Wednesday, July 11, 2007


are Americans such suckers for the rags-to-riches story? It occurred to me when my mother was watching CSPAN today. (Yes, yes, there is someone out there who watches CSPAN all the time, and that person is my mother.) But politicians will always try to emphasize their underprivileged childhood and their rise to personal success if they have it, and if they don't they will attempt to manipulate their life story in order to appear this way.

It's not necessary Bush I and Bush II have found it fairly hard to do so, although Bush II has at least cultivated an uncultivated image.

But certainly Bill Clinton for example, certainly capitalized on his working class childhood to gain sympathy, and Barak Obama is currently doing so. Whether they are successful due to this stratagem is debatable I suppose, but you can't deny that everyone feels the need to tap into this archetype.

Why do we like this story so much? Perhaps this story is supposed to demonstrate the person in question's inherent personal worth. All research to the contrary, perhaps Americans still buy into the idea that success=personal virtue. And what better way to demonstrate personal accomplishment than to come from nothing and end up on top of the world? This thinking strikes me as being particularly American. Of course every culture has stories of exemplary people who start out poor and become successful. However, to me, the American story places a great deal of emphasis on money, the lack of it at the beginning of the story and the abundance of it at the end is what guarantees success.


Nien said...

a friend in china was reading a book full of rags to riches stories (amazon guy, clinton, etc.)so it's not so much an american thing. we all need cash money yeah?

Magniloquence said...

I think there are a lot of different things going on with that particular phenomenon. Part of it is simple inertia... politicians and (to a much lesser degree) actors etc. have been doing this for years (though certainly not forever... just long enough in living memory to make it seem natural), so when people sit down to do strategy, that's what they think of. (Which, of course, also means that if people saw them not doing it, even if it's fairer/truer, they'd think something shady was going on.)

And yeah, there's the Calvinist/Libertarian (heh, never really thought I'd wed those things...) strain of thought that somewhere in there we all have these choices, and if you just try hard enough / are a good person / are liked by god enough, then you'll succeed, no matter how hard the deck is stacked against you. (Which brings back the SiCKO thing... because if you stop to think about how much you're being screwed by the system, things get really depressing really quickly)

It's a big part of our narrative - that hard work and grit will get you places - and perpetuates (and is supported by) the systems we have in place... because if it's true that there are problems with our systems, or that the playing field is uneven, then ... what do we do? How do you acknowledge that everything you ever knew is deeply, deeply fucked up?

If you benefit from the system, then you've got a vested interest in believing it because then you can keep thinking about how smart, good, virtuous, etc. you are... because you did it yourself. If you don't benefit from the system, you could just as easily go to the place of "we're all screwed." It's better to have at least a glimmer of hope that you can be President or a CEO or a model or whatever than to realize that not only is it unlikely (because it's a lot of work), but it's pretty much impossible, because the system doesn't work that way.

It's not good macro logic, because we'll never get anywhere if we don't realize what's wrong ... but on an individual level, it makes a certain amount of sense. It's... a coping mechanism, if you will.

And in that same vein, with politics specifically... don't you want good, deserving people to run your country? A person with a rags to riches story is trying to manipulate you, yes, but the message they're trying to send is "I am a good, virtuous, hard-working person. That's why I'm good for this job.. because I'm good enough... I made it. (And look! I'm like you! If I made it, theoretically, you could make it too!)" And if 'making it' doesn't have a tie to virtue, then... who exactly is up there? What reason do we have to trust them?

On a less dire note, they're also saying "I know where you're coming from. I know what it's like to be poor, rural, black, underprivileged... and I made it anyway. I'll know what you need better than those other people, because they didn't live it like I did. I have cred."

So... yeah. I get to drive home now.

Magniloquence said...

I suppose I should clarify that a bit. I think it's mostly "this is how we do things," with a fair amount of "I know what you want/need 'cause I've been there too" and "If I can do it, you can too" thrown in for good measure, with just a smidge of underlying "OMG what if we're not right about everything ever?" ... simplest is bestest and all that.

lizard said...

i always thought it was an expression of hope, possibly not in the good sense. if he could, so could i, or my kid. its an exaggeration of the american dream in which your kid does financially better than you, and your grandkid does better than that etc.

it isnt very realistic in most cases, but maybe hope is more useful.

i think with politicians, lower class background means they might have a TINY CLUE what its like to be an average american, which i find comforting.