I am about to blaspheme against the entire culture. I dare you - parents, grandparents, older siblings, friends, teachers, and anyone else who people might look up to - to tell the young, "Don't seek success." Do not succeed. Do not be a winner. Do not get ahead. Do not try to "make it."
G. K. Chesterton fans may already be ahead of me here, as will those who have read Diana Senechal's essay for the American Teachers Federation.
People know exactly what I mean when I say "success," even though the kneejerk reaction against what I am about to say will go beyond the bounds of that shared understanding to equivocate about "success" in order to protect past proclamations about it.
"Success just means accomplishing your goals. What's wrong with that?"
"Success can mean feeling successful, even when others don't see it that way."
I can hear it coming a mile away. But these equivocations will be deployed for the purpose of obfuscation. We all know that what is usually implied, in this culture, by the term "success," is winning, wealth, status, looking good, and power. In every case, we assume an element of competition. So for winners, there are losers. For wealth, there is poverty. For status, there is stigma. For looking good, someone has to look bad. For power, there is subjugation.
As we all also know, these are self-perpetuating dynamics, because anyone who has been a loser dreams of winning; anyone who has been poor dreams of being wealthy; anyone who has been stigmatized feels the pull of status; anyone who has been taught they are ugly will feel compelled to seek beauty; and anyone who has know subjugation dreams of subjugating others.
When I taught at West Point, I was exposed to the fourth class system, in which freshmen ("plebes") were subjected to relentless hazing and humiliation. I taught freshman military science, so I came to know a lot of the plebes. They would come to my office to cry on my shoulder about the hazing and lack of sleep; and as an opponent of the fourth class system, I was sympathetic.
Lo and behold, the next year, when they became sophomores, the very ones who sought the most sympathy the year before were among the worst yearling (the West Point term for sophomores) hazers.
It is a kind of social paradox that cuts across many lines. Few working class people are attracted to Marxism, for example, and the majority of dedicated Marxist activists are middle-class (many very upper middle-class) college students and academics, who constitute a tiny class minority driven by the pangs of conscience, and who are unencumbered by the sense of inferiority that afflicts lower classes.
The countries in which I have spent considerable time in Latin America and the Caribbean have tenuous middle-classes; and these people are among the most violently conservative, identifying more closely with the rich who employ them than the lower classes from which they only recently emerged. Middle class people in these countries can be the most contemptuous of and abusive to domestic servants, for example.
This class is the popular base in Venezuela right now for the violent opposition to Chavismo populism. These are the succeeders, the ones who have won the social competitions in school, university, and business. They refuse to believe that their own success comes at the expense of the losers; and so they shunt the responsibility for losing (and therefore being relegated to subjugation) onto these same people. Contempt is the way they deal with the cognitive dissonance that lies in wait if succeeding and losing are seen as mutually constitutive. They are also the class that has access to English lessons and visas, and so the Venezuelans you meet in the US are most likely very anti-Chavista, even though more than sixty percent of their fellow Venezuelans consistently vote for Chavistas at home.
This is why during the great social crises of the 1930s, the popular bases for the various fascist movements were the middle-classes, who felt threatened by the prospect of being returned to that stratum from which they had only recently escaped. This also accounts for the reactionary character of the American middle class today, especially the white middle-class. Racial/ethnic scapegoating is more easily accomplished among these groups, because they are simultaneously in structural competition with racial Others (the structures themselves are all competitive), and because racial preconceptions can reinforce the narrative that the Other is "unfit" for the competition. This narrative is readily transformed into one of reverse-oppression, based on "special rights" or "unfair advantage." No one complains more quickly of being victimized than those who anticipate the loss of a privilege.
Likewise, it accounts for the contempt in which the poor of racial minorities are held by middle-classes of their own historically-defined ethnicities; and it accounts for the cult of success that holds sway among those middle-classes as well.
This accounts for unshakable veneration of Barack Obama among both the African American middle-class and the white liberal middle-class that shares educational and consumer spaces with African America's middle-class. These white liberals propound an ideology of "equal opportunity," an ideology that is essentially meritocratic and competitive, but which believes in deracialized rules for the competition. White losers and black losers and brown losers ought to be left behind equally, and held in contempt only for the fact of losing.
This dynamic is further complicated among historically oppressed racial/ethnic groups, because - as we can see with the election of Obama - the success of this iconic figure, underwritten by black and brown voters in coalition with younger (more racially tolerant and homogeneous) voters has not dampened racial animosities, but sharpened them. Few Americans understand political issues beyond the superficial representations of Fox, CNN, MSNBC, and NPR; and American elections are great televised personality contests financed by the rich. But Obama cannot escape his "blackness,' hard as he may occasionally try, and the hard-core of the American white middle-class hates him for that "blackness" which he can never escape. It is difficult - even in the face of Obama's horrible policies, serial betrayals, and craven service to Wall Street - not to defend Obama from this substantial white nationalist bloc, especially for those who are themselves black or who (like our family) are substantially racially mixed. Racism is a dangerous thing with real consequences. Ask Trayvon Martin's family.
There is a powerful temptation to believe that success is a defense against this kind of hatred, even though Harvard professors can be stopped by cops on DWBs.
It also takes a fair amount of white privilege myopia (a disease of the white left) to ignore this racial dynamic
with regard to President Obama, even if one does recognize that he is
filling the job of the nation's Prevaricator in Chief and Haute
Finance's chief secretary in much the same way every egomaniac that
fills the job does. Likewise, while one can fully acknowledge that his
symbolism does little to match reality, we can still be mindful that
in a country where white supremacy is alive and well as a baseline
organizing principle for the whole society, symbolism matters for people
who are getting the shit kicked out of them on every front.
While I might be railing against the cult of success, I have to admit that it is an easy thing to reach for - as a way of rebutting the racial narratives of inferiority - in the face of a society that constantly reminds African Americans of the potential for failure. It's a fixed game, but I understand the temptation, and for our own kids - all grown now - who give little thought to politics, the proof that this guy could make it in the roughest game inside the boundaries of white respectability is very, very important.
So when I take this topic on, there is no way to do it univocally. Standpoints sure enough matter. Nonetheless, speaking now as a Christian, how are we to relate, as Christians of all kinds here in los Estados Unidos, to the cult of success, to the idea of meritocracy, to winners and losers?
Perhaps the first thing we can do is disentangle the phenomena of "respectability" and self-respect. At least then we can describe how the game of "success" is fixed, then think about how not to play the game without sacrificing anyone's dignity in the process.
There are plenty of people who have never succeeded, in the way we are speaking of "success" here, who still have their self-respect. I'll venture to say that I recovered a good deal of my own self-respect exactly in proportion to the degree that I abandoned the notion of "success." Much of what we are expected to do to "succeed," in fact, requires us to bend our ethics, ignore the pain of others, and accept serial humiliations.
Think about it.
There was a very good reason that Peter objected when Jesus prepared to wash Peter's feet. Jesus was rejecting - as he had in various ways throughout his mission - the cultural artefacts of success, of winning, of "making it." In any system of social hierarchy, status is an audience-oriented performance.
Martin Luther King's predecessor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was Vernon Johns, a hell-raising preacher who was protected from being lynched by a guardian angel we may assume... because he provoked the white power structure early and often. But Johns was castigated by his own community when he decided to hawk watermelons on the street to raise money, because this was considered beneath his class station among the Montgomery black middle class.
Jesus' foot washing was a performance that was associated with slaves; and his acolytes - stubbornly expecting the New David - had been proclaiming him a King for several days. (As usual, the women understood the real deal first... as we see in Matthew 26, it is an unnamed woman who anoints him for death... making her in many respects the first Christian.)
If anyone wants to read a great book on the history of middle-class respectability, order a copy of Consumption and the Making of Respectability, by Woodruff Smith.
What Smith documents is the emergence of a broad middle-class, steeped for the first time in an ideology of meritocracy, anxious to prove themselves the equals of the hereditary aristocracy, who made a kind of idol of respectability... and success. Respectability was seen as a kind of marker of success, of having "made it."
Not unlike today, these performance codes required certain kinds of conspicuous consumption: the right clothes, the right household accoutrements, the right pastimes, etc. We do the same thing today, albeit with a lot more manufactured crap on the list of respectability essentials. It would be gauche to mention that this requires money, but spending money has always been part of respectability since its invention in the seventeenth century; therefore the ability to get money is a key indicator and prerequisite of "success."
If you can't get enough money, you are a loser. Yet Jesus not only sided with the losers, he was himself the penultimate loser, dying a penniless convict's death after being mocked and spat upon. There is success, and then there is the way of the cross. One can hardly blame anyone for preferring "success." Tell me you want your children to choose the way of the cross. Really!
If there was one thing Jesus was pretty consistently opposed to, it was the idea of worldly meritocracy. Re-read Luke and the parable of the prodigal son. Read Mark 2:17, Luke 5:32, Matthew 9:12.
Just a few thoughts as we approach Holy Week.