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February 23, 2011 / JV

Rationing the American Dream: Merit, Democracy and the Political Imagination

In a 1997 interview, Sapphire, author of Push (on which the movie Precious is based), explains her thoughts when writing the novel:

What I considered was that we were going to enter into a person’s life who was being damaged, but was not intrinsically damaged. We’re going to enter into and watch the growth of someone who has been emotionally crippled. That was the focal point of the novel. I wasn’t interested in writing a dark, horrible story—a case history or a crime novel. I was interested in how, through all these impediments and all these trials, a human being could still grow. And why they could. I didn’t get an answer in writing the book or in the people I encountered, but it has to do with human nature. It’s human nature for young people to grow and learn. So we enter into Push with Precious doing a natural thing; it only seems bizarre because so many bad things have happened to her, but she just wants what any other kid wants. She wants to live. She wants a boyfriend, she wants to learn, she wants nice clothes…

The first and last sentences in particular stand out to me.

What I considered was that we were going to enter into a person’s life who was being damaged, but was not intrinsically damaged.

This challenges the essential framework upon which our understanding of U.S. political and socioeconomic life rests. Our ideal of a social mobility built on merit, which some people would argue actually exists, leans on the premises that the playing field is flat, we all encounter equal hardship, and we all receive equal reward for equal work.

What follows this vision of merit conquering all is the proof that it exists, generally embodied by a [flawed] morality argument used to justify why some people excel and others don’t. The morality argument posits that if a person is stuck in a minimum wage job, for example, it is due to fault of character. That is to say, our popular understanding of inequalities assumes that a person whose life is being damaged is intrinsically damaged. Our investment in the ahistorical pipe dream of merit-based social mobility requires us to, on some level, believe that people who live in poverty or receive poor education somehow deserve it, or more specifically, that they have earned it.

So we enter into Push with Precious doing a natural thing; it only seems bizarre because so many bad things have happened to her, but she just wants what any other kid wants. She wants to live. She wants a boyfriend, she wants to learn, she wants nice clothes…

This quote hints at what I find to be a puzzling phenomenon, and that is the common impression that people’s desires should reflect, or correlate with, their circumstances. (Precious daydreaming of a boyfriend and nice clothes is “bizarre” because she is poor and has been abused and is struggling with school and thus, we think, should be focused on how she will eat her next meal or afford her textbooks.) This impression shows itself in everything from government policy (regulating what SNAP (food stamp) recipients can and cannot buy) to popular critiques on apt behavior (“why are they worried about what car they drive when they don’t own their house?”). The case could be made that the aforementioned examples have other driving forces, such as an interest in overall health or financial stability. Yet, I would argue that they also derive from our idea that people’s dreams should always be relative. We ostensibly believe in an egalitarian and democratic society when it comes to our politics, yet we don’t support the democracy of desires.

On one hand, the American Dream is an enduring exercise in propaganda; on the other, it is a integral part of our imaginations and realities. After all, a deep-seated faith in the primary trope of the American Dream — we can all become what we want to be — is what keeps most of us functioning in, and thereby supporting, the national order. And while we have access to the same images of success and “happiness” (as embedded in material gains), we like to draw lines when it comes to who can appropriately desire those images. We want people to dream within their means — a notion which only begins to touch on the underdevelopment and superficiality of our belief in democracy and egalitarianism as principles.

Our inclination to believe in the triumph of merit (and therefore, the morality failures of the disenfranchised), along with our authoritarian tendency to police people’s desires is not necessarily rooted in a particular political leaning, ignorance, or apathy. Rather, we are compelled by the inherent need to believe in the authenticity of our reality.

The U.S. does not function solely on the triumph of merit, nor was it built to. People are faced with all kinds of circumstances in their lives which are very rarely, if ever, the direct result of their independent choices. But we cannot accept these things as true — these things which draw into question the critical tenets of our political imaginations. For if we did, we would not only have to accept that America as-we-know-it is a falsehood, but we would also have to face the fact that the majority of us will not improve our social circumstances as drastically as we like to think we will. And what’s more, that this kind of mobility is not only improbable, but also, at this historical moment, particularly difficult in a country of dreams.

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