I remember a number of years ago (probably a decade or so now…) when a British actor came on one of the late-night talk shows. Frustratingly, I don’t remember the actor, and I can’t recall if the show was Conan’s, or Dave’s, or (less likely) Jay’s. He talked about how he absolutely loved the United States, and had an interesting statement as to why he thought things were better here than in England.
He said (paraphrasing):
“In America, a guy with no money can be walking down the street and he sees a hot sports car parked along the street. He’ll stop and look at it, saying, ‘Oh yeah, that’s awesome. I love this car — one day I’m going to make it big and I’m going to have a car just like this.’
“In England, that car can be parked along the street, and the guy with no money will come along, and he’ll get mad. He’ll say, ‘Screw you you bastard with your fancy car.’ And he’ll pull out his keys and key the car.”
I thought it was an interesting distinction, and it’s really the type of thing that a non-American is more able to observe. Americans don’t see it, because we’re too close to it to realize it exists. We used to talk about it. We used to see it. We even have a name for it. But in the crush of media manipulation and the politics of class envy, we’ve lost sight of it. That interview was probably over ten years ago, and it’s only gotten worse since. Our name for the phenomenon the actor was describing? The American Dream.
Something that Americans often don’t see about the wide world around them is just how unique this country is in terms of social and financial mobility. A person can be born with nothing and become a multimillionaire, and vice versa. More important is the fact that people in this country aren’t born into “classes”. People are not so segregated into the groups into which they are born. Again, politics (this time of identity) has caused some damage here, but the proof is in a little girl named Condoleeza who started life in the segregated 60s in a poor Alabama neighborhood, and grew up to become the Secretary of State.
In the story of the sports car, the hypothetical American knows that even though he doesn’t have much today, tomorrow is another story. The course of your life can go in whatever direction you take it. The Englishman in the story sees his life as much more set. He resents that somebody else has such desirable things because he knows that he will never have it. There is a divide between the wealthy and the “common folk” that can’t be crossed, so why try?
What brought this to mind was the recent attacks by leftists against Joe Wurzelbacher, a.k.a. “Joe the Plumber”. I read a lot of blogs, and in the attacks against Joe, the most common I’ve seen is that he’s a liar because he doesn’t make the $250,000 that would cause him to fall under Obama’s take hike on “the rich”. If you’re paying attention of course you know that Joe didn’t say he did. He said that somewhere down the road he was going to buy a business. He was talking about the future. Why is this important?
The attacks on Joe go beyond the simple fact that he doesn’t make that amount of money. I have seen, over and over again, very pointed statements that he doesn’t make that much money, and never will. That is, he’s a liar because he says that some day he’ll make that much money, when “we” all know damned well that he’ll never make that much in this lifetime.
“In this lifetime”. I see that particular turn of phrase in many of these statements. Apparently they believe very strongly in the lesser model that you are born to a particular station in life. You’re a fool (or, for Joe, a liar) if you think otherwise. What happened to the American Dream?
I personally know a plumber who has millions of dollars to his name. He’s in his 70s now, and retired; but he worked hard for years, invested his money, built a good business, and made good. Need I say that he is an immigrant with a heavy accent? I don’t think the fact that he is foreign-born is a coincidence. People born in this country are in recent years inundated with a message that the rich “got lucky”, whereas those on the outside looking in know that American opportunity — the American Dream — is something you have to jump at, grab on to, and use, actively.
When I was shortly out of college I had a job at a bookstore. I worked full time, quickly became a supervisor, with corresponding pay raise and added responsibility. A co-worker was a woman hired around the same time I was. After we’d been working together about six months, we had a conversation in which she was stunned to learn that I had only worked there as long as she had, and she became angry that she wasn’t a supervisor too. “You work part-time” I pointed out. I then discovered that the reason she worked part time was that she was on welfare, and if she earned more than X amount per week she would lose the government payout. This folks, is not “bad luck”. She had explicitly chosen to keep herself on welfare when there was full-time work for the taking. (Not unrelated, she also had the “bad luck” to be unmarried and pregnant.)
This is why I am so infuriated when I hear politicians such as Barack Obama refer to the wealthy as the ones who “got lucky”, and conversely the poor as the “less fortunate”. America is not a lottery — success is far more likely the result of hard work, and responsibility. As the founder of Jimmy John’s Sandwiches once said, “Tenacity will beat brains seven days a week.” Tenacity. Work. Guts. Luck is in there somewhere; but as in poker, luck will carry you for a hand, but not for the whole game.
When Obama talks about the “fairness” of evening things out between the tenacious and those resting on welfare payments, it is a lie. When he acts as though success is just a result of being “lucky”, it is a lie. When he talks about tax cuts as “giving” something to the rich, rather than letting them keep what is already theirs, it is a lie. When he refers to his plan for writing checks to people who don’t pay taxes as “tax cuts”, it is a lie. It is an offense against reason, and it is a direct assault on the American Dream. His brand of socialism threatens to destroy the very thing that makes this incredible country unique in the history of mankind: the ability to have such dreams, and for such dreams to be attainable by anyone willing to take responsibility for their own fate.
[Update: Brian links and responds.]