I recently finished Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong written by James Loewen, and while I admitted to reading several other history books as well, I think I’m rather more stunned by a single idea that Loewen’s writing so clearly and with such distinct reasoning catalyzed in my mind then I was in all of my previous history reading. I brought it up in my previous post, but it has been rattling around for over a week now, and was again harmonizing with my watching of Finding Forester.
Finding Forester is of course a tale of an inner city black kid making it in the world through the merit of his genius interwoven in a coming of age story. I love the telling of a tale in what feel like an untouched and unforced way, unlike many of the blockbusters to day, Finding Forester enchanted you from the first moment the music came on. And yet…
I now realize that as much as I love this movie, and the tones of an underdog that wins–which as an American I can’t help but feel an pride about–as well as the beautiful synthesis of cinematography, music, dialog, the character that new york city plays, and of course the brilliant acting, I cannot help but believe it’s part of a lie that we perpetrate against ourselves.
We don’t live in a meritocracy. As much as we as Americans love the underdog and would love to wholeheartedly believe that we live in a place where the cream rises to the top, it’s not true. I have been unsettled by ideas surrounding this for quite a time, as I knew that the poor were staying poor, more were sliding into being poorer and being less content (real wages have been continuing to drop), of course the rich still get richer. I knew also that we have in place a system of structural violence that perpetuates the poverty that exists in the country (and elsewhere), as well as politicians come from specific niches, that healthcare is more statistically likely for someone in a middle class family because of education levels and jobs, that we live in a country that hasn’t resolved it’s racist history, that violence is the last act of a desperate person and generally not random, that feelings of fear of violence and crime in the US is ethnically, sexually, and racially charged in an inaccurate way as compared to real statistics, etc. In essence I knew much of the background to the argument, but it took Loewen to point out the conclusion.
Now that I know that we don’t live in a meritocracy, I feel stunned that it isn’t more obvious. I won’t go so far as to say that merit won’t get you somewhere, but I will admit to fully believing that a majority of my life from a statistical point of view could be predicted by my social class and demographics then by the merit of my brains and work alone. What’s more, I feel more betrayed then ever and am more determined then ever to improve this situation. This is ludicrous and outrageous that we could be so blind as to be continue the myth, under the pretense of patriotic pride and belief that our political and military hegemony would not be so callous.
Here, though is where my time in Washington changed me. I know it’s not the government nor a conspiracy and as much as I like to blame business for it, it’s not them either, rather it’s the one thing that we disbelieve the most. It’s a conflagration of history, ideas, technology, and human development what brought us to where we are at in an incremental and evolutionary way. It would be easier to blame someone, but although I still am angry, I’m tired of anger and more interesting in action and resolution. Humanity has a huge number of issues that we face, and this lack of a meritocracy is certainly one that Americans must face and resolve soon, and it’s possible. As much as it seems as if we are sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill only to have it fall down again, we are making progress. History, in it’s beautiful way, shows us this. American has shucked off slavery, we are becoming aware of our environment and cities have seen a dramatic fall in pollution levels, rivers have return to being usable, the standard of living for the world–including africa–has dramatically increased, infant mortality has improved, etc., etc. Lots is left to be done, but each rock moved is progress and makes us stronger.
The one thing that this idea didn’t change was my belief in the idea that hope lies in our next generation. More then anything else, we need to instill in them two basic thought processes. The will to ask questions and the will to find the answers. What this idea did change, is who this is most important for. Rather then just the tired, poor, and weak, this idea is most important for those in a class who can have some impact on the structure that we live in. I recently asked a question on metafilter.com, “What tools for social and political change exist?” and came back with a wonderful list of result from the world, both showing the true power of the technological revolution we live in as well as inspiring us to realize how many ways we can really push that rock.