The myth of American egalitarianism and the pratice of therapy
It is drummed into us beginning in grade school, that famous line from the Declaration of Independence, the document that started the bloody revolution that is America:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable right.
Our patients have heard this line to, and many believe it no matter what the evidence.
But from the very beginning, Americans never believed in equality. It starts in this very line with the 18th century prejudice that Man is the base form of Human, and Women are Man minus something vital. There was rule by the minority in the colonies from day 1. Irish and Scottish people were seen as inferior, comparable to blacks, and “transported” to the colonies to provide cheap labor and get them off their fertile lands, better used by British nobles. The Irish only started to escape prejudice in America in the 1800’s, when anti-immigrant sentiment converted all the Irish jokes to Polish jokes.
It’s embedded in our very electoral system. The Electoral College, by design, prevents mob rule. The electoral representatives have the right to choose whomever they wish to vote for in the event the unwashed masses produce an inappropriate candidate. Our “representative democracy” was always in danger of representing the wrong kind of people – the landless, the illiterate, the poor – and this was planned for by the Founders.
And the fight to free our unwilling citizens, to give rights and dignity to the people enslaved in this nation for 400 years, is the most blatant and screaming accusation of hypocrisy. Postcards of black men being lynched are still traded on the internet as a collectors’ item, but this prejudice has lately gone underground, surfacing in microagressions (like ranches called “niggerhead” or referring to a Black general as “well spoken”) and statistics. For example, the rate of unemployment for Black men in America is roughly double that for White men.
We could do a semantic trick and suggest we never meant “equal” to mean “equality.” Rather, we meant that all Americans have equal opportunity: with hard work, the basest lowborn immigrant can aspire to wealth, status, and the good life. Capitalism is the great equalizer. By risking some money and working hard, each of us can get the mansion on the hill. In fact, I will meet you there.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, we are a sort of moneyed aristocracy, with the age of your money replacing what the old world referred to as “class”. The truth is, the number one predictor of whether you will go to college is still whether your parents went. The best way to get into an Ivy League school is to have a parent who went to an Ivy League school. And if you go to another school, be prepared to be looked down on by people who overpaid for their educations.
Similarly, the number one predictor of your lifetime wealth is your parents’ lifetime wealth. People don’t routinely become rich in this country by hoarding their savings, working three jobs, and risking some capital on a business; the vast majority of new businesses fail, and someone in this position could never recover from such an event. A new business is more likely to succeed if well-backed by capital from other sources, and the proprietor is more likely to be able to start over if coming from a position of personal wealth to begin with.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the opposite. It is in our mythology. The world’s greatest steel company was created by a bow-legged Scotsman with just a nickel to his name, and Bill Gates was a college dropout. These anecdotes distract us and make us think that we, too can make it. But we can’t.
For decades the system has been rigged in favor of those with capital, as though only money makes the system work. The officials appointed to oversee the rules of commerce come from the biggest abusers of those rules. The story of America is in large part the story of institutions like JPMorgan and Chase Manhattan, now JPMorgan Chase.
Small business can never compete with big business on a level playing field. Consider the practice of benchmarking. Imagine you are a national pizza chain, and you want to know where to place your restaurants in a new market to get the most efficient delivery coverage. You don’t consult population maps or do street-by-street market research; you see where there are already pizza delivery places and set up across the street from them.
If you are Starbucks Coffee, for example, the entirely of your market research might be finding where there are already places selling coffee. A mom-and-pop coffee house can find themselves suddenly in competition with this national chain, backed by national resources. The new outlet can run a month of specials, take a huge loss in the short term, and drive you out of business. Now their prices, formerly subsidized by the national chain, go to profit-levels – but they don’t have you in their market any more.
If you are born poor in America, individually you face the same sort of competition. People are born with advantages. Parents who care about education, who can afford tutors, who can afford after-school programs, who know people, who can send their kids to college or at least subsidize this education. These same parents endorse a libertarian government that wants to do away with the department of education – why pay taxes for public schools when you pay for private schools for your own children? Indeed, why pay taxes for street lights or police and fire services when you live in a gated community?
The system is stacked against the poor and in favor of the rich. It always has been and it always will be: the rich people make the rules. Darrell Issa and Jane Harman, probably the two richest members of Congress, are each worth roughly 300 million dollars in net worth. Paul Tonko, with a net worth of a dollar, is vastly outnumbered. Even the poorest 25 members of Congress is a list containing millionaires. Are these millionaires legislating the interests of those not born with money? And let’s do away with this consideration entirely, as most legislation is written not by members of Congress or the Senate or any elected official, but by the lobbyists that gather around Capitol Hill like flies around a midden heap.
Elected officials need votes to keep their power and influence. To get these votes, they need money to campaign. On average, the best-funded campaign wins a given election. This money comes from donations from those who wish the potential electee to vote in the interests of the donor. Lobbies fund the day-to-day activities of the average elected official as well as their campaigns, in an increasingly secretive corporate process. Do you think you have the lobbying power of a small-time organization like the NRA? The NRA pales in comparison to something like the financial industry, which collectively gave over $122m (so far) to campaigns between 2011 and 2012.
Do you have a team of civil litigators and a hundred-million-dollar war chest to get your financial interests legislated? I thought not.
So not only is equality a joke, so is equal opportunity. We live in hopelessly rigged system. If you don’t have a job, go ahead and blame yourself – if you think that will make any difference. The jobs that went away in the recession went abroad, where people work for less in worse conditions. They are not coming back, because this is not in the interests of the rich people who write the rules and give us our choices of whom to vote for every 4 years.
Capitalism is a fraud. Competition is good; but what happens to the losers? If they started life rich, they will always be rich and the loss doesn’t hurt them. If they are the common person, you and me, losing means working three jobs to put food on the table so your kids can graduate high school in an economy that demands a college degree. Then they can work three jobs before they follow you into your early grave.
In a Darwinian system, competition is good because it drive both competitors to evolve. In a free market, competition is bad, because it reduces profits. The job of the winner is to eradicate the loser from stem to root, to own the market, charge what they want, and give nothing back – ever.
Maybe we can agitate enough to get a few crumbs from the tablecloth. But only a fundamental change in government – undoing the last 100 years of legislation that give every advantage to the landed and moneyed – can begin to address the inequality that America has begun to embrace.
An existentialist tries to see things as they really are, without glossing over the dark side of human nature or trying to spin reality. Our Chinese counterparts invented a term for this confrontation with reality: Xi Mian. These words can have several meanings. One is meeting face to face: two people experiencing one another as genuinely as possible. Another is meeting life face to face, meaning accepting the bad as well as the good as facts of life. It is only through embracing these dark sides – in ourselves, in others, and in the systems in which we live – that we can effect any change or authenticity.
The reality in which we find ourselves – and in which our psychotherapy clients find themselves – is this reality of rigged systems, partisan politics, and myths that blame the downtrodden for being under the feet of the oppressor. Becoming more aware of these myths and the facts brings us more ability to operate as healers.
-- Jason Dias