Snow Blind: “Trapped in the Amber of This Moment”

What is wrong with the following claims?

  • The rich and successful are rich and successful because of their work ethic.
  • The poor are poor because they fail to take advantage of the American Dream.
  • Women are paid less than men because they choose fields/careers that pay less and choose family over career.
  • Prisons are overwhelmingly populated by African Americans because they are trapped in the cycle of poverty.
  • Work hard and be nice.
  • Education, especially college, is the main path for rising above the conditions of any person’s home or community.

Before I examine the answer, consider this enduring claim:

  • In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and thus, Columbus discovered America. [The original poem ends “The first American?  No, not quite./ But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.”]

And how about this blast from the past:

Dewey Defeats Truman

As Lienhard explains:

Gallup brought science to that process. Richard Smith tells how, by the time Landon challenged Roosevelt, the prestigious Literary Digestmagazine was America’s leading pollster. The Digest featured a regular poll called “America Speaks.” It drew samples from phone books and auto registrations. Gallup knew that such samples were biased toward people with means….

Then, in 1948, Gallup blew the Truman-Dewey prediction. How? His mistake was to quit polling two weeks before the election with fourteen percent of the electorate still undecided. After that humiliation, Gallup went back to analyze his error. He emerged with the maxim, “Undecided voters side with the incumbent.”

By 2012, then, you’d think polling would have reached some higher and clearer process for predicting presidential outcomes, but instead, we had the Nate Silver element, yet another case about how the science of polling has flaws, human flaws.

Even, it seems, as science inspects itself—acknowledging and addressing confirmation bias, for example—we are always “trapped in the amber of this moment,” since the human condition is itself necessarily a subjective experience.

And now, in order to answer my initial question, I want to turn to history; while history as a discipline is distinct from the hard sciences, both are dependent on evidence and then the conclusions drawn from that evidence—conclusions I call narratives (more on that below). Consider Howard Zinn on Christopher Columbus:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been, The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can “see” history from the standpoint of others.

In other words, shaping narratives bound by evidence does not insure that those narratives are pure and certainly does not insure that those narratives are above bias or absent the urge to mold them in order to secure someone’s agenda (likely someone in power). [1]

Snow Blind

Misleading narratives around Columbus or “I cannot tell a lie” George Washington—and the whitewashing of Steve Jobs to promote the “grit” narrative (compare the Jobs lesson to the original 1492 poem about Columbus)—are not problematic because of the evidence, but because of the lens through which the narratives are shaped and by whom those narratives are created and in whose interest.

Consider Billy Pilgrim in a telepathic conversation with a Tralfamadorian in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five:

“Welcome aboard, Mr. Pilgrim,” said the loudspeaker. “Any questions?”

Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired at last: “Why me?”

“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”

“Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.

“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

And that brings me to the “grit” debate, one in which advocates point to scientific research and prestigious grants. From that evidence, we have three contexts of narratives: disciplinary narratives (Angela Duckworth, Carolyn Dweck), popular narratives (Paul Tough, Jay Mathews), political narratives (Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee)—all of which are trapped like bugs in amber, or as I prefer to suggest, that “grit” narrative advocacy is snow blind.

If evidence and the narratives surrounding the evidence appear to support a privileged agenda, and since the privileged have a larger megaphone in a culture, then that evidence and narrative are disproportionately likely to gain momentum—regardless of how accurate they are in the context of the oppressed or marginalized (consider again history and the Zinn points above).

And that inability by the privileged to see beyond their privilege is, I think, a state of being snow blind.

Thus, my answer to the initial question at the beginning is that those claims as narratives built on evidence are ideological distortions of the evidence. The “grit” narrative is similar to the education = income argument that falls apart when analyzed: Education is a marker for privilege (since privilege leads to advanced education) just as “grit” qualities are markers for privilege.

Systemic Inequity v. Rugged Individualism

In Slaughterhouse Five, the work of Howard W. Campbell (previously the main character in Vonnegut’s Mother Night) is quoted:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves….

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue….The most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame an blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times. (pp. 164, 165)

Snow blind and bugs trapped in amber, the privileged by their privilege and the impoverished by the blinding but misleading promise of the American Dream—the narratives become the product of those who shape them and for whose benefit, regardless of the evidence, the artifacts, the data.

Let me end, then, with a couple of points to consider, one from the 1973 satire Sleeper  [2] and the other from Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

First, a scene from the film:

And then, John and Mona in Cat’s Cradle discuss Boko-maru (a sacred foot ceremony) and their culturally-bound and conflicting perceptions of love:



“Is—is there anyone else in your life?”

She was puzzled. “Many,” she said at last.

“That you love?”

“I love everyone.”

“As—as much as me?”

“Yes.” She seemed to have no idea that this might bother me….

“I suppose you—you perform—you do what we just did—with other people?’



“Of course.”

“I don’t want you to do it with anybody but me from now on,” I declared.

Tears filled her eyes. She adored her promiscuity; was angered that I should try to make her feel shame. “I make people happy. Love is good, not bad.”

“As your husband, I’ll want all your love for myself.”

She stared at me with widening eyes. “A sin-wat!”

“What was that?

“A sin-wat!” she cried. “A man who wants all of somebody’s love. That’s very bad.” (pp. 207-208)

John is trapped in the amber of the moment, his patriarchal and possessive love leaves him snow blind to Mona’s perspective. He either cannot see, or refuses to see.

So I have made a decision—one shared by Zinn, expressed by Eugene V. Debbs, and reflected in the research of Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir—that the perspectives of the marginalized must be honored in the context of systemic inequities.

This is a position of humility and a recognition that any human arrogance—whether it be scientific or not—is likely to lead to the sort of pettiness captured in the Sleeper clip: both the satire aimed at the foolish dietary beliefs of the past and the incredulity of the scientists in the film’s present (“You mean there was no deep fat…?” exposes that despite the scientists recognizing the misguided stances of the past, they remain trapped in their own certainty).

Both the “grit” narrative and the “grit” research fail that litmus test. They both speak from and to a cultural norm that privileges individual characteristics (rugged individualism) as if they are indistinguishable from the systemic context of privilege (again, a claim refuted by Mullainathan and Shafir, but that narrative doesn’t serve the privileged, and thus, isn’t embraced as the “grit” narrative is).

Many novelties have come from America,” the cited monograph from Campbell notes, adding:

The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves. (p. 165)

The human intellect is a wonderful thing, and thus, we must pursue our efforts to understand the world and the human condition—a thing we call science. But as humans, it is not ours to somehow remove our basic humanity from that process (the folly of objectivity), but to choose carefully just how we shape the narratives from the evidence we gather.

I am then compelled to manipulate Einstein once again. His “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” I think, is a call for the necessity of human kindness, decency, and compassion in the shaping of our narratives. The “grit” narrative does no such thing. It is a snow blind story that is also deaf to the basic human dignity shared among all people.

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Eugene V. Debs: Statement September 18, 1918

[1] See Robert Pondiscio’s citing of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” a misleading use of Vonnegut in the name of choice that is well outside Vonnegut’s ideological leanings; see my posted comment.

[2] While citing a Woody Allen work is problematic, I am in no way endorsing Allen or any efforts to absolve him of guilt or responsibility in the ongoing controversy surrounding him.

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