The Bootstrap Myth

The myth goes that someone who is “down on their luck” but with enough determination and proper choices can “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”.

We each have a unique genealogy that we have inherited.  Our bloodline determines our genetic makeup that subsequently influences our physical and mental strengths and weaknesses.  So, for instance, early in college I took private lessons and spent an hour or more each day practicing classical guitar.  But my fingers, which I have come to affectionately refer to as my fat stubby peasant fingers simply couldn’t accomplish the necessary bridging and precise fingering needed to play the music I found so beautiful and inspiring to listen to.  At the same time, those fingers have been quite well suited to my hobbies such as gardening and woodworking.

But I have also inherited other genealogies.  My friend, mentor, and former undergraduate adviser would speak fondly of his intellectual genealogical tree in which he traced back many generations those key researchers and philosophers who each contributed to his advisers foundational framework, his advisers advisers frameworks, etc. I am the inheritor of those frameworks just as much as I am of my genes.  Similarly, I have been shaped by other teachers, mentors, and friends both educationally and socially.

But I also find that I have inherited much from my genealogical cultures.  I feel very much at home when I travel to Europe, and especially to Germany.  Once there, I am sometimes mistaken for a local until I open my mouth and speak my broken German.  But it goes beyond outward mannerisms as I find I identify with certain ways of thinking about issues at hand.  My mom immigrated to the United States from Germany at the age of 20.  She was sponsored by 1st and 2nd generation Americans who immigrated from Germany.  She married a 1st generation American whose family was German, and I grew up among my dad’s relatives, many of whom spoke with a heavy German accent.  But when I travel internationally, I also find that in conversations I am quickly pegged for an American as much because of my beliefs and attitudes as because of my language.  Just as my genes are a unique combination of my mother and my father and their respective genetic backgrounds, so too my cultural genealogy is a unique combination of cultures.

How I seize opportunities and how I face adversities are directly and strongly influenced by my genetic, educational, social, and cultural genealogies.  This is not to say I don’t believe in free choice and personal responsibility.  But it is to say I humbly recognize that my successes were built on the shoulders of giants.  It’s actually harder for me to accept that my failures are at least in part the product of my genealogies, at least in some cases.  I firmly and wholly blame my inability to play anything but the simplest classical guitar music on my genetics!!

I’ve been on an 18-month journey trying to understand the distinctions between seeing that justice is done as compared to providing mercy.  This search began from a challenge based on the biblical verse found in the book of Micah, chapter 6, verse 8 (the Contemporary English Version translation):

The LORD God has told us what is right and what he demands:”See that justice is done, let mercy be your first concern, and humbly obey your God.”

Along the way, I have read many books, led discussion groups, had informal conversations, and even spent over a third of my time living in a marginalized community.  What I have come to appreciate is just how much each of our history’s influence who we are, our lens through which we see the world, and how we react and act within that world.  I first blogged on this back in February, 2009, as I began to see how racism can be likened to a whirlpool that serves as a strong negative force to hold back a whole group of people.  But I have come to appreciate how many similar injustices have been, and are still being, done intentionally or unintentionally by the powerful which ultimately deprive others of their ability to meet their needs and wants.  But I have also come to appreciate that the powerful do not reside only in gated communities, or in federal and state capitals, or in corporate boardrooms, but also in a split-level house at the corner of Clover and Broadmoor where I am typing this post.

The danger in the myth that individuals are able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is not that it overestimates the power of an individual (which it does), but that it fails to recognize that for too many people locally, nationally, and globally injustice simply does not allow them to advance so as to meet their basic needs of shelter, food, safety, health, and education, let alone the many wants of leisure that we enjoy.  This is not to negate the import of everyone accepting personal responsibility for making an attempt to advance.  But it is to take seriously our charge to see that justice is done so that those taking on that personal responsibility have a real hope of advancement.

I have enjoyed educational and financial success far beyond that of my parents, and to do so I had to overcome certain forms of injustice that are part and parcel of the hidden class-ism still found in our country.  But I did not do it all on my own, or just in partnership with my wife.  I have many generations behind me who each made their own advances, and I have many mentors and teachers who provided critical timely support.  But it is for nothing unless I can take those blessings and use them to help me see the world through the lens of others who suffer from far greater injustices what they see and find ways to seek justice on their behalf.

I highly recommend this TEDx Talk by Chuck Collins. While on the topic of taxing the wealthy, it includes a clear statement that we all need community to move forward.

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About mwolske

I'm a Senior Research Scientist in Community Informatics at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois.
This entry was posted in Race and Privilege, Social Justice. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Bootstrap Myth

  1. Pingback: My Intellectual Genealogy: Community | Martin Wolske's Weblog

  2. Hegro says:

    Bizarre that anyone calling themselves a research scientist could believe in religious nonsense and supernatural deities. We really need to preclude people who lack critical thinking on such a basic level from working in academia. So embarrassing lol.

    • mwolske says:

      “Science: 1. a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences. 2. systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.” http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/science?s=t

      “Philosophy: 1. the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct. 3. a particular system of thought based on such study or investigation” http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/philosophy?s=t

      Being a practitioner of the scientific method does not preclude me from also being a practitioner of philosophy, and from that practice follow a system of thought that leads to a belief in a diety

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