Saturday, March 03, 2012

Self-Made in America

Writing for The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel describes critiques of the "self-made myth":

"Americans benefit every day from government—from consumer protection to roads and bridges to food and safety regulation—even people who claim to hate an 'activist government' are some of the prime beneficiaries of the safety net at a moment when there are still over four unemployed workers for every available job and nearly one in six Americans lives in poverty."

One of the things I found most interesting about this piece is how it connects the policy debate about government with the conversation about class that has emerged in the past several months, largely due to the Occupy Wall Street movement. An example is vanden Heuvel's reference to Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren's comments that no one gets rich on their own. Viewed in this light, the "self-made" myth can be seen as a reflection of class privilege.

Class privilege, like other forms of privilege based on social identity such as race or gender, tends to blind those who have it to reality. This includes the reality of the role that government, whether benevolent or malevolent, has played in a person's class status. For example, there is much denial about the ways that mechanisms of oppression influence who wins and who loses in the game of economic mobility.

While such blindness tends to afflict those who have class privilege, even those at the bottom of the ladder can succumb to it. This is because the self-made myth is inseparable from the ideology of individualism. I must insist that my individual success was self-made. Otherwise, I might feel obligated to share the fruits of that success with those who directly or indirectly helped me to achieve it. It's difficult to put myself first while acknowledging my interdependence with others. Ironically, embracing individualism may result in short term material gain, but lead me to support policies that ultimately harm my prosperity through harming my neighbors'.

The Baha'i Faith locates individualism at the heart of the contemporary crisis facing civilization. In a document entitled "Century of Light" commissioned by the Universal House of Justice, the International Governing Council of the Baha'i Faith, the following observation is made:

"...In the absence of conviction about the spiritual nature of reality and the fulfilment it alone offers, it is not surprising to find at the very heart of the current crisis of civilization a cult of individualism that increasingly admits of no restraint and that elevates acquisition and personal advancement to the status of major cultural values. The resulting atomization of society has marked a new stage in the process of disintegration..."

Individualism ultimately flies in the face of the reality underlying the entire universe, as 'Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha'i Faith from 1892 to 1921, explains:

"From the fellowship and commingling of the elemental atoms life results. In their harmony and blending there is ever newness of existence. It is radiance, completeness; it is consummation; it is life itself."

Imagine if such a perspective were to capture the consciousness and animate the strivings of our political leaders and the general public. Imagine a nation where class privilege gives way to a commitment to elimanating extremes of wealth and poverty. A nation where we understood more deeply how much we need each other. A nation where there would be no shame in asking for help but gratitude in being able to offer it. A nation distinguished by radiance, completeness, consummation, and life itself.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government.