Myths We Live By

Recently, New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote a compelling reflection on achievement as an act of defiance. Life, he tells us, is like a hill, and when you are born at the bottom of that hill, you have a choice between climbing or staying at the bottom.

But this was no “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps” harangue.

The article began with a forthright acknowledgment of the outsized role played by luck and favor in our society–with Blow’s recognition that what separates the comfortable from the needy is rarely as simple as hard work and diligence. As he prefaces his discussion:

I don’t buy into the mythology that most poor people are willfully and contentedly poor, happy to live with the help of handouts from a benevolent big government that is equally happy to keep them dependent.

These are all arguments based on shame, meant to distance traditional power structures from emerging ones, to allow for draconian policy arguments from supposedly caring people. These arguments require faith in personal failure as justification for calling our fellow citizens feckless or doctrinally disfavored.

Those who espouse such arguments must root for failures so that they’re proved right. They need their worst convictions to be affirmed: that other people’s woes are due solely to their bad choices and bad behaviors; that there are no systematic suppressors at play; that the way to success is wide open to all those who would only choose it.

Blow endorses effort and hard work for their own sake, with eyes wide open to the hard facts of life–that is, that although effort and hard work cannot guarantee reward, not working hard will pretty much guarantee failure. He accepts life on its own terms (as Jimmy Carter once said, fundamentally unfair) without using those terms as an excuse for giving up.

We are obligated to play the hand we’re dealt, even when the deck is stacked against us. And the deck is stacked against a lot of people.

I don’t think I am the only person who is incredibly tired of those self-satisfied folks who–having been born on or near the top of the hill–not only brag about their prowess as climbers, but sneer at the “losers” stuck below. (My grandmother used to describe them as “born on 3d base and think they’ve hit a triple.”)

I’m tired of the self-proclaimed, “self-made” businessman (almost always a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant heterosexual male) who is incapable of recognizing his dependence on the social infrastructure that privileged him over more marginalized folks, and unwilling or unable to experience gratitude for his good fortune.

I’m especially tired of the self-congratulatory “smart businessman” who takes advantage of tax loopholes (excuse me, “incentives”) to drive his effective tax rate below that of his secretary, but who nevertheless considers himself morally superior to the “takers” who don’t make enough money to owe federal income taxes.

I’m tired of self-deception and double standards and people who prefer not to see the hill that Charles Blow so eloquently describes. 

And I’m really, really tired of the ideologues with vested interests who are spreading the mythology.


  1. I learned the difference between those who willingly stayed poor and complained about it and those who recognized their situations and struggled to better themselves. I lived within one block of a poor neighborhood; my mother constantly told me to stay away from those “trashy” people but I continued visiting my friends in that area. I saw that they were clean, their clothes and homes were clean, they did homework before going out to play and their mothers always knew where they were. They were sometimes single-parent families or both parents worked and children had chores which they always performed, learning responsibility. Young as I was I also noticed their grocery shopping habits. Those who were working toward a better life situation shopped for meat, a few vegetables, bread, cereal, milk and made their own occasional desserts. The others bought bologna, potato chips, bread, donuts, sodas and beer and most made faiing grades in school. All these years later I often wonder what happened to the strugglers after they moved on; I saw the others go nowhere or downhill or to jail. There is no honest job for wages of all levels to be considered shameful; I stress the term “honest job” because those with more money than they can ever put to good use would not survive without those “honest” workers taking care of their basic needs and services. Yet they are the primary complainers about the needy when they have never had a hungry or cold day in their lives.

  2. “I’m especially tired of the self-congratulatory “smart businessman” who takes advantage of tax loopholes (excuse me, “incentives”) to drive his effective tax rate below that of his secretary, but who nevertheless considers himself morally superior to the “takers” who don’t make enough money to owe federal income taxes.”

    I am tired of large businesses that do the same above and pay next to nothing to the Federal Government. But hey they can just go over seas and find another government that will be happy to give them tax free status in lieu of jobs. Hey all we have to do is sell more bonds and go more into debt.

    Hey I Shelia I bet you write off that donation to Good Will. I took up some close and dropped them off at Castleton and the guy tried to give me a receipt for taxes. I said no thanks and he gave me the weirdest look! 😉

  3. Oppps clothes no close – Wow that what people do all the time at a Church , they give people free stuff and their time and so ya get a little gospel, every agency has their agenda! My minister that married me said (he is married with two kids and a grandson) that 95% of the people at his church are great people helping the community. It’s the 5% that cause all the problems. Quite of few of them are in the Indiana Legislature and are the ones who are against gay marriage and cause all the problems in the government. They forgot that their is supposed to be a division between church and state. Oh by the way my Minister has no problem with gay marriage.

  4. I saw the musical version of “Christmas Carol” this weekend. I’ve seen the spoken play a bunch of times, and so my wife basically dragged me, but what a difference the music made. I distinctly heard a number of important messages and had a number of insights, including the idea that the legislature, accompanied by Paul Ryan and the rest, be forced to listen to this. When Ghost of Christmas Present opens his gown and reveals the starving children, I imagined the 400,000 people without insurance a la Mr. Pence. I can hear that bunch saying the very thing that Scrooge said during the early part of the play, but it’s no play.

  5. Come think of it, one can compile a list of really good quotes, develop an accurate and documented picture of his philosophy and be up and running in no time. I hope someone who can get this idea on the road is reading this blog. “Ebeneezer Pence” sounds really appropriate, and everyone will get the message.

  6. Lets see,

    Ebenezer Scrooge went from “Bad to Good”
    Ebenezer Blackadder went from “Good to Bad”
    Obviously, Ebenezer Pence goes from “Bad to Despicable ”

    Perhaps former mayor Goldsmith could be cast as the
    Ghost of “Christmas Past” and Mayor Ballard as the Ghost
    of “Christmas Present”

    That only leaves the Cratchets to blend into the dialog.

    We need 400,000 waifs without health insurance.
    Hmmm, 400,000 film extras. This could turn into a
    Cecil B. DeMille production in no time at all.

  7. We already have much of the script, and Dickens wrote it.

    The man collecting for the poor says, “Mr. Pence, surely you understand why it’s important to insure the health of 400,000 lives in this state?”

    Mr Pence: “If they would rather die, . . . they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

  8. And there is this one, word for word from the play (with a few minor changes):

    Ebenezer Pence: Why are these people out here? Wearing rags, eating scraps! Why aren’t they in poorhouses, or…?

    Ghost of Christmas Present: Have you VISITED any of these poorhouses you speak of?

    Ebenezer Pence: No, but I’m taxed for them; isn’t that enough?

    Ghost of Christmas Present: YOU tell ME.

  9. The comparisons of Pence to Dickens memorable Ebenezer Scrooge reminded me of another Republican and a connection to Dickens. Reagan’s first speech to the nation after his inauguation began, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…as Charles Dickens stated in his book “A Christmas Carol”. I knew immediately we were in trouble. And here we are, lo these many years later, and another Republican/Dickens connection has been made. I saw just a brief glimps of Pence, in his red Christmasy sweater, reading to a group of children. He looked totally out of place and if he had never dealt with children before…wonder if he was reading “A Christmas Carol”!

  10. It was the best of times etc …
    Wasn’t that “A tale of two city’s”

    Citizen Pence, who for Madam Gulletine today. Purge the Aristo’s
    And free the republic

  11. Yes, Red George, it certainly was the first line from “A Tale of Two Cities” – that is why I knew we were in trouble. I often wondered when Reagan’s Alzheimer’s began showing symptoms.

  12. Ah, I did not make the Alzheimer connection.

    I do, humbly beg your pardon. (If you thought I was being rude)

    I did not think that Reagan’s problems surfaced that early.

    However, I do remember a British TV Drama of the “Reykjavik”
    conference between Reagan and Gorbachov. Where the drama
    depicted Reagan as being virtually out of touch etc.

    Not the first time a senior politician has served with severe
    mental problems (Harold Wilson, Prime Minister of England)

    Sincerely …

    Red George

  13. Certainly did not think you were being rude, you are the first person I have mentioned that quote to who responded with the book it was actually from. Alzheimer’s is a sneaky disease; along with intermittent incorrect responses or outbursts in early stage; in late stage there are also occasional outbursts of total awareness. Always read and appreciate your comments.

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