The Great American Lie

There is this ideal in American society that can be pretty easily summed up as this:

Your success, and your failure, is determined nigh exclusively by the amount of effort you put into your chosen task.

If you are not successful, it’s simply because you didn’t work hard enough.  If you’re poor, it’s because you don’t work hard enough to make money.  If you have a shitty job, it’s because you’re not working hard enough to find a better one.  Basically, there is near infinite room for advancement if you’re willing to apply yourself to that advancement and are willing to do whatever it takes to get there.

It’s a neat ideal, and the idea is a comforting one.  Too bad next to none of it is true.  This is “The Great American Lie.”

It’s tied to the concept of American exceptionalism, and in many ways is the centerpiece to the collective delusion that the United States is just, like, the greatest country in the world in every way, ya know?

That’s not to say that the amount of effort you apply isn’t significant.  But it’s but one factor in many, and possibly not even the most important next to the simple reality of knowing the right people.  It can very easily be argued that having the right people going to bat for you is the biggest factor in you getting that well-paying job rather than someone else (who might even be more qualified)… or even knowing that well-paying job has an opening at all.

Americans even know this.  We bandy about buzzwords like “crony capitalism” and complain our leaders are in bed with special interests.  We gripe when shamed political or business leaders deploy their golden parachutes and land in better situations then they were before.

Then we turn around, and spit on the homeless person on the street and tell them they just need to work harder (usually while denying them jobs or assistance because they’re homeless and obviously a junkie that can’t be trusted or some other excuse), willfully ignorant to the fact that perhaps if one or two things that had nothing to do with our talents was different, the roles would be reversed.

We perpetuate the lie while we boo and hiss when that lie is exposed.  Why?  Because it’s convenient, and if there’s anything Americans love more than anything, it’s convenience.  It’s easy to blame those underneath us for simply not putting forth the effort.  Because to think otherwise would complicate our lives, forcing us to take stock in our good fortune and even (gasp!) having sympathy for our fellow man… compelling us to (GASP!) maybe even… help those less fortunate than us.

It’s also silly.  There’s nothing wrong in accepting our good fortune.  You don’t need to give your every spare dollar or every free moment helping the needy and the poor among us.  But the very least we can do is regard them without scorn, and try not to actively obstruct their own paths upward.

It’s only by facing and confronting The Great American Lie that we can even begin to make it The Great American Truth.

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