Kudos to the extraordinarily brave Cameron Russell whose TEDTalk is the paramount of authenticity and a remarkable deconstruction of one of the myths upon which the empire named after Italian mapmaker Amerigo Vespucci was founded.
Max Weber in "The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" wrote that the underlying ethos of our society was that if you work hard and quietly save your money, God would reward you. Thorsten Veblen observed what he called "conspicuous consumption," which can be seen as a subconscious inversion of Weber's principle: people attempt to prove that they have merit by displaying status symbols. This is also an efficient means of "affinity grouping" as David Brooks noted in Bobos in Paradise, e.g. First Class seating, Premiere lounges, exclusive clubs, vacation destinations, credit card colors, zip codes, etc.
Then Malcom Gladwell in Outliers noticed peculiar "coincidences" such as being born in 1955 -- as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were -- and having 10,000 hours of free time to hone a skill -- as being equally important to innate genius. (Personally, after reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs I could well imagine the greatest visionary of our generation -- whose incredible inventions I use during every waking moment of my life -- ending up like Leopold and Loeb had he been born sixty years earlier and did not have the opportunities and technological means to express himself creatively.)
One of the central tenets of America is that if you work hard you will succeed (by our collective definition of "success," namely money and power, c.f. The Third Metric); in contrast to a caste system, this is what a meritocracy is. Yet, if you analyze the demographics you will find that more people bounce into a higher class through marriage than start at the bottom, work hard, and become multimillionaires. The majority of people born in the lower class will die in the lower class; the majority of people born in the middle class will die in the middle class; the majority of people who are born in the upper class will have opportunities that are unimaginable to all others. But the media seem to propagate the myth of meritocracy by highlighting the one-in-a-million narratives of underprivileged kids who claw their way to the top. The actual statistics on class movement (or lack thereof) and racism, as Cameron Russell states so eloquently, do not lie.
This is why it is so brave of Ms. Russell to openly denounce the stacked deck upon which her successful modeling career -- seemingly fabricated of highly stylized photos of her walking or pretending to walk -- exists. Lifting the veil on the purported meritocracy and freely admitting that she is the winner of a genetic lottery that happens to currently favor thin white pretty women is tantamount to Bill Gates donating the $72 billion dollars of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the Federal Government of the United States with a note that says, "Thank you for providing the freedom and safety and infrastructure for me to live my dreams and build the Microsoft Corporation. We really didn't need to earn so much money -- maybe we could have charged customers less for our software or given fewer billions to our shareholders? Anyways, it's a great country and we trust you as our appointed leaders to spend the money for the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Thanks so much! Love, Bill and Melinda."
But we have lost faith in our government, which is why so many people believe that the privatization of schools and health care through charitable organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the only viable solution. However, the day when the police and fire departments and hospitals go on strike because there is no longer enough tax revenue to pay their salaries, we shall see the true test of privatization.
For now, as Ms. Russell's fiercely honest TEDTalk shines the light on the myth of meritocracy, let's examine a few of the other eroding buttresses of our empire:
1. The myth of free market capitalism. Based on Herbert Spencer's idea that "survival of the fittest" will mete out the the inefficient firms, when the federal government bails out the banks and automotive corporations because they are "too big to fail," who can claim that the system of commerce has anything to do with a "free" market?
Speaking of which, "survival of the fittest" may have been an interesting hypothesis when there was a scarcity of resources, but when we are able to produce more food than anyone can imagine, yet allow thousands of people around the world to starve to death or die from malnutrition every day, then how good do we feel about "survival of the fittest?" "Survival of the fittest" might have been George W. Bush's reasonable rationalization for murdering 150,000 Iraqi civilians who happened to live on or near oil-rich land, but what is the justification for letting starving children die when we have the resources to feed them? (Or do you believe that those 150,000 civilians were all hiding Weapons of Mass Destruction under their mattresses?)
2. The myth that justice is served by "an eye for an eye" of punishment. The majority of Americans favor capital punishment; our government has been assassinating many people of late via drones. As a culture we enjoy paying our suffering forward. If someone hurts us, our sense of justice means that we have the right and even the duty to inflict a supposedly equal measure of pain on that person as he or she inflicted on us. We can't let them get away with this; we will bring them to justice! Let's admit it: Hurt people hurt people. This defines our system of justice. But as Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind."
3. The myth of democracy. Who believes that his or her vote is equal to the vote of any corporation that donates millions of dollars to political campaigns? If America were a "democracy" we would all vote via our mobile phones and wouldn't need 95% of politicians or any Political Action Committees; if we had a "representative democracy" as our founding fathers proposed, then we would all fill out surveys that reflect our political opinions and computers would match us with the representatives who represent those opinions. However, instead of voting on whether we should have roads, street lights, electricity, clean water, hospitals, police, armed forces, fire departments, libraries, social services, and laws, many people vote on ideological platforms such as "I'm against big government," "I'm against abortion," "I'm against gay marriage." If you want small government then I suggest emigrating to a country that doesn't have 313 million people and 300 million guns and is trying to maintain civil order during a declining economy.
4. The myth of reason. Descartes' "I think therefore I am," places a primacy on reason rather than on silly ideas such as compassion or love. The ability to make predictions through scientific means has been guiding Western civilization since The Enlightenment. But look at what an utter failure the science of economics has been and what a dismal farce the science of psychology has been (wherein homosexuality was listed in the DSM until 1973 as a clinical disorder; just 40 years later these sick people can marry and adopt children in many states -- talk about a paradigm shift!) Do you believe in better living through chemistry? Have you ever met an adolescent who doesn't have ADHD? Are people happier or leading more fulfilling lives now that pharmaceutical companies have convinced millions that medication will make them more "productive" members of society?
5. The myth of romantic love. If we know that the average person will fall in love four times during his or her lifetime, why is marriage for life (with a 50% divorce rate) the only option? I refer you to Robert A. Johnson's "We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love," Denis de Rougemont's "Love in the Western World," Eva Illouz's "Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism" and my previous essay "In Marriage No One Can Hear You Scream" for possible answers.
In one hundred years, China sneering at President Obama's request to turn over Edward Snowden may be seen as the turning point when our young country lost its hegemony, but hopefully people will also look back on Cameron Russell's astonishingly fearless TED Talk and note the counter-cultural authenticity of visionaries such as Ms. Russell as well as Nick Hanauer whose insightful and brutally honest TED Talk - that rich people don't create jobs, middle-class people create jobs - was censored by those who still enjoy not paying their share of taxes for the freedoms and privileges they enjoy because subconsciously they espouse the myth that they earned their wealth because God has rewarded their genius and merit, not because they happened to be winners of a genetic lottery at a particular moment in the history of the richest empire that has existed thus far.
There is no denying that America advocates the finest extant ideals of any nation (the unfortunate blemishes of the genocide we committed against the indigenous people when we arrived here, slavery, Iraq, continued racism, continued sexism, and continued discrimination notwithstanding). We are at a pivotal moment where we can choose to be honest about our shortcomings, or revert back to our past blind, self-righteous hypocrisy, disingenuousness, and fear-based prejudices. Watching Cameron Russell's stellar, inspiring TEDTalk gives me hope that we can make the right decisions to shift the paradigm in a new, more compassionate, authentic direction.
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