Austin American-Statesman - - AUSTIN360 LIFE + COMICS & PUZZLES - T. Car­los“Tim”An­der­son is a Lutheran min­is­ter who lives in Austin. He is the au­thor of "Just a Lit­tle Bit More: The Cul­ture of Ex­cess and the Fate of the Com­mon Good."

I know what peo­ple mean when they say some­one is a “self-made man” (I’ve rarely heard the phrase “self-made woman” spo­ken): a per­son who has risen from dire cir­cum­stances to suc­cess by hard work and in­ge­nu­ity. Ben­jamin Franklin — the 10th son of a hum­ble can­dle maker — printed, in­vented, flew a kite, au­thored and be­came a great Amer­i­can pa­tri­arch. Fred­er­ick Dou­glass — the son of an un­known father (most likely his orig­i­nal mas­ter) and a slave mother — es­caped slav­ery to preach, write, speak and be­come a fore­most abo­li­tion­ist and states­man. Th­ese two gi­ants of Amer­i­can his­tory have ex­em­pli­fied the term in ques­tion for gen­er­a­tions.

Franklin I ap­pre­ci­ate and Dou­glass I re­vere. The credo of hard work and in­ge­nu­ity I whole­heart­edly sup­port. But the term used to de­scribe Franklin’s and Dou­glass’ ac­com­plish­ments — self-made? I’m not a fan of the term, nor do I ever use it. Franklin went to school un­til he was 10 at a time when few did, and ap­pren­ticed un­der a brother to learn the print­ing trade. The wife of a sub­se­quent Dou­glass mas­ter taught young Fred­er­ick to read (later, her hus­band co­erced her to re­nounce this rad­i­cal ac­tiv­ity). Even though Franklin’s be­gin­nings were hum­ble and Dou­glass’ cruel and un­just, nei­ther could claim com­plete free­dom from the guid­ance and as­sis­tance of oth­ers. A com­mu­nity of some sort pro­vided a foothold and di­rec­tion.

Later his­tor­i­cal fig­ures — An­drew Carnegie and John D. Rock­e­feller — and con­tem­po­rary fig­ures — Oprah Win­frey and Nasty Gal pro­pri­etor Sophia Amoruso — fit the bill of achiev­ing suc­cess while over­com­ing dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. But again, none of th­ese four could or can hon­estly say that they did it all on their own. Con­tem­po­rary fig­ures who have en­joyed busi­ness suc­cess, such as Ross Perot, Mark Cuban, Michael Jor­dan, Sean Combs and Michael Dell all rose from mid­dle class or up­per-mid­dle class be­gin­nings.

When the rais­ing up of our young ones is neg­li­gent or hap­haz­ard, catas­tro­phes of­ten re­sult. Com­bine this proven re­al­ity with our so­ci­ety’s in­creas­ing in­equal­ity, and cur­rent trou­bles could ripen into fu­ture dis­as­ters.

I re­cently read Robert Put­nam’s “Our Kids: The Amer­i­can Dream in Cri­sis” (Si­mon & Schus­ter, 2015). He joins many in the last few years to say that the phrase “self-made” has out­lived its use­ful­ness. Eco­nomic mo­bil­ity in the U.S. (the abil­ity of a per­son to im­prove — or lower — their fi­nan­cial sta­tus) has not im­proved in the past 50 years. We no longer lead the world in eco­nomic mo­bil­ity and many older Amer­i­cans con­se­quently over­es­ti­mate its vi­brancy. Other coun­tries, such as Canada, France, and Den­mark, boast higher rates of eco­nomic or so­cial mo­bil­ity than does the U.S. The cycle self-per­pet­u­ates: in­equal­ity makes the great Amer­i­can at­tribute of so­cial mo­bil­ity a myth be­cause of its avail­abil­ity only to a mi­nor­ity. The ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­can males born to­day, for bet­ter or worse, will live into the same fi­nan­cial sta­tus of their fathers. For th­ese, eco­nomic im­mo­bil­ity is their Amer­i­can re­al­ity.

Put­nam ad­vo­cates pub­lic pol­icy and pri­vate cit­i­zen ac­tion to sup­port all that can be done to raise up (a phrase of strik­ing sym­bol­ism) chil­dren born into im­pov­er­ished sit­u­a­tions: in­vest­ments so­cial and fi­nan­cial in poor neigh­bor­hoods, es­tab­lish­ment of more mixed in­come hous­ing de­vel­op­ments, and end­ing the pay-to-play as­pect of ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties in pub­lic school sys­tems. Sim­ply re­ly­ing upon an Amer­i­can at­tribute in­creas­ingly unattain­able won’t make for a bet­ter so­ci­ety for the gen­er­a­tions that come af­ter us. In­di­vid­ual ini­tia­tive em­bold­ened by hard work and in­ge­nu­ity is still an ab­so­lute ne­ces­sity, but it must be man­i­fested within the greater con­text of com­mu­nal sup­port and so­ci­etal re­solve.

Je­sus was not a self-made man. A strong mother, a sup­port­ive fam­ily, and an es­tab­lished com­mu­nal tra­di­tion raised up, in the course of 30 years, a son who ad­vo­cated the re­newal of so­ci­ety based upon love of neigh­bor, for­give­ness and com­pas­sion — val­ues rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the com­ing king­dom of God. Ad­di­tion­ally, Je­sus crit­i­cized ex­ces­sive trust in wealth, la­bel­ing it a worldly, not king­dom of God, at­tribute.

What 21st cen­tury Amer­ica needs: fewer “self-made” mil­lion­aires and bil­lion­aires who want to tell how they did it (so the rest of us also can strike it rich) and more cit­i­zens, be they rich or poor, who un­der­stand that strong and healthy com­mu­ni­ties pro­duce the best and bright­est in­di­vid­u­als.

T. Car­los An­der­son

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.