR THE UNITED STATES SENATE!" Wild cheers and applause!

What a success! It's truly the American Dream! If he can do it, anyone can!

And the thing is? It's technically true.

Iain really did arrive in the States with $50 to his name, one suitcase, and the clothes on his back. He was poor and homeless and unemployed. He never "took a hand-out." That is all 100% true.

But here are a few other relevant details:

He's male; he's white; he's straight; he's cisgender; he has no visible disabilities; he is well educated.

He immigrated from Scotland, a country where English was his first language and which makes him, in the prejudiced language of immigrant-ranking, an "ex-pat" rather than an "immigrant."

He had more "stuff," but he couldn't be bothered to ship it, so he just left it behind.

He came to the US on a fiancee visa.

He was guaranteed to get a work visa as soon as we were married and he was eligible to apply for one.

He was only "homeless" because I'd sold my home before moving to Scotland for a short time, but we had people with whom to stay in the States until we got a new place. He had a built-in support network of people willing to be there for him, because he was my partner, in his new country.

I was able to quit my job and move there because my parents volunteered to sponsor him. (That is, they promised to the government to cover his expenses if necessary, so he would not take US welfare.) They didn't ultimately have to pay his living expenses, but the fact that they were willing to commit to the possibility indicates how much support he had moving here.

Because I'd sold my home, I had money to use to cover our expenses until we both found work. (And he found work before I did.)

In a tough job market, his brogue made him memorable and interesting to potential employers. He stood out from the crowd as an immigrant, in the best possible way.

Et cetera.

Pointing these things out, of course, is not to take anything away from the fact that Iain is an ambitious, hard-working, talented person. And he has not led a charmed life. It's merely to acknowledge that he has many privileges that other ambitious, hard-working, talented people who have also struggled don't have.

You know, all the details that get left out of stories about bootstrapping one's way to the American Dream.

White USians (particularly, though not exclusively and not universally) subscribe fully and uncritically to the narrative of bootstraps and the promise of the American Dream and the myth of opportunity. Anyone (except oneself, naturally) who fails to achieve, including other whites who had the terrible sense to be born poor, with disabilities, to abusive parents, and/or in some other potentially success trajectory-fucking circumstance, is personally blamed for their lot and—even in spite of obvious innate incompatibilities with the unjust, inflexible, kyriarchal, privilege-rewarding system by which we're meant to achieve "success" as if it's a level playing field—is suspected, and frequently openly accused, of simply failing to work hard enough.

If there is one person born to poverty, one person with disabilities, one person who has survived profound abuse, who can be held up as an example of achievement, then everyone else is failing to thrive. Even as we devour barfinating narratives of triumph over tragic circumstances, we pretend that terrible beginnings don't really matter, except insomuch as they make great first acts for Sandra Bullock Oscar vehicles.

This intractable belief in bootstraps manifests the bias detailed above because it encourages the lie that history doesn't matter. And neither does present bias. It encourages the lie that every life happens in a fucking void.

Except, of course, when it suits us to judge an individual by our prejudices about an entire class to which they belong.

When you're a non-privileged person, you're as bad as the worst conceivable member of a shared demographic, and only as good as your own personal achievement.

That is the gross underbelly of American Individualism. Its story only really works for privileged people, among whose privileges include being seen as an individual, whether they fail or succeed.

And that is why the American Dream, and all its narratives of bootstraps and hard work and equal opportunity, is conservative horseshit: The American Dream is not, and has never been, that we collectively eradicate poverty, achieve meaningful and lasting social justice, and celebrate our shared success, but that each of us as individuals would achieve some sort of perfect destiny of wealth, health, and security.

And fuck everyone who doesn't. They're just lazy.

All of this, all of it, is underwritten by curated narratives about success, about the people who succeed within a very specific model. Tales told by the victors.

Victors who want—and need—to claim that they never had any help from anyone. Because, if they had, their admonishments to people without their privileges to pull themselves up by their bootstraps would be readily seen for the vile cruelty it is.

We should view with suspicion stories of personal success via bootstraps. We should view critically their lack of detail. They exist in service to an agenda.

Gruesomely, to an agenda explicitly designed to make the individual success being exalted a virtual impossibility for anyone who's truly got nothing but their bootstraps.

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