Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links for the Week)

Yes, yes. I know these are late. I'm starting a new job next week (a week earlier than my little planning-happy self anticipated) and I've been somewhat discombobulated. Without further ado, the things that made me smile, sigh, and think this week:

The Good

How to Be a Dad ran a photo battle that comes to the conclusion that everything is cuter when it's a baby

Jon Bauer has an excellent article about bonding with strangers (h/t blue milk):
I'm not alone in experiencing this seemingly disproportionate reaction. Many of us have had a moment where, at a critical time, or even just a mildly stressful or lonely one, someone stepped from the shadows and did something. Not necessarily anything heroic or dramatic, but because they're strangers and they act at a particular moment, their kindness takes on extra significance. 
My once-housemate, Jane, was in Thailand when the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami hit. "There was a rush of survivors to higher ground, everyone sleeping out in the open in tight rows, all of us strangers and yet all of us holding hands," she recalls. "For those few days after the tsunami I felt like I was falling in love over and over again, with everyone I met. Every connection was heightened and intense."
Take the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge! Here's 250 books Rory reads or mentions on Gilmore Girls. How many have you read? (I'm at 72) (h/t Offbeat Mama).

The Bad

Women Olympiads (on a better-performing team, no less) fly economy while their country's male team flies business class. (Thanks Kat for the link!)

An Ebola outbreak is spreading across Uganda.

The Curious

That anti-Obama ad about how those workers' hands built their business and how insulting his "you didn't build that" comment is? (I wrote about it here). Well, turns out the business featured in the got their start with hundreds of thousands in government loans. (I know. It should probably be in "The Bad" but it was just too funny.)

Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss has two great posts on how to shop at Whole Foods without breaking the bank. It got me thinking about some tips I need to incorporate in my own grocery shopping. 

What have you been reading?

Monday, July 30, 2012

On Short Skirts, Black Vernacular English, and My Role as an Educator: Decisions from the Intersections

"That student's skirt is too short. You should tell her. It could be a distraction."


I am an educator, and I want all of my students to be successful, but I understand that "success" is not a one-size-fits-all path. Besides, I am not just an educator. I am also a feminist. I am a rhetorician.

So when someone starts telling me that it's my job as an educator to interfere in my students' personal communicative choices, I have to make decisions from the intersections.

Irish scotish!

It's not that I don't get why it's helpful to inform students about the way their short skirt (or ripped jeans, or low neckline, etc.) might be viewed. I understand that clothing is a communicative choice, but I also understand that it's a choice we don't always fully understand, especially when we're young. And I agree that it's my job to teach students that there are circumstances and occasions when we need to be more attentive to those choices than others. If you wear the wrong thing into a job interview, after all, you might be closing opportunities for yourself. And if you aren't conscious about your clothing choices, you could be sending messages that you don't want to send. Those are things I need to talk about as a rhetoric teacher. 

But that's different from policing individual students' choices about their clothing. As far as I'm concerned, it is not my job (or my right) to tell an individual student that her skirt is too short. I can talk about the impact of rhetorical choices, but once my student has made a rhetorical choice, we're entering into different territory. 

Which brings me to a more complicated example of making a pedagogical decision from the intersections: students' rights to their own language. 

I borrow the phrase from a movement in the 1970s fueled largely by Geneva Smitherman, whose book Talkin' and Testifyin' I've been reading lately. Here's a retrospective on the movement that gives a great overview. Basically, Smitherman (and others) clearly establish that what has traditionally been thought of as the "flawed" speech patterns of many black students is actually a grammar-bound language that grew from African languages spoken by slaves. She provides many, many examples of how this African influence functions and makes an excellent argument for why we should consider this way of speaking as a dialect with its own grammar rules and vocabulary choices. Dubbed Black Vernacular English (or, often, simply Black English), this way of speaking has been viewed as sub-par in many academic and professional settings. As Smitherman explains, Standard American English (which has traditionally been spoken by white people) has enjoyed (white) privilege in the classroom and professional settings. This places speakers who grew up speaking Standard American English at an advantage. And that's an advantage that is based entirely on an arbitrary selection of which language is the "right" one. Standard American English is no better--linguistically speaking--thank Black English. But racial politics, oppression, and power structures have privilege Standard American English, just as those influences have privileged its speakers. 

So, I said earlier that I teach around the edges of communicative decisions by giving students the tools to make informed rhetorical choices (such as knowing how that short skirt might be interpreted and teaching them the way that authorial choices and audience interpretation operate). I also said that I stop short of policing individual student's rhetorical choices when it comes to clothing. I'm not going to pull my student aside and tell her that her skirt is too short. 

But there's one time that I have to judge my students' individual rhetorical choices: when they turn in their papers. 

I teach composition, so part of my literal job description is judging rhetorical choices. I am supposed to evaluate and comment on students' papers, which are written representations of the rhetorical choices they have made. It is my job to read these, judge them, and tell the students how they can improve on these choices. It's a job I very much enjoy, and it's a job I take seriously. Helping people communicate more clearly hones a tool that those students will carry forward into every aspect of their lives. 

But, once again, I have to make a decision from the intersection. I am an educator, but I am also someone who cares deeply about eradicating racism. 

Fork in the road

So what do I do? The anti-racist in me says that I must recognize a rhetorical choice to use Black English (or other non-standard forms of English) as valid. I must understand and acknowledge the racism at play in privileging one form of language over the others. 

But the educator in me knows that my class is not my students' only class. In fact, since I teach developmental writing, my students are depending on me to bridge the rhetorical gap standing between them and their future classes. 

And the realist in me knows that the world is not fair. I know that turning in a college essay written in Black English, for example, is likely not going to end with an acceptance letter and a scholarship. A cover letter written that way is less likely to end with a job interview.  

So there's racial justice, there's the students' own academic desires, and there's pragmatism. 

What do I do?

I can't--like with the skirt--just talk about the impact of these rhetorical choices, giving the student information to make those choices, and then ignore the individual choices they make. It's my job to grade that paper. 

I can't not comment on the use of non-standard English. If I do that, I set the student up for failure in future courses. It's my job to prepare them for those realities. 

So I make compromises. 

I create a variety of assignments, many of which are evaluated solely on clarity and organization of ideas. These are spaces where students' rights to their own language are in tact. I assign these early and often. 

But we talk about language uses. We talk about grammar and what's considered standard. We talk about vocabulary. I make metaphors. I talk about how our language choices mirror clothing choices. While there's absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to wear ripped jeans and a t-shirt, you wouldn't wear them into a job interview. I say that's how we have to think about language. 

And, at the end of the day, I grade final papers based on Standard American English conventions. My students enroll in my class to become "better writers," and they mean better writers based on the conventions they are going to be evaluated against by other instructors and employers. They mean Standard American writers. I want them to get what they paid for. 

Is this an easy choice? Not at all. Is this the right choice? I don't know. All I know is that it's the choice that I've arrived at by deciding from the intersections. 

What do you think? Are there intersections in your own identity that inform your professional choices? If you are an educator, how do you handle students' individual rhetorical choices? 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Let's Talk About Money and the American Dream (Wrap-Up)

We've spent this week looking at the way that the American Dream mythos operates when it comes to money.

This series kicked off with the question of whether Mitt Romney's considerable wealth is a liability for him when it comes to winning the election. For the purposes of this post, I'm not really interested in answering that question specifically so much as I am interested in seeing what the fact that we're asking that question means about our culture. For the record, though, I don't think Mitt Romney is too rich to be president. He may be among the richest presidents ever, but he'd only be "among" them, not even at the top. I do think, however, that he's too rich to become president if he's banking on a message of being more in touch with "ordinary Americans."

And I think it's interesting that we seem to push him to make that claim. After all, if wealth is so tied to hard work that we all strive to make it to the top, then shouldn't people who have made it have the luxury of getting to throw themselves into their new lifestyles headlong.

But that's not the way it works. A very important part of our cultural narrative is "don't forget where you came from." 

You see it everywhere, from politicians to musicians:

And maybe, in the midst of a narrative that's so committed to individualism, the "don't forget where you came from" insistence is the one nod to collectivism. But what happens when where you "came from" is richer than most Americans can even imagine? What happens when you didn't go from rags-to-riches but from riches-to-more riches? We want people who are representative of the American Dream because then we can plug ourselves into their story, we can imagine rising to that success someday. But when we see cracks in the story, we can get a little panicky because--if the story isn't as solid as we want it to be--then maybe we'd have to question our belief in meritocracies and examine the wealth disparities that underly our culture. Maybe we'd have to face prejudices and discrimination that we'd much rather sweep under the rug. And maybe we'd have to admit to ourselves that our own upward mobility is much more limited than we've probably been telling ourselves. Sure, you can rise in America, but not nearly as much as we've all been lead to believe. 

And that's really what this series has been about. The American Dream has its uses, but the simple version does not hold up under scrutiny. There's too much tension to ignore. 

To recap:

Part 1: Why do we say that getting rich is the goal but then vilify some people for making it? Is there a hypocrisy in the way that we handle success? 

Part 2: There's a fine line between criminality and innovation. Sometimes, people can completely follow the rules of the American Dream but completely ignore the rules of the law. What happens when someone has bought into the American Dream narrative but doesn't have the means to access it?

Part 3: The rags-to-riches narrative depends on starting with rags. If you don't climb from the very bottom, it's not as good of a story. How does this impact the way that success stories are framed?

Part 4: Can you divorce "you'll succeed" from "work hard"? Does reaching success through something like winning the lottery still count? Are you still living the dream if you don't put in the work?

Part 5: Can you divorce "success" from "riches"? Are the best things in life really free? How does the tension between a corporate culture that tells us we can buy anything we want--from love to adventure--and a belief in virtues free of monetary value work out?

In the end, these tensions are in a constant interplay. Sure, the American Dream narrative helps to make complacent workers who can tap into a dream that they'll someday succeed. It also helps companies sell products that demonstrate what "making it" looks like. But it's not a simple power play of the powerful companies over us weak individuals. We need the Dream, too. We use it to move ahead, and we use it to keep us motivated. The belief in a meritocracy assuages guilt and keeps things moving smoothly. To some extent, most of us have some investment in smoothing over the cracks in the narrative. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Money Can't Buy Happiness: Let's Talk About Money (Part 5)

This week has been all about the paradox of money and the American Dream mythos. We started out in Part 1 by looking at why we hold financial success up as the goal, but then vilify some who reach it. Part 2 used American Gangster and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to look at the fine line between criminality and innovation. Part 3 took Jay-Z and Kanye West's use of American Dream rhetoric to examine the rags-to-riches phenomenon. Part 4 looked at what happens when we try to divorce the hard work part away from the success part, especially by playing the lottery.

Today we're going to look at the tension between happiness and money, especially the way that we're fed conflicting messages about how the two intertwine.

Money Can't Buy Happiness

We've all heard the phrase "money can't buy happiness." And we've all seen the clever plays on this idea that suggest it's just something poor people say to make themselves feel better. 

t-shirt that says "money can't buy happiness, but then again have you ever seen an unhappy person on a jet ski?"
From Zazzle
But, in less sarcastic realms, we also focus on how "the best things in life are free," and we talk about how you can't put a price tag on things like friendship, love, and beauty.

The conflict comes when the corporate nature of the culture we live in then turns around and starts putting a price tag on friendship, love, and beauty. 

This conflict runs deep. There are studies that suggest you can't buy happiness, like this recent one that suggests happiness is tied to respect more than wealth. Then there are studies suggesting the opposite, like this one that says money can buy happiness if you spend it on other people. Most interesting to me is this study, which found that happiness rises right along with income--up to $75,000. After that, "it is just more stuff with no gain in happiness." And that makes some sense, right? After all, if you are living without the ability to pay for basic elements of security (housing, food, heat, clothes), then that's very likely going to impact your happiness. At the same time, a certain level of luxury spending (going to the movies, eating out, etc.) is likely to impact it as well. But at some point, you're not going to be able to get more bang for your buck, so to speak. 

The fact that there are even studies about this at all, though, suggests that we've noticed the conflict in our cultural mythos, and that conflict comes largely from the drastically different messages we receive.

On one hand, appreciating the qualities in life that can't be bought is seen as virtuous and important to enlightened living. On the other hand, doing that does just the opposite of what we talked about in Part 4 (where we divorced hard work from success through lotteries). When we say that happiness can be found without economic success, we also disrupt the American Dream (and the work ethic and potentially discrimination-erasing (read, ignoring) aspects of it that we've come to depend on). 

If we change the definition of success, we also risk changing the definition of hard work. Suddenly, there are a lot fewer people willing to slug away at jobs they hate if the carrot at the end of the stick has been moved. 

Corporations, Money, and Happiness

But that's not an easy carrot to move. For every time we see "The best things in life are free" cross-stitched into a doily, we're also seeing hundreds and hundreds of ads that send the exact opposite message. 

There are ads that tell us money can buy beauty, specifically, our own beauty:

calvin klein ad for perfume called Beauty

cover girl ad for mascara

Basically any "personal care" product you can think of, from hair brushes to tweezers, from firming lotion to after shave, depends on our belief that our beauty is flawed and that their product holds the repair. 

In many occasions, entire industries are predicated on creating "flaws" just so the company can fix them. (Check out this great article from Slate that looks at the history of body-shaming to sell products.)

There are plenty of companies that want us to think that money can buy love:
kay jewelers ad that says "Every kiss begins with Kay" over couple kissing

Some take it more literally than others:

eHarmony ad with couple describing meeting their soul mate through the service

We even get (perhaps subtler) messages that money can buy friends:

Budweiser's tagline of "Grab Some Buds" exemplifies this theme. And, to some extent, there's truth in this message. After all, picture a party without any of the purchased party accouterments we've come to expect. We use things we purchase to make social events run smoothly. 

There are even products whose entire marketing strategy exists around the idea that you can buy your way to an intangible experience

Consider how Jeep has set itself up as a (commodified) way to access adventure:

Or how cities and states attempting to draw upon tourist dollars frame themselves as ways to purchase an experience:

What's It Mean for the American Dream?

So, what's the answer? Can we buy happiness? 

I don't know. 

I know that money opens up a lot of possibilities that not having money shuts down. I know that we live in a culture where the purchasing of certain products is practically a necessity if you want to access certain social circles. This works in ways that are fairly expected--you're going to have to buy a suit to go to certain parties or work in certain offices, for instance. But it also works in ways that might be more under-the-surface--if you want to be considered in with the "hip" mommy crowd, you're going to feel pressured to buy a certain stroller brand, for example. And those distinctions are not always about demonstrating a greater level of wealth. It can also be about choosing ethical products or fitting into a group on the fringe of mainstream society. At the end of the day, though, it takes money to access most of those things. 

I guess the real question for me is one of chicken-or-the-egg. Which came first? Did we start demanding niche products to set ourselves apart, or did companies start creating images of niche lifestyles to increase demand for more products? 

While I suspect that companies--having more access to media outlets--have the upper hand in terms of power, I can't vilify them completely. We are a part of our culture, and we participate in the cycle. And I'm not even sure it's always a bad thing. After all, those products we buy, those things we create, they help us express ourselves and they employ people. (Plus, you know, Vegas is fun.) It's not always a simple equation. 

Still, I can't help but think that being bombarded with ads that tell us we can buy our way to "the best things in life" also work to reinforce an American Dream mythos that keeps us dependent on money. We're very invested in the economic definition of success, and the messages that undercut "you can't buy happiness" also prop up the American Dream at a place where it could be weakened and--quite rightfully--questioned. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Lotteries and the American Dream: Let's Talk About Money (Part 4)

In Part 1, we sparked the conversation by asking if Mitt Romney is too rich to be president, and wondering why--when we value financial success so much as a culture--we sometimes demonize those who have it. In Part 2, we looked at the fine line between criminality and innovation, and what happens when someone follows the rules of the American Dream, but not the rules of the law. In Part 3, we examined the way that the rags-to-riches narrative depends on starting at the bottom.

Today, in Part 4, we're going to break the American Dream in half. We can boil the American Dream down to "work hard, and you will succeed" (admittedly, there are some variations on this, but that's the basic premise). Success, though, often gets boiled down, too. In our conversations with our peers, in our advertisements, in the things that we buy and the lives that we lead, success often means material wealth. The American Dream is a way to rise from rags to riches. So success often gets conflated with riches.

Skipping the Hard Work

But what happens if you can go straight to the "you will succeed" part without having to do much of the "work hard" part. Or, perhaps more common, what if you have been working hard, but you're not seeing much in the way of progress toward more wealth. Can you skip the hard work? Are you living the American Dream if you go straight to success?

There are a few different ways to make this leap. You could be born with the money. Jokes abound about trust fund kids and their inability to understand the "real world," but--at the end of the day--their wealth still provides them access to resources and power that people in the lower classes cannot reach. 

You could marry into money. Now, wait, I'm not saying that marriage doesn't take hard work. I'm not trying to drag up another version of the internal mommy wars about whether staying at home constitutes work or not. I'm just saying that "marrying up" has been a way to ascend quickly through the economic ranks in a non-traditional way. 

But perhaps the most widespread attempt at skipping the hard work part of the American Dream to get straight to the money is through the lottery. 

PowerBall 100 Million

Who Plays, Who Doesn't

I'll admit. I've driven past a PowerBall sign when those numbers climbed up into the hundreds of millions and fantasized about what I would do with that kind of money. I've thought about everything from the altruistic (opening a literacy center) to the escapist (a life of sipping mixed drinks on the beach) to the absurd (Chutes and Ladders-style architecture). There are even arguments that it makes some mathematic sense to play when the numbers climb that high. 

But I don't play the lottery. And it's not just because the odds are heavily stacked against me. It's also because the stories of lottery "success" aren't very successful. In fact, a lot of people who win large lotteries end up pretty miserable. 

But first, let's take a look at who plays. 

In short, poor people play. A study designed to make some people feel middle class (it asked for income in $10,000 increments, so most participants were in the middle range) and some people feel poor (it asked for income in $100,000 increments, so virtually all participants were at the very bottom), found that those in the "poor" group were much more likely to then spend their $5 reward for taking the survey on scratch tickets that were offered to them. The poor group bought 1.27 tickets a piece while the group that perceived themselves in the middle bought only 0.67 tickets. 

As Jonah Lehrer points out in this article, the lottery can be seen as a "regressive tax." People who make the least are willing to spend the most on those chances at success. On average, people making less than $12,400 a year spend 5% of their income on lottery tickets. 

Other studies have found that people at all income levels play the lottery at the same rate . . . when the jackpot has reached an abnormal high. Zip codes with higher incomes only participate at the same rate when there's more to win, but zip codes with lower incomes participate at the same rate all of the time. In other words, poor people play all of the lotteries, but rich people only play the big ones. 

Without money

What's It Mean for the American Dream?

The connection between the perception of wealth and the drive to play the lottery helps to demonstrate that wealth is relative. We determine our own financial value by looking at the wealth of those around us. And that's why media plays such a large role in determining how we view our own degree of wealth; it opens up the chance to see (and thus judge ourselves against) lifestyles that we wouldn't see otherwise (stay tuned for Part 5 for more on that). 

But that also means that people who "cheat" the American Dream by finding access to wealth that doesn't include the traditional path of hard work threaten our own perceptions. Now we have even more people to judge ourselves against and they're finding alternative paths to that lifestyle we're desperate to attain. 

But are they, really?

Reports suggest that lottery winners don't always fare so well, especially when they win big sums. For one, winning the lottery doesn't magically give the recipients financial literacy. Someone who was in money trouble before winning the lottery (and, as we just saw, these are the people most likely to be playing) does not necessarily have the tools to use that money wisely. One study showed that lottery players (winners and losers) were more than twice as likely to file for bankruptcy than the general public. 

Then there are the repeated stories of depression and failure from lottery winners who say that the win turned their lives upside down. Dr. Steven Danish, a counselor who works with lottery winners, explained that there are complications with receiving a windfall of cash:
Danish has counseled lottery winners for more than 12 years, and almost all his patients have had serious problems after collecting their winnings. After the initial shock passes, a sense of guilt often arrives, along with the hoards of people asking for money. Giving or leaving money to family -- including mysterious, long-lost relatives -- is often the biggest source of stress, he said.
Stories like these operate to remind us that the American Dream requires both halves of the equation. Notice, also, that we tend to focus on lottery winners who failed to find happiness rather than lottery winners who go on to report greater life satisfaction. Culturally, we're committed to maintaining belief in the story that working hard is part of the equation. For one, that story ensures that people keep working hard. 

But it's odd that even as we relish stories of people who tried to skip the hard work and didn't reach success, that many of us are still trying to find alternate paths to that success ourselves. As much as 60% of the American public plays the lottery. 

So do we see that hard work--and the skills and experiences we gain through doing it--valueless? Is your path through life just a means to an end? If you found a different way to get to that end (wealth and success), would you still value the path you're on?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Rags to Riches Has to Start With Rags: Let's Talk About Money (Part 3)

This is Part 3 in a series examining the paradox of money in the American Dream mythos. Part 1 looked at my inspiration for this series: the question of whether Mitt Romney is too rich to be president. Part 2 used two films to look at the fine line between criminality and innovation. This part is going to look at the way that the rags-to-riches narrative sets up a complicated relationship between poverty and success. Just as I used movies to examine this theme in the last post, I'm going to use some music to examine it in this one. 

And if we're talking about rags-to-riches, there's no better place to start than The Throne. 

Jay-Z and Kanye both use this theme in their music independently. 

Take Kanye's "Good Life" for example:

This song is rife with the mythos of the American Dream. From the very first verse, Kanye set up an individualistic philosophy: "I go for mine/I gots to shine." This verse works to demonstrate that his hard-earned success is just that, his hard-earned success. It also demonstrates that he's going to "shine," that is, make sure that everyone sees what he's worked so hard for.

And much of the rest of the song works to illustrate just what that "shining" looks like. He's got the car: "I pop the hood: Ferrari." He's got the drive for fame: "I'ma get on this TV mama." And that drive gets actualized: "And if they hate, let 'em hate and watch the money pile up." And his success has led him to the parties: "The good life, so keep it comin' with those bottles" and--of course--the ability to attract and collect women as sexual conquests: "Have you ever popped champagne on a plane/While gettin' some brain?"

So he's hit the markers of "success" in his particular cultural niche, and he's making sure that everyone sees them.

But he also says this:

"I always had a passion for flashin'/Before I had it, I closed my eyes and imagine, the good life"

See, the other part of the American Dream is that you have to rise. And in order to rise, you have to start out somewhere below where you end up. The farther the rise, the better the story. So, the lower the start, the more dramatic the possibilities. Beneath all of these messages of success is the story of struggle. Starting out on top just doesn't cut it.

That's why Kanye also has a repertoire of songs that demonstrate where he began. "Spaceship," for instance, does a lot to set up the distance between start and finish.

In this song, our narrator is not popping bottles of champagne on planes or driving Ferraris. Instead, he's getting harassed by his manager at the Gap. He's "working this graveshift" and he "ain't made shit." 

The other half of The Throne has a history of using this rhetoric as well. Take Jay-Z's song "Empire State of Mind"

This song is also about making sure that everyone can see the luxuries that success has afforded him. He talks about his "off-white Lexus" and the ethos of New York--the city that exemplifies innovators taking risks and trying to reach their dreams. He "came here for school, graduated to the high life" where he's "sipping mai tais" and "sitting court side." He's definitely made it.

But the song also hints at a troubled start and a path to success that's rife with danger. He notes that his success started with drugs: "I used to cop in Harlem, all of my Dominicanos/Right there up on Brooklyn, brought me back to that McDonald's/Took it to my stash spot, 560 State Street/Catch me in the kitchen like a Simmons whipping pastry."

Also evident in Jay-Z's American Dream narrative is his understanding that he didn't get there alone. In addition to tipping his hat to the "Dominicanos" who were selling him drugs, he notes he has "a gang of niggas walkin' with [his] clique, though." He also recognizes that he's lucky. Sure, he took risks and worked hard (even if it was in an illegal trade), but he could just as easily have not made it: "Cities a pity, half of ya'll won't make it."

Which brings us to the work that the pair is doing together. As The Throne, Kanye and Jay-Z have branded their work as "luxury rap." They sell glimpses at their high-powered life and the public is happy to consume. Perhaps the song that best exemplifies this message is "Niggas in Paris."

There's nothing subtle about the use of luxury in this song: "What's 50 grand to a motherfucker like me, can you please remind me?" They drop the names of luxury clothing brands, talk about drinking to excess and running through women like appetizers. 

Still, even here in this song that's all about success and showing it off, there's hints at the narrative of rags to riches: "I'm shocked too. I'm supposed to be locked up, too/If you escaped what I escaped, you'd be in Paris getting fucked up, too."

What's It Say About Money?

On the surface, the collected narrative of The Throne (and plenty of other musicians) suggests a complete adherence to the American Dream. These are people who innovated paths to success (though possibly illegal ones), worked hard, and rose from rags-to-riches. As is the formula, they must now flaunt those riches to the public. This works to remind the public that wealth is the marker of success and to demonstrate that the rags-to-riches story is possible, giving them something to work towards. 

But is it really that simple?

As this article points out, Kanye and Jay-Z may appear to be merely rolling in their riches, but their songs actually contain a lot of social commentary:
"Murder to Excellence" encapsulates the theme in a two-parter that shifts beats halfway through. West begins by quoting an old Jay-Z line — "I'm from the murder capital, where they murder for capital" — to decry black-on-black violence in his hometown of Chicago. Jay-Z then describes ascending to "the new black elite" with Will Smith and Oprah Winfrey. "Only spot a few blacks the higher I go ... that ain't enough. We gon' need a million more," he raps. 
Isolation infuses the Swizz Beats-produced "Welcome to the Jungle," where West drinks away his struggles: "Just when I thought I had everything, I lost it all. So que sera. Get a case of Syrah, let it chase the pain." Jay-Z places himself in the shoes of fellow musicians at their lowest points, linking Eminem, Michael Jackson, Pimp C, 2Pac and more through coded couplets that reward repeat listening. 
Even more dour is the RZA-produced "New Day," with odes to sons the two may eventually father. Over a plinking piano and Nina Simone sample, West flagellates himself for mistakes, from his choice in women to post-Katrina telethon appearance, noting: "I'll never let my son have an ego." Jay-Z is even more direct: "Sorry Junior, I already ruined ya, 'cause you ain't even alive, paparazzi pursuing ya."
Lyrics like these disturb the simple, individualistic message of "work hard so you can play hard." There's a whole world out there, a world that even the richest among us can't escape because they are a part of that world. Jay-Z and Kanye would not be rich without the millions and millions of fans--most of whom are certainly not enjoying this lifestyle--willing to spend money on their product. Ignoring the violence and oppression in that world ignores the plight of the cultural ecosystem their success depends upon. When they bring their children into the mix, they're recognizing that individualism only takes you so far. If you plan to be a part of a society and especially if you plan to procreate in it, then you have a vested interest in making it the best place it can be, and that often means looking up from the champagne.

After all, if you came from rags, then you know just how hard that position can be. Not everyone has the chance to escape those rags--if they did, the American Dream wouldn't be a "Dream"; it'd be an operating manual.

We shouldn't begrudge the successful among us for their success, but success shouldn't be an amnesiac, either. Perhaps it's easier for the successful whose livelihood is directly tied to the community at large (such as through record sales) to remember. As Jay-Z says in "Empire State of Mind" "Now I'm down in Tribeca/Right next to De Niro, but I'll be hood forever."

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Fine Line Between "Criminal" and "Innovator": Let's Talk About Money (Part 2)

This is Part 2 in a week-long series looking at the paradox of money in American culture. Part 1 introduced the topic through the lens of whether Mitt Romney is too rich to be president. This post will examine the fine line between behaviors we vilify and behaviors we praise. Specifically, we'll look at the discussion of the "Criminal" and the "Innovator" through the lens of two films: American Gangster and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Innovation vs. Criminality

In general, you don't get rich by following the rules. Almost all of the great American Dream heroes  blazed trails in ways that set them apart from the crowd, and trails aren't blazed by walking lock-step behind the person in front of you. Trails are blazed by taking risks. 

People like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and Henry Ford did not rise to their level of fame and fortune by following the status quo--or by always playing nice. Often, the choices that they made skirted issues of legality, and sometimes their choices were only legal because the law had not yet caught up to their innovation. Take the fact that Rockefeller's father (and the start of his family's fortune) was based upon a snake oil scam for a cancer cure or Carnegie's involvement with the Homestead Strike, for example. You don't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. 

Egg yolks and whites
Except when "eggs" are "people's lives," it doesn't sound quite so clever.
All that to say that there's a fine line between "innovator" and "criminal." In many ways, the things we define as crimes are pretty arbitrary. We don't like to think that. We like to think that our criminal codes are solidly based on ethical fact, but virtually everything we legislate exists on a continuum, a continuum with a lot of grey area. Even cut-and-dry things like "don't kill people" get shaky in the cases of self-defense. And that grey area is largely informed by socioeconomic factors (for instance, in 2010 Congress "corrected" the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity by making it 18-to-1 instead of 100-to-1), privilege, and sometimes just sheer brashness. If you're willing to push the envelope in ways no one has ever pushed it before, it's likely that there haven't yet been laws made to contain you. 

But what happens when you're on the wrong side of that privilege for whatever reason? What happens when those messages to innovate get tangled up with our rules for conduct? 

Well, that's the distortion of the American Dream. It takes the same principles that we tend to hold up as keys to success--innovation, risk-taking, and ingenuity--and rams them headlong into the wall of regulation. The result? Criminality in the name of success.

This is even brought up in discussions of personality types. Enneagram's personality describes type 8 as "The Challenger":
Eights are self-confident, strong, and assertive. Protective, resourceful, straight-talking, and decisive, but can also be ego-centric and domineering. Eights feel they must control their environment, especially people, sometimes becoming confrontational and intimidating. Eights typically have problems with their tempers and with allowing themselves to be vulnerable. At their Best: self- mastering, they use their strength to improve others' lives, becoming heroic, magnanimous, and inspiring.
Okay, so those are some pretty positive traits. Self-confidence, strength, and assertiveness are all qualities that we praise and try to instill in ourselves. And the "at their best" sounds fantastic. It's why people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Franklin Roosevelt are listed as examples of this personality type.

But look closely. Someone who is "ego-centric" and "domineering" isn't always going to end up "at their best." These qualities, if given the right (or, more accurately, wrong) environment, could quickly give way to criminal behavior. It's why people like Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro are also on that list. Donald Trump's on there, too. Draw your own conclusions.

Because I love pop culture and because I think that it's one of the primary vehicles for delivering messages about our cultural values (and because it's my blog--I do what I want!), I'm going to examine the way that this tension plays out in two films.

American Gangster

American Gangster is based on the true story of Frank Lucas' rise (and eventual fall) as a New York heroin kingpin. Lucas used the classic tools of American success to make himself very, very rich. Then he shared that wealth with his family. In many ways, Lucas' story closely mirrors one like Rockefeller's or Carnegie's. The difference is that he didn't innovate a way to sell steel or oil. He innovated a way to sell heroin. Really, though, the product is about the only difference. Lucas follows the rules of American success is practically every other way. 

Watch this clip of him explaining his business philosophy:

He lists the most important things to business: honesty, integrity, hard work, family, never forgetting where you came from. Sound familiar? 

The clip demonstrates that it his belief in these values that lead him to make the criminal decisions that he makes (such as shooting a man in the street over money he's owed). While that action was most definitely against the legal code, it was completely in line with his values. When those are the same values that we say underly America, we can see how the "rugged individual" message can be a little dangerous. 

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the Gonzo account of Hunter S. Thompson's tip to Vegas to cover the story of a motorcycle race. I mean, I guess that's how you would sum up the plot. It's really a drug-fueled binge of excess through Vegas as testament to America's flawed greatness. Our protagonist  breaks the rules for the very sake of breaking the rules. He carves out his space in the American landscape with force and more than a touch of insanity.

This, too, is right in line with American ideals.

This clip shows how the entire plot can be seen as a reaction to what happens when the "sense of inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil" is destroyed. The narrator discusses the "high water mark" of the social movement of the 60's--a movement that had at its core a message of community and unity. But when that movement didn't fulfill its promise, when the participants were left with the realization that they were not going to be able to enact the change they'd envisioned, they were left with the American ideal--once again--of rugged individualism. Every man for himself. The center cannot hold. 

And if the message is that your actions are yours and yours alone, then why not drive across the desert in a convertible chock-full of drugs? Why not trash a hotel room, park on the sidewalk, and then waltz across the street to do it all over again? If the only person you have to worry about is yourself, then what difference does any of it make? 

What's True in Both Narratives?

American Gangster and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are very different movies. But both demonstrate what happens when the message of the American Dream is given to people without access to any way to actualize it. Both films show that the message of innovation is just a few wrong turns  from out-and-out criminality. And, in both films, I think we'll see a lot of the signs of the American Dream that we all feel familiar (and comfortable) with:


Both films demonstrate that risk is at the center of success. 

In American Gangster, Lucas risks everything. His path to success is highly illegal, and he's being pursued throughout the film. In the end, his risk turns out to be too much, as he's caught and imprisoned, but also loses the respect of many of his family members. Even in prison, he upholds many of the key values of the American Dream, insisting that the corrupt police be held to standards of honesty and accountability. 

Likewise, the key to Fear and Loathing is risk. The protagonist embraces danger at every turn. His lifestyle is one that doesn't account for safety. Whether it's sneaking into a police conference on drug offenders (while high) or engaging in a high-speed chase with a highway patrolman just for fun, Raoul Duke is not afraid of risk. Here's a quote that I feel particularly captures that philosophy:
You better take care of me Lord because, if you don't, you're going to have me on your hands. 

Perhaps excess is in some weird tango with risk. If you've placed yourself in danger to accumulate the success you have, then it may only be logical that you want to flaunt it. 

In American Gangster, Frank Lucas laps up the life of luxury with chinchilla coats, huge penthouse suites, and lavish parties. He's embodying the Great Gatsby way of life and making sure that everyone around him knows what his success has afforded him. 

In Fear and Loathing, the entire backdrop is excess. That's what Las Vegas represents. From the bright lights to the room service, there is more than anyone should ever need. The point is to push yourself to the limits of consumption, and Raoul Duke does just that, with everything from grapefruit to ether. 


But above all, both movies demonstrate men who are attempting to find a place of their own in the sea of society. Neither are content to remain in the status quo. That's why they take the risk in the first place, and that's why they demonstrate the excess in the end. There's no use living safely if it means you have to die a nobody (as Frank Lucas said in the above clip, "You're either a somebody, or you're a nobody."), and there's no use being unique if no one else knows it.

What Does it Tell Us About Money?

The point of this series is examining the paradox of wealth in the American Dream mythos. The "rags-to-riches" story depends on riches, so wealth is clearly important. But, as films like these demonstrate, that path isn't as simple as it might seem. It's not merely hard work and innovation that lead to success. It's the right kind of hard work and innovation that bends but does not break the rules. 

Not all paths to success are acceptable, even when they follow the very values that we've laid out. 

Other Examples:
Goodfellas, Casino, The Godfather, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire

Photo: fortinbras

Monday, July 23, 2012

Let's Talk About Money--Oh, Okay, and Politics (Part 1)

Have you seen the Mitt income calculator over at Slate? You can use it to see how quickly Mitt Romney makes your annual salary. He made mine in less than a day. The median household (not individual) income for Americans is $51,914. Mitt Romney made that in 20 hours 59 minutes and 39 seconds.

It would take that average American family 417 years 3 months 1 day 14 hours 23 minutes and 18 seconds to make what Romney made in 2010. With a life expectancy of 78.5 years, that's a little over five lifetimes.

Money Dollar

With various theories coming out as to why Mitt Romney does not want to release his tax returns and confirmed reports of his offshore savings accounts and that he's used a series of tax loopholes so effectively that he paid only 14% in taxes in 2010, it's clear that Mitt Romney is very, very rich. 

Is being rich a problem? 

Scrooge McDuck.
Yep, that's Scrooge McDuck. He might be biased. 
As I discussed in another recent post about politics, the American ethos has a bit of a paradoxical underpinning when it comes to the American Dream: we like to pretend it's all about the individual while basing our definition of "success" almost entirely on economic conditions that are determined primarily by the collective society. 

The Paradox of Money

Along with this paradox comes the problem of money. We all want it. We use it to define success in everything from music videos and advertisements to the way we landscape our yards and the cars we drive to the neighborhoods we live in and the clothes we wear. Even when we see ourselves as living a lifestyle that's counter to the norm, that lifestyle is often accessed primarily through monetary means. It takes money to shop at Whole Foods and drive an eco-friendly hybrid, for instance. 

And it takes money just to live. We all want to send our kids to the best schools, and--especially in many urban areas across America--that takes money. It either takes money in the form of a stable tax base for a public school (and the money to buy the house in the right zip code) or it takes money to pay private school tuition. We all have to eat, and that takes money (and thanks to the backward system that has left the least nutritional, most processed foods costing the least, the better you want to eat, the more it usually costs). 

I'm not denying that there are some people who have escaped this system. There are a handful of people who truly live "off-grid" and don't participate in the capitalistic culture that makes up most of Americans' day-to-day lives (though as this Sociological Images post suggests, they aren't always as far off-grid as they think they are). But I think it's safe to say that most of us use money, and most of us wouldn't have much of a problem figuring out ways to use a little more than we currently have. 

Too Rich to Be President?

So, I ask again, is being rich a problem?

Does it become a problem when it makes you unrelatable? Does it matter how you get there? Does it matter what you do with it once you've got it? 

All of these are possibilities that Catherine Poe touches on in a Washington Post article about Romney's money and favorability. Because it does seem that, for Romney, being rich might be a problem. 

Poe explains that 20% of people polled say that Romney is less likely to get their vote because of his wealth, and 54% of Americans think Romney should release his tax returns.

Money, Money, Money

I find this entire problem fascinating. Almost every aspect of our culture from music to advice columns to commercials tell us to accumulate wealth practically above all else. We're told it's a measure of success. It's even suggested that it's a measure of character. 

Yet, it's clearly not that simple. 

I'm going to spend this week examining some of the paradoxes I see in our culture when it comes to money and success.

In the meantime, what do you think? Is being rich a problem? How do you view the intersections of wealth, ethics, and success? Does money drive your personal goals? And, specifically, is Romney too rich to be president? 

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links for the Week)

It's time again for a round-up of the things that made me smile, cry, and think. Feel free to add your own (self-promotion is great!) in the comments.

The Good

How I Learned to Wear a Dress shares a touching moment with her college freshmen son, which prompts a list of 20 (plus one) Do's and Don'ts of Parenting:
We worked at this and we’ve boiled the first nineteen years of our parenting down to a short list of recommendations. The list is imperfect, just like all parenting is.
Strawberry Mohawk has a great parenting piece about how securing your own oxygen mask first is necessary even when you're not in a plane crash:
Sometimes there are many facets to one lesson though and I realized another to this one friday night. I was driving my car home in inconsolable tears. Everything was wrong ... and nothing (I'm sure you know the story). "I'm so tired" *sob* "I have nooo friends" *sniff* "the house is always dirty" *snort* "and I have nothing that fits" *wail*. I was actually on my way home from a movie, so normally I'd be feeling revitalized, but I think some time to myself was just too far overdue.
Offbeat Mama provides a list of six ways to raise powerful girls. Here's one of them:
A white dress shouldn't get in the way of a girl playing in the dirt. Our old neighbors had a daughter about Shoshanna's age, and they were always yelling, "Don't play on the ground, you're gonna get your dress dirty!" Man, I felt bad for that kid. Maybe I'm just not fancy enough (very possible), but I can't think of an occasion that's so important that it should require clothing that actually restricts the wearer's interactions with the world around her. I love a darlin' little sundress at least as much as the next mama, but I try not to freak out when I notice that my girl has just poured an entire bucket of mud and worms all over it.
This Beyonce fan video making the rounds made me smile:

The Bad

Basically everything about the Colorado shooting is terrifying and so, so sad. While it certainly isn't the most sad aspect of it, I have been incredibly shocked to see so many online commenters attacking parents for taking their kids to a midnight movie instead of focusing on the grief, pain, and healing of the victims. 

George Zimmerman's interview where he calls the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin "God's Plan" is sickening. Rev. Adam J. Copeland has a good article on the Huffington Post that goes over some of the reasons this line of logic is problematic.

The Curious

This excellent article from blue milk's Andie Fox looks at some of the complexities that Marissa Mayer's appointment as Yahoo's CEO is bringing up regarding motherhood and work.
We want space for mothers who do not want a caring role to be their central identity – fair enough – but in the process, we also readily dismiss the hard-won wisdom of mothers trying to describe that transition of motherhood to us. 
When mothers are apprehensive about Mayer’s ability to combine work with the initials tasks of recovery and bonding, it is possible that this message is not condescending but rather compassionate. Be careful committing yourself to a plan that may end up breaking your heart. Still, Mayer may not find motherhood a life-changing event; returning early to work may be a genuine pleasure for her. She would not be alone in that experience and she will have significant resources to assist her with it: nannies, cleaners, chefs and personal assistants. Her life will be like that of many fathers. 
But the question I most want a journalist to ask her is: What is your husband like? Because her ability to juggle her job and family in the way she wants to will depend critically upon him. Will he get up (again and again and again, through the night) to the baby? Will he suppress his cough and his urge to go to the toilet for hours on end so as not to wake the sleeping baby in his arms? Will he make those decisions that need to be made when the baby is running a fever? Will he take on the lion’s share emotionally the way a mother does to allow her partner to continue his career? Men’s lives can be turned upside down by their babies, but the real shock for me – and many of my female friends who were primary carers for our babies – was how little it changed our partner’s lives. (Go read it. It's great).

I find the entire concept of transethnicity curious, not because I actually think that transethnicity is a valid claim to oppression but because I think it's an interesting way to view intersections of privilege and oppression at work.

After that Tosh scandal, several people have come out to remind us that rape jokes can be funny, his just wasn't one of them. Kate Harding has a round up of 15 rape jokes that she thinks fit the bill, including this one by Wanda Sykes:

A guestpost over at Offbeat Mama discusses her decision to implement No Media Mondays in her house. The thought filled me with a little bit of dread, which probably means I could use some media limits myself:
While I'm not quite ready to give it up altogether, I decided to make a change in my habits at least once a week. I started No Media Mondays in our house. This is a day once a week that we completely unplug. My computer is never opened, the TV stays off, and though I keep my phone on me for safety reasons, I don't use it for anything other than that. Even my car radio is turned off and replaced by my terrible singing voice or just talking. It was a scary prospect. You really don't think about the time that you spend — five minutes here, 10 minutes there — using electronics. A day without media doesn't seem totally overwhelming, but when faced with the actual reality of it, it seemed uncomfortable.
Sociological Images has an interesting post on skin tone and the arbitrary lines we draw around race.

Amy Odell argues that focusing on magazine's use of Photoshop is distracting us from the real culprits that are so invested in sending us messages about beauty and thinness.

So, that's what I've been reading. What about you?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Obama's "You Didn't Build That": Issues of Community and Individualism in the American Mythos

I typically blog around the edges of political debate because I've found the center too contentious for  productive discussion. However, the controversy surrounding Obama's recent "you didn't build that" remark fits into a topic that I'm very interested in: the way we handle individuality and community in the American mythos.

See, the narrative surrounding American identity puts us in a hard place.

We're told to pull ourselves up from our bootstraps. With the right combination of ingenuity and hard work, everyone has an equal chance at success.

Go ahead. Start pulling. 
We believe in this narrative because it capitalizes on the very values at the heart of American-ness. And it's just so simple. Work hard and you'll succeed. If you're not succeeding, you must not be working hard. If you are succeeding, you must have worked for it. 

But it's not that simple, and--deep down--I think we all know it's not that simple. 

See, the bootstraps message appears to be centered entirely on individuality. If you want to succeed, you are the one with the tools to do it. Dig in and get to work. The only obstacle between you and success is you. It's empowering. It's motivating. It gives people a reason to work hard. 

But somewhere along the line, we have to stop to recognize that there are two sides to "Work hard and you'll succeed." That first part--"work hard"--is certainly individually controlled. We have the power to determine how hard we will work. But we tend to gloss over the fact that the second part--"you'll succeed"--is not really determined by you. "Success" is not determined by individuals (at least not in the way it's traditionally framed in the American Dream mythos, which is almost entirely economic).

Success is a social construct, and in order to have a social construct, you have to have a collective of people. 

Individuals Define "Work Hard," but Communities Define "Success"

So, with that as a backdrop, let's take a look at the context of the quote that's getting Obama so much criticism. 

Today, Romey's campaign unveiled a new ad attacking Obama's words in a recent speech:

The ad starts with a voiceover from Obama:
If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, 'Well, it must be cause I was just so smart.' There are a lot of smart people out there. 'It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.' Let me tell you something . . . If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.
The ad then moves to Jack Gilchrist, who owns a metal fabricating company. He incredulously asks whose hands did all the work if not his father's, his own, and his sons. He asks who took out the loan to finance the endeavor. As others have explained, the part that's really hurting Obama is the "you didn't build that" line, which has been taken out of context. 

The ad takes out a big chunk of important details from between those two statements. Here's a more complete version:
 Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. 
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. 
The highlighted parts are omitted from the ad. And I know attack ads are meant to oversimplify and boil things down to drive home a point quickly and effectively. Obama did say the words that are in the ad. 

But is Obama implying that Gilchrist's hands didn't build his company? Of course not. We know that creating a business takes hard work. We know that every business owner who moves forward with a dream is taking a risk, and we know that those risks can come with some very real impacts for the business owner's family and livelihood. 

Romney's Response: Holding Up Tokens of the American Dream ("Results Not Typical")

The real key to unwrapping what's going on in this line of attack comes from Romney's response. The video ends with a clip of Romney speaking at an Ohio town hall meeting, where he said this:
To say that Steve Jobs didn't build Apple, that Henry Ford didn't build Ford Motor, to say something like that is not just foolishness, it's insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America, and it's wrong. 
In another version of the same statement, Romney also included Bill Gates building Microsoft, Ray Kroc building McDonald's, and Papa John building Papa John's Pizza. 

His choices here are important. The people that he's holding up have something in common (in addition to all being white and male), and that's that they are tokens of the American Dream. They are the embodiment of "work hard, and you will succeed." They are the stories that we tell ourselves to keep that dream alive. 

Just as weight loss advertisements are required by law to put that "Results not typical" statement at the bottom, we should probably have something of a reality check in place when it comes to these stories as well. 

Yes, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Henry Ford are amazing testaments to a success that is possible, but certainly not a success that is probable. And, if all it takes is hard work, why not? Why shouldn't every person willing to work as hard as Henry Ford be able to have Henry Ford's success? Because success is defined not by an individual, but by a community.

But we don't want to be reminded of that. We don't want to have to think about the fact that working hard is, in fact, no guarantee of success at all. We could very well spend our whole lives working as hard as we possibly can and end up broke and unappreciated.

If you point out that there's more to the equation than hard work, you pull back the veil on an American ethos that almost all of us--at some level or another--want to believe in.

How Community Factors in: Opportunity and Appreciation

But whether we like it or not, even if it reveals that the Emperor is in fact naked, the fact remains that individualism will not take us all the way to success.

The community impacts success in at least two important ways: opportunity and appreciation.

It is as a member of a collective community that our individual access to opportunities are determined. This is in everything from how major socioeconomic factors like our perceived race and class status impact the way others interact with us to the details of what tools we get our hands on.

Let's take one of Romney's examples: Bill Gates. Bill Gates is, undoubtedly, both a brilliant and hard working man. But that, as Malcolm Gladwell delved into in Outliers, was not the only thing he had going for him to reach his success. He looks at some factors of great luck and opportunity that came together to give Bill Gates a chance to amass hours of computer practice at a time when very, very few people had that access:

Commodore  64
Yes, I know this isn't what it looked like. But I was born in 1985, and this is the oldest computer my mind can imagine. 

(1)Gates was sent to one of the very few high schools in the world that had access to a time-sharing computer terminal (in 1968).
(2)The mothers of the community joined together to raise money to buy time on the terminal for the school students to use.
(3)A classmate's parent worked at C-Cubed and arranged for students to volunteer to check code on the weekend in exchange for time.
(4)Gates just happened to find out about another company (ISI) just as they needed someone to work on their software.
(5)He lived within walking distance of a university that would allow free computer use between three and six in the morning.
(6)Then he got connected with someone who happened to be asked about finding an employee for yet another company (TWR), and his high school allowed him to use one of his spring terms to go work for that company.
That's a lot of factors that had to come together in just the right way in order to grant Gates the opportunity to get more experience in coding than virtually anyone else in his peer group could access.

Does that mean (as Gilchrist accuses Obama of saying) that Gates didn't do that work with his own hands? No! He was an incredibly hard worker. He gave up nights and weekends to sit in front of those computers. He made that walk at three in the morning. He spent hours upon hours doing mentally taxing tasks that make me exhausted just to consider. He worked very, very hard.

But it wouldn't have been enough without the opportunities afforded to him by being part of a community.

And look at how many different ways community impacted those opportunities.

Mothers of schools students pulled together to raise money to buy computer time. There are plenty of communities where--even if a few individual mothers care very, very deeply about such opportunities--there simply aren't enough committed parents to make that happen.

He was trusted enough to be allowed around very expensive equipment in the middle of the night. There are plenty of teenagers who--through no fault of their own--might not be considered trustworthy enough to have that privilege--like, say, if they were from the wrong part of town.

He also made some individual social connections with important people, and those important people helped him get into a position to reach his full potential.

No matter how hard you work (and you do have to work hard) you don't do it alone. You are a part of a collective, and that collective impacts the opportunities you can access.

And the flip side of that is that you still live in a collective community once you put all that hard work in. Specifically, you're only going to become a success (at least economically) if that community sees value in the work that you do.

All of those people that Romney held up as successes benefited from the combination of foresight and luck that allowed them to hone their skills in areas that were in demand. If Bill Gates had spent every night and weekend perfecting his stamp collection, he would have been just as hard of a worker, but the skills that he acquired would be much less valued by the community at large.

Consider this: the average NBA player makes $3 million a year. Elite players can make $10-15 million. The lowest paid rookie made $473,604 in 2011. Kobe Bryant, the highest paid player, made $24,806,250.


But what about WNBA players? The minimum salary is $35,880. The average is $69,690. The highest paid player makes $103,500/year. 

To put it another way, the highest paid player in the WNBA makes less than a quarter of the lowest paid player in the NBA

That success isn't determined by hard work. That success is determined by the appreciation of the collective community. 

If You Are Successful, You Didn't Get There On Your Own

So, you know what? If you are successful, you didn't get there on your own. 

That doesn't mean you didn't work hard. That doesn't mean that you didn't take risks. That doesn't mean that you don't deserve credit for your ingenuity, your intelligence, your work ethic, and your skill.

It just means that part of being a citizen is recognizing that you are part of a collective. The things you do impact other people, and the things they do impact you. Your success is not determined alone.  

But it does mean that Obama is right: "you didn't build that [alone]."