Saturday, December 3, 2011

I am the 0.00000033%

It was Joseph de Maistre who said that every nation has the government it deserves. Maistre was apparently a monarchist, so his statement should probably be read as a pointed critique of democracy. And so I have to read it in the context of the devolution of our democracy over the past few decades, which has led to our current state of governmental near-paralysis. Do we deserve this? More importantly, what does it say about us if we do?

An Op-Ed in this week's New York Times asks what Mahatma Gandhi, whose example has been repeatedly invoked by Occupy Wall Street protesters, would make of the protests.

Gandhi, says Ian Desai, would have rejected the slogan "We are the 99%." Societies operate as wholes, and the income stratification that the OWS protests have highlighted exists because we all accept and enable it.

If Desai is right, the obvious question is "Why?" Given that the US is rated between Ghana and Senegal in terms of income inequality, and far below any other "developed" nation, can it be true that we not only allow this situation to exist but actually approve of it? When I say "we," I mean the 100% that Desai says Gandhi would have addressed. I, personally, don't approve of it, and I know many others who don't. Placing our desires in conflict with those of the collective, though, is in Gandhi's view the wrong way to go, even if we have 99% of the collective on board. It is the 100% that will have to create any meaningful change.

So what is it about the American people that makes us so resistant to such change? Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which I've been reading on the recommendation of a Facebook friend, provides some interesting hints. What Gladwell is interrogating in the book is, in the broadest sense, the peculiarly American doctrine of the "self-made man." It is part of our national mythology that we are an open and egalitarian society in which anybody can succeed, simply by dint of hard work, grit and determination. The outliers—the upper 1%—are the ones that have done so, and those of us who haven't shouldn't complain; we should get to work.

Gladwell documents some of the ways in which this mythology can blind us to what's really going on when people succeed beyond expectations. For example, I was born in 1955. That means that I could have been Bill Gates. Literally. If I had practiced programming computers during my adolescence with the kind of determination with which I practiced the piano, I could have been ready to get in on the ground floor of the personal computer revolution and make a fortune. There were only two problems: I wasn't very interested in computers, and I didn't have the access that Gates did growing up in a computer-obsessed area of Washington state, or that Steve Jobs did growing up in Silicon Valley. So I've ended up a moderately successful musicologist instead of a phenomenally successful computer entrepeneur.

I'm not complaining. I like what I do and I wouldn't trade places with most people who make far more than I can ever dream of making. I suspect, though, that many Americans who do complain about their lot in life still have a deep-down conviction that it's solely their own fault. In fact, there's something even more pernicious going on, and it's what has enabled the current Fox-News-driven blame the poor mentality. Many Americans believe that successful white baby boomers like myself grew up on a level playing field full of equal opportunity, but that the field has been eroded and pockmarked and all but destroyed by freeloaders demanding special treatment. That's why Newt Gingrich is able to denigrate the OWS movement in such blatantly demeaning terms and receive cheers from some of the very people who would most benefit if the current protests succeed.

I did not grow up on a level playing field, and I know it. I came from a family that gave me intellectual autonomy as a birthright, and treated the pursuit of knowledge as a worthy goal. I grew up in an upper-middle-class household that allowed me to waltz into an elite college and an Ivy League graduate school. I was able to spend countless hours playing the piano and listening to music because I didn't need to hold odd jobs to get by and supplement the costs of my education. I was blessed, and I regard the career that I was given as a vocation, not a birthright. I seek to give back to society some of the special insights and unique gifts that have been handed to me, because I know that I do not own those gifts.

I am just me, though. The 0.00000033%. I feel incredibly fortunate to be there, but I am also part of the 100%, and I wish we had a mythology that would enable us to act in the collective interest and not just that of 300 million individuals. That's not socialist; it's just reality. As long as we cheat ourselves of that understanding, we will, I'm afraid, continue to have the society we deserve.

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