Everyone in our society, we presume, has the opportunity to work hard, to better themselves, to achieve a comfortable if not prosperous life. The Calvinists had a similar notion, that if you worked hard and if the god of Abraham blessed you, you could succeed. Conservatives justify their privileges by saying you need to work hard and to have “merit.” I call it the myth of unlimited opportunity.
Some myths are charming stories. There is an entire canon of Greek and Roman mythology and there are the mythologies of other cultures. They often reflect themes of heroism or of morality, of values we think we should preserve in society. Then there are darker myths. The biblical creation myth, for instance, of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden for eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil, can be understood as humanity seeking to establish an understanding of morality independent of the Creator, to gain an independence we as a species perhaps are still not ready for. I interpreted it in terms of body shame, for as the story goes, it was their desperate attempts at modesty that tipped off an angered god. The story ends with the deity condemning women to servitude, to painful childbirth, and both men and women to mortality.
If we are to believe that everyone has the opportunity to succeed, this requires the resources for everyone to succeed, which means that we must be able to expand into infinity. It means, for example, that in 1774, the British Parliament could not pass the Quebec Act reserving much territory west of the Appalachians to the Indians. I guess Parliament missed that memo. It means of course that people on territory that we are to expand into will just have to go elsewhere, and if there is no where left for them to go, they’ll just have to be extinguished. The American Indians were the topic of that memo. And of course, any other countries thinking that the god of Abraham was talking to them when it came to conquering territory and saving heathen souls will forcefully have to be shown the error of their ways. Hence Mexico and Spain. Hence the fact that in all of U.S. history, there are less than twenty years (some say zero–it’s actually hard to find a truly comprehensive list of U.S. military engagements) in which its military has not been involved somewhere, somehow. Hence the fact the U.S. has military bases all around the world and feels righteous intervening wherever it wants, on whatever pretext.
Having conquered all this territory. and thus opened up all this opportunity, it follows that anyone who fails to succeed must have only themselves to blame. Thus, there is a tremendous shame in being poor. And conservatives believe we really don’t owe anything to the poor, no matter what. Hence welfare “reform.” Hence health care as “socialism.” Hence tax breaks for the rich.
So now the U.S. has a problem. Those people who have worked hard and who have “merit” are working day and night to move as many jobs that pay anything to places that pay less, to places where environmental and labor protections are weak or nonexistent. And politicians talk about restoring U.S. “competitiveness,” which means 1) letting the rich export jobs, 2) weakening protections in the U.S., 3) giving corporations massive tax breaks and other subsidies, while 4) letting them pay ever lower wages to their workers.
And when people working low-wage jobs can’t pay their mortgages, we don’t give them any help, but we bail out the banks that shouldn’t have lent them the money in the first place. After all, the financial system is essential. Ordinary people, the ones who actually pay taxes, can wait. We are not entitled to those rights enshrined beginning with Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that the United States ratified under a constitution whose Article 6 enshrines treaties with the highest law in the land and whose ninth amendment states that “[t]he enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” like perhaps those rights our politicians agreed to in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And our politicians will congratulate themselves, claiming without even the possibility of proof that they have reduced the rate of job loss. They will remain silent about the loss of full-time work. They will remain silent about lower wages. They will remain silent about the loss of dignity when people find they cannot pay their bills because their wages don’t even pay rent (do the arithmetic).
This is the story of my life. And though I have worked hard, have achieved my master’s degree, and am on my way to a Ph.D., I guess I just don’t have “merit.” Or maybe Jesus hates me.