Fear and the Bootstraps

Fear is powerful motivator, and that becomes especially apparent in troubled times. As the economy has crashed, rather than crumbling, the bootstraps myth seems to endure harder than ever, which reveals interesting things about the human psyche. Even with all evidence to the contrary, we will continue to believe in things that do not make sense because admitting the alternative would be worse. If the bootstraps myth isn’t true, everything falls apart and takes hopes crashing down with it.

Which is, of course, why there’s a vested interest in keeping the myth alive, and a sort of collective collusion on the part of society to ensure it remains in the consciousness. You see it throughout pop culture, the idea that working really hard, and trying, and wanting enough, will land you in the ranks of the wealthy, will give you some sort of leg up to break through class barriers. Rarely does pop culture confront readers with the fact that mobility, in both directions, has been on the decline over the last 20 years, and that for people born into poverty, a rise to the top is extremely unlikely, and growing even more so, particularly for people of colour and nonwhite people.

Rarely does pop culture talk about the structures of hereditary wealth and power that contribute to who gets to become, and stay, wealthy. It certainly doesn’t spend much time dwelling on inequality and the growing disparities between the upper and lower quintiles of society. In all those shows that idealise the 1950s and 1960s, for example, there’s no honest discussion of the fact that the gaps were much, much smaller then. There were rich people and poor people but it wasn’t so extreme, and those were the eras that laid the groundwork for the one we live in now, where the concentration of wealth and income has become ludicrous.

The myth is kept alive not just by media, but by the people who devour the media and repeat it, creating an echo effect to ensure that it’s never far from the surface. The bootstraps myth shows up, for example, in strident insistence that it is possible to go to college without getting in debt if you work really hard. It’s there when people claim that they were able to do it, so why can’t you? Those people ignore, of course, the heavy role of grants and other aid, or help from parents who have enough money to foot the bills or a big chunk of them. They ignore circumstantial factors, like being able to live at home while in school and cutting out a huge chunk of school-related expenses as a result.

People who have clawed themselves into a position of financial security want to believe in the bootstraps myth. Because it justifies where they are and makes them feel like all that work was worth it. And it allows them to look down on people who are not in the same position, because those people obviously didn’t work hard enough, didn’t try hard enough, didn’t want hard enough. Because if they had, they’d be financially comfortable too. And if the bootstraps myth wasn’t real, it might suggest that there’s some sort of social obligation to provide assistance to people who are less secure. And that would mean giving up what you’ve fought so hard for, if you believe the propaganda from the truly wealthy people who want to encourage you to turn on your former comrades.

The endurance of the bootstraps myth among people looking up from the bottom is mystifying. Despite all real-world experience, in the face of readily accessible facts, people believe that class mobility is achievable in their lifetimes. And this belief seems to be rooted in a deep, naked fear. Fear drives people to believe this because the alternative is that they don’t have any realistic chance at experiencing upward mobility, which means there’s no point in going on. Why bother, when you won’t see any material change over your lifetime?

To threaten the bootstraps is to disrupt the entire order of things. Why go to school if there’s no point, why apply for work if there is no point, why try at all if there is no point. What’s tragic about this is that rather than actually addressing income inequality, rather than fighting these disparities, rather than trying to make mobility a possibility again, society clings to the bootstraps myth instead.

Because of the fear. Disrupting the social order to change the way wealth and dominance work is a frightening prospect because of all the unknowns involved. Who knows, for example, if income redistribution measures will actually work, or which ones would be the most effective. Who knows what would happen, and who would benefit, and whether the people currently in power would find a way to manipulate the system all over again to retain their positions? In the face of that, why bother? People are too afraid of these things to take them on and so they repeat social myths to themselves and to each other, put a face on it, reinforce their belief even as it becomes patently ludicrous in the face of actual fact.

People enjoy what is comfortable and familiar. The current system is familiar, and many people seem to find a strange sort of comfort in it, in surrounding themselves with false hopes and myths rather than actual change. Until people overcome that fear, push through it, rise above it, the bootstraps will endure, even though they’re cracked and crumbling and could blow away in a quiet breeze. The movement to whip up that breeze has tried, over and over again, but can’t seem to get enough wind going to keep it up and tear the system apart.