This Ain’t No Meritocracy

Where are those streets paved with gold?

Who amongst us, here in America, was not fed the American Dream with our mother’s milk? “Work hard, young man, and you’ll get ahead.” “You can do anything if you set your mind to it.” “Succeed in school and you’ll succeed in life.” “There’s a piece of the pie waiting for you. You just have to reach out and take it.” “Slow and steady wins the race.”

In a word, bullshit.

The more I think about this, the more outraged I become. America isn’t a meritocracy. Most of us are not going to get out of this country as much as we put in. Even though we hate to really see it, this is a very highly class-structured society. It’s very hard to break out of your class and claw your way into the next one. When it happens, it’s the exception, not the rule.

Yes, we love to hear those rags-to-riches stories. We’re highly susceptible to Ponzi schemes and get rich quick scenarios because, hey, this is America, and we’re all supposed to get rich quick! How come I’m not walking on one of those gold-paved streets everyone promises us are just around the corner? Perhaps because I’m too busy trying to avoid the potholes, here.

I’ve been working since I was 10 years old. I graduated at the top of my class every single time. Using the American Dream yardstick, I ought to be a gajillionaire. But no. I’ve only managed to poke my head into the middle class in my early 50’s, and even now, I’m one major medical catastrophe away from bankruptcy, as are most of us.

My mother assumed I’d be the CEO of a fortune 500 company by the time I was 25. She totally overlooked the fact that I would have been miserable in that atmosphere, and I would have felt like an imposter for my whole life. Yes, I wound up doing much better than she ever had, but when you set the bar that low, it’s not that hard to jump over. She worked hard all her life, and she passed her work ethic on to her children. She was also desperately poor all her life.

Much of my success, I’m sorry to admit, has had to do with dumb luck. Being born white. Choosing a partner with similar goals and aspirations who understands the value of teamwork. Being in the right place at the right time. Moving from a right to work state to a union state. Having a loved one who was willing to loan me money at critical points in my life. Being able-bodied and intelligent.

Capitalism, as a system, is not designed to benefit the vast majority of us. In order for it to work, most of us have to be content to be cogs in a giant wheel that then rolls over the top of us with annoying frequency. There has to be a lower class. There are roadblocks in place to make sure you stay in it. Substandard schools, crippling student loans, expensive health care that keeps you just sick enough to be compliant, glass ceilings, unequal pay, good ol’ boys clubs, and only being able to get ahead based on who you know are all part of the bigger picture. There have to be a certain number of people desperate enough to do the dirty jobs. It never pays to examine too closely what it takes to make this economic sausage of ours. Not if you want to maintain any sense of contentment.

And because we all buy in to the American Dream, most of us, whether we realize it or not, walk around feeling like a failure. If the American Dream really works, the theory goes, then I must have done something wrong to not be a part of it. I didn’t study hard enough. I didn’t please my boss enough to get that promotion. I picked the wrong major in college. I didn’t put in enough hours. I didn’t socialize with the right people. I’m not pretty enough, thin enough, tall enough, white enough, male enough, strong enough. I shouldn’t have had children so soon. I should have saved more money. I didn’t buy the right stock. I don’t properly manage my time.

We are all so busy pursuing the almighty dollar that many of us harbor deep resentment and frustration because we don’t feel that we have meaningful jobs. We’re making widgets on an assembly line so that other widget makers can buy those widgets. Job satisfaction is at an all-time low.

There are ways that we can get off this treadmill of ours. First of all, we need to stop this love affair we seem to have with Capitalism. It has gotten us nowhere. Next, we need to stop voting for politicians that simply exist to prop up the 1 percent. We also need to stop teaching our children that money will buy them happiness, and that the only measure of their worth is the size of their bank accounts.

We also need to prioritize activism over complacency, critical thinking over passivity, collectivism over isolation, unity over division, strength in numbers over every man for himself. We need to start demanding a better world instead of hoping for the best. We need to hold people and corporations accountable rather than assuming they have our best interests at heart. It’s not about me (or you for that matter), it’s about us. We need to stop being divided and conquered.

More than anything, though, we need to dismantle this myth of meritocracy. It pits us against one another. It requires that most of us lose so that some can win. It’s a soul-sucking fantasy.

It’s why so many of us are angry.


Like the way my weird mind works? Then you’ll enjoy my book!


Don’t You Have Jobs?

As a bridgetender I get to look down upon the leisure class, literally and figuratively.

I ask that question quite a bit. As a bridgetender I get to look down upon the leisure class, literally and figuratively. Up in my tower, watching the yachts and the sailboats floating past, often with relatively young people on them, at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, for example, it’s hard not to be envious. How does one pull that off? I guess I never got the memo.

I also am shocked at how much traffic whooshes down the interstate at 3 a.m. on a Monday morning. Isn’t it a school night? Don’t you have to be at work in, like, 4 hours? Come on, people.

Yes, I get it. Some people have even stranger work hours than I do. Others actually have managed to retire, although I can’t imagine how in this economy. Others are on vacation, although they can’t possibly all be, all the freakin’ time, can they? And then there are the unemployed, and the disabled, and those who actually work from their cars.

Even so, I’m constantly astounded by all the to-ing and fro-ing that goes on in this country. But when all is said and done, the fact that this is the first question I ask probably says a lot more about me than it does about the world and how it functions.

Well, *I* was working, at least.

I wrote an actual book, and you can own it! How cool is that?

Beware of Defective Germ Plasm

I just read the most disturbing thing ever. Actually, I just skimmed it because it made me too sick to read it all the way through. It’s a report entitled Committee to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means of Cutting Off the Defective Germ Plasm in the American Population. This report was published in 1914 when eugenics was in its heyday. Hitler would have loved this document. Actually, I bet he read it.

Basically, this document is a justification for involuntary sterilization of the “less desirable” members of our population, and it was taken quite seriously at the time. It was based on a series of studies done by a group called the American Breeders Association. In the introduction it states, “It is the purpose of the committee to investigate all phases of the problem of cutting off the supply of defectives… The committee will therefore study the facts in reference to the numbers of and the rate and manner of increase of the socially inadequate. It will strive to analyze the factors of heredity and environment in the production of the social unfitness observed. It will report first-hand facts concerning the drag that these classes entail upon the general welfare, and will review the first-hand studies in human heredity that have been made by careful study of the problem. And finally the committee will point out what appears as a result of study to be “the best practical means,” so far as the innate traits are a factor, of purging the blood of the American people of the handicapping and deteriorating influences of these anti-social classes.”

If that doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, you have no soul. This committee “studied” several “groups of degenerates” including “The Feeble-minded Class,” “The Pauper Class,” “The Inebriate Class,” “The Criminalistic Class,” “The Epileptic Class,” “The Insane Class,” and “The Deformed Class”. Reading this positively gave me the chills.

The remedies they investigated, but, thank God, didn’t uniformly advocate to remove these supposed social blights included “Life Segregation,” “Sterilization,” “Restrictive Marriage Laws and Customs,” “Systems of Matings Purporting to Remove Defective Traits,” “Polygamy,” and “Euthanasia”. Here’s what they had to say about Polygamy.

“In animal breeding polygamy or the “pure sire method” has been one of the most potent agencies in rapid advancement and, could the essential biological principles of polygamy be applied to mankind, we should expect these same biological values to accrue. An eugenical program that advocates polygamy must be doomed to failure because it strikes at one of our most priceless heritages so laboriously wrought through centuries of moral struggle. It would be buying a biological benefit at vastly too great a moral cost. A eugenics program to be effective must and can be based upon an enhanced sense of monogamy, and of the sacredness of love and marital fidelity. If any serious students of the modern eugenical studies advocate polygamy, it is unknown to the members of this investigating committee, although many uninformed critics of the eugenics program unhesitatingly complain that eugenics proposes “to apply the methods of the stud farm to mankind.”

Whew. That’s a load off. Apparently they had some kind of moral compass, anyway. But here’s what this completely insane mindset did to our country in the first half of the 20th century. According to Wikipedia, “The United States was the first country to concertedly undertake compulsory sterilization programs for the purpose of eugenics.” Apparently many people were sterilized against their will or without their knowledge during other medical procedures. This was particularly true of African American and Native American women. It also happened in prisons. “In the end, over 65,000 individuals were sterilized in 33 states under state compulsory sterilization programs in the United States.”

For the most part, sterilization laws are off the books, although Bill Bryson states in his book “One Summer” that 20 states still have them on the books in one form or another. If that’s true, that’s rather terrifying. I was unable to find any further evidence of this, however. The Wikipedia article states that 27 states had these laws on the books until 1956. “After World War II, public opinion towards eugenics and sterilization programs became more negative in the light of the connection with the genocidal policies of Nazi Germany, though a significant number of sterilizations continued in a few states until the late 1960s. The Oregon Board of Eugenics, later renamed the Board of Social Protection, existed until 1983, with the last forcible sterilization occurring in 1981.”

But lest we think that sanity finally has been restored throughout the land, contemplate this. California did way more sterilizations than any other state, and the most chilling sentence of all in the Wikipedia article was the following: “148 female prisoners in two California institutions were sterilized between 2006 and 2010 in a supposedly voluntary program, but voluntary consent cannot be given while under duress.”

I never wanted children, but the thought that someone might decide that I should be forced to have an operation that would alter my body’s natural function, whether I liked it or not, seems like the ultimate violation. The fact that this was ever considered a good idea by anyone, the fact that committees were formed and papers were written and men in suits and ties were drawing conclusions that would cause these atrocities to occur is horrifying. And the fact that the victims of these procedures have never been compensated, and in most cases have never been acknowledged, tells you a lot about the rotten core of our political process.


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Give me Capitalization or Give me Death!

When I was a kid, I don’t remember what age, I had a teacher who used to like to give us a list of vocabulary words to memorize. Then we’d have a spelling bee in class. The first time she did this I was one of the last kids standing when she asked me to spell a day of the week. I spelled it correctly, but was still eliminated because I failed to say that it started with a capital letter.

Okay, so a minor irritation. I got over it. Then the next week the same thing happened. There were two of us left, and she hit me with a day of the week again. I spelled it right, but being so focused on the spelling, I forgot to specify capitalization yet again. The other kid won.

I still thought it was just a weird coincidence, so I wasn’t really thinking about it on week three when she hit me with a day of the week again, and I forgot yet again. But by now I knew it wasn’t a coincidence, which meant she couldn’t really be reading the words off those randomly shuffled 3×5 cards after all.

The next week I wore a rubber band around my wrist to remind myself, but I was pretty easily distracted back then, and sure enough, I didn’t say “capital w” when spelling Wednesday. The entire class laughed.

This happened every week for the entire school year, but after a while I didn’t capitalize on purpose. She was cheating to try to force a point. She knew it, I knew it. I was trying to see how long she’d keep it up.

Looking back at this with adult eyes, I realize what a weird situation that was. Yeah, it might have been an effective teaching tool if I had triumphed after a few weeks, but setting me up like that every week for an entire year, at some point it stops being instructive and starts being vindictive.

If I could travel back in time, I’d say, “Hey, you bitter old windbag, you don’t know it yet, but in a couple decades everyone will have computers, and those computers will correct me every single time I forget to capitalize a day of the week, thus saving the planet from inevitable doom, so you can relax.”

There was an unintended lesson in there. Try as you might to get along in this world, sometimes you’re going to run into people who are hell-bent on setting you up for failure. If she intended to teach me that, she needn’t have bothered. Life will hand you that lesson once in a while.

Just not every single freakin’ week.


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