Bootstrapping Priorities

One of the most pervasive and bizarre myths in the United States is that of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. The origins of this term lie in the idea that pulling on your own bootstraps to lift yourself up would actually be extremely challenging, since you would be fighting physics among other things. In other words, someone who manages to haul ouself up by ou bootstraps is accomplishing something remarkable, something that person shouldn’t be able to do. That person is overcoming substantial odds and doing something rather heroic, in fact. However, it’s come to mean seemingly the opposite here: Rather than being a feat that should be recognised for what it is, it is something that people are expected to be able to accomplish.

‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ the saying goes. In other words, solve your own problems. Do not rely on someone else to pull you up. You don’t deserve anything. And if you fall down, no one will help you get up. In fact, people will probably kick you while you are down since you are evidently too weak or lazy to pull yourself back up. To succeed. You must not want it enough if you can’t pull yourself up and you should just try a little bit harder.

The bootstraps mythos underlies many key events in our history as well as social attitudes that persist to this day. And it’s an extremely harmful myth. What’s interesting to me is that in my own experiences living overseas and in my interactions with people who live overseas, I don’t see a lot of analogies to this myth. Granted, I do hang out with a lot of socialists, but for the most part, social attitudes seem to stress more interdependence than independence, including an acknowledgment of the fact that some things cannot be accomplished alone.

I do not want to convey the idea that I have a rosy picture of social attitudes in places outside the United States. I am well aware that there are some extremely problematic and pervasive social attitudes that surround people in need of assistance, especially people who experience marginalisation. These attitudes are harmful and they definitely do need to be addressed. But, talking with Anna recently about how the United States prioritises things, I realised that you cannot talk about how this country approaches things like social programs without addressing the bootstraps myth.

People sometimes seem surprised and horrified to learn that the United States does not regard things like health care, access to education, and social equality as important priorities. While the government does dedicate funds and energies to these things, it doesn’t happen at nearly the same level that it does in, say, Canada. Or Germany. Or any number of other countries. People are shocked to find that caring for the people who live here, that ensuring quality of life, that making social advancement possible to all, is just not important not only to the government, but to a lot of people who live here, and not just those in power.

The internalisation of the bootstraps myth means that people who are disadvantaged in society sometimes become convinced that this is their fault and that it is their responsibility to haul themselves out of their social positions. The bootstraps myth also means that everyone thinks everything is attainable; any person can grow up to be President, or an astronaut, or a leader of a Fortune 500 company. People who fail to achieve these goals have only themselves to blame because the United States is a place where anything is possible. Where anyone can do or be anything. Where systematic inequality does not exist.

This is why we are, for the most part, a conservative country. Our ‘liberal’ politics is quite conservative by the standards of other countries because, well, it’s based in the bootstraps myth. In essentialism and individualism and Manifest Destiny. Each of us is entitled to everything and we just need to reach for the brass ring. Class disparities are not the fault of society, but the fault of people in the lower classes for failing to make more of themselves. Disability is the fault of the individual. We don’t have racial inequalities, we just have people who want to be victims.

It sounds absurd, I know. But this is how people think. And they think this way because this thinking is so very culturally embedded, and it’s very much a part of every stage of education in this country. When I was a young child going to school in the United States for the first time, I was fed a whole lot of stories about rugged individualists and how they didn’t let obstacles stop them. The embedded context, never stated but always implied, was that if you want to succeed in this country, you just have to try. You, too, can have the dream, if you want it enough.

The harm is perpetuated by the lionisation of those rare individuals who do manage to beat the odds and end up at the right place in the right time so that doors open to them. Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy for people who manage to overcome entrenched cultural attitudes and systemic disparities, and I am not trying to undermine their accomplishments. But, the way their stories are told, we are informed that this is possible for anyone who tries hard enough. And, the way our society frames their accomplishments, they themselves buy into this attitude, which is why you see people who rose from oppressed classes stomping on the people who can’t accomplish this. Because they’ve bought into the bootstraps mentality hook, line, and sinker.

To admit otherwise, to question social disparities and force a serious reexamination of our society, would be to confront the priorities that underlie the way this country does business, makes law, and treats its residents. And that would be a dangerous thing indeed.