An oligarchy exists when power rests with a very few. The U.S. was founded as a rejection of the sort of oligarchy in which royalty (the accident of birth) determined power—although that movement was driven mostly by a potential privileged class that sought ways in which they could become the elite with power.
In 2014, the U.S. is but another sort of oligarchy, the logical and inevitable development from those elitist roots, royalty having been replaced by wealth and that wealth mostly the consequence of birth and not the result of merit (as the myth claims).
And thus, today we are left with a situation not unlike that confronted by Hamlet:
KING CLAUDIUS: Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?
HAMLET: At supper.
KING CLAUDIUS: At supper! where?
HAMLET: Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain
convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your
worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all
creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for
maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but
variable service, two dishes, but to one table:
that’s the end.
KING CLAUDIUS: Alas, alas!
HAMLET: A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a
king, and cat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
KING CLAUDIUS: What dost you mean by this?
HAMLET: Nothing but to show you how a king may go a
progress through the guts of a beggar.
Hamlet offers here a counter-narrative, one that can be viewed today in the context of the class markers (“king” and “beggar” could serve today as “billionaire” and “worker”) used by Hamlet to jab King Claudius. Something was certainly rotten in Hamlet’s Denmark, but that “something” remains with us today in the form of the public in the U.S. remaining trapped within the myth of the rugged individual and thus maintaining that public gaze on the possibility of a Savior, resulting in failing to recognize that the Savior is us.
The U.S. Needs a New Mythology
Humans are equipped to be powerful causation machines: Touching a glowing red-hot coil on an old-school oven re-programs our brains to be wary of the color red, and although the color didn’t burn us, that mechanism is powerful in a dog-eat-dog world.
Our aptitude for making snap causational judgments is problematic against our ability to reason, our scientific minds that form hypotheses, gather evidence, and then form in the cool and calm of deliberation theories of how the world works.
When those two capacities (the causation machine and the scientific reasoning machine) overlapp, however, something important is revealed: Humans have made some terrible causational decisions, historically, for example, about people being sick because they deserved to be sick—some moral flaw brought on the illness was the muddled reasoning of the earliest years of medicine.
Those tragic conclusions can be traced to a paradigm failure: The initial gaze focused on the individual and misreading the conditions found in the individual because the wider context is ignored.
Contemporary humans have made great strides in medicine, although we remain overly concerned about curing diseases, instead of preventing those diseases. In fact, our manufactured dog-eat-dog existence (the Social Darwinism of capitalism) actually encourages treating the disease over curing it (there is more wealth generated by pharmaceuticals and doctors’ visits).
The cultural myths in the U.S. center on the rugged individual, a mythology that both reflects and feeds the central mistakes noted above: If a person is sick, that person must be the source of that illness becomes if a person is poor, that person must deserve that poverty.
Most troubling about this rugged individual myth is the overwhelming evidence (sadly, our scientific reasoning machine tends to lose to our causation and belief machines) that systemic conditions are more influential in the conditions observed in individuals than our individual qualities (such as determination or resilience, popularly called “grit” as a code to mask the inherent racism and classism in these ideological claims).
Class status and race as well as how society views and treats both class and race determine opportunities for most people (yes, outliers exist, but do not change the generalization); individual people themselves do not necessarily deserve or earn their status such as impoverished or affluent.
Like beggars and kings in Hamlet’s Denmark, we are day-to-day mostly what we are born into.
You are better off being born wealthy and not completing college than to be born poor and complete college (see here).
You are better off being white and having less education than to be born black and have more education than your white peers (see here).
The U.S. has does not now reflect the cultural myths that we cling to (education is the key to overcoming poverty, we live in a post-racial society, poverty is not destiny, etc.), and it is reasonable to argue that part of the reason that those myths haven’t materialized is that we remain trapped in those myths, unable to confront reality, unwilling to change course. We are no longer a people pursuing should but a people falsely clinging to is.
But change course we must, as The Allegory of the River shows:
A woman was walking along the bank of a swiftly flowing river. It was a beautiful day, and the woman was enjoying the the fantastic scenery. Then the woman looked out over the river, and much to her surprise, she saw a small child floating in the water. The child was splashing and thrashing about, trying to keep her head above the water. The child was drowning!
The woman did what any decent person would do — she tore off her shoes and dove into the water to rescue the child. The water was very cold, the current swift and strong. The woman was not sure she could even make it to the child, but she was determined to try. After much effort, she reached the child and swam safely back to shore.
Once she arrived at the shore, the woman looked back at the river and realized that two more children were floating downstream! Surely she could not let them drown. She dove into the water again. The water felt even colder, and the current stronger than it was before. It was a great struggle to reach both children in time.
When she reached the shore again, she looked back over her shoulder to see not one, not two, but 10 children floating down the river! The woman knew that she alone could not save the children, so she called for help. A crowd of adults had gathered at the shore. Once they realized what was happening, they organized a system for retrieving and reviving the children. Some of the adults dove into the water to rescue the children, while others stayed on shore to comfort the children and help them to safety.
Now matter how many times they jumped into the water, more children kept floating downstream — 20, 40, 100 of them! Some of the children were struggling, while others were chillingly quiet. It was clear that most of the children were seriously injured. While many would live, they would be left with scars and even disabilities. Some of the children were beyond the reach of the adults and would not survive at all.
The adults were getting tired. The swift, cold water was draining them of their strength and energy. The woman, who had only wanted to help, was discouraged. She began to feel that she could not enter the water another time. Her fingers and toes were numb, her arms weak, her heart breaking.
Suddenly, the woman had a thought. She climbed out of the water and began to walk purposefully upstream. “Wait! Where are you going?” the other adults cried in alarm. “You can’t leave us now. There are too many children who need our help if they are to be saved.”
The woman replied, “Someone or something is causing these children to fall into the river. We could be here for years pulling broken bodies from the water. I am going to walk upstream until I find out what is causing these children to fall in and see if I can do something to stop it!”
Her idea made a lot of sense.
This allegory has two important messages for the U.S.
First, like the main woman in the allegory, many in the U.S. are both sincerely trying to help and misguided in the help they offer; thus, we as a culture need to change how we view our problems and then change how we try to address the source of those problems, no longer simply dealing with the crisis at hand.
Second, if we change the allegory slightly and replace “babies” with “students” while also viewing the woman and others trying to save the babies as “teachers,” we can re-envision how we are failing the education reform debate.
As long as we focus mostly on saving the babies and refuse to address why babies are being thrown in the river (and directly blame the babies and those trying to save them for the babies being in the river), we can never truly reform education. Yes, we must attend to those babies already in the river, but many of us need to confront the larger social dynamic that is creating those emergencies to begin with.
The Allegory of the River, in fact, represents what I have called the “No Excuses” Reform movement (those only concerned about saving babies already in the river and refusing to acknowledge that we can stop that at the source) and the Social Context Reform resistance that calls for us to take the brave and necessary change of mind found in the woman who realizes, “‘Someone or something is causing these children to fall into the river. We could be here for years pulling broken bodies from the water. I am going to walk upstream until I find out what is causing these children to fall in and see if I can do something to stop it!'”
The U.S. is trapped in our false myths—the rugged individual, pulling ones self up by the bootstraps—and as a result, we persist in blaming the poor for being poor, women for being the victims of sexism and rape, African Americans for being subject to racism. Our pervasive cultural ethos is that all failures lie within each person’s own moral frailties, and thus within each person’s ability to overcome. We misread the success of the privileged as effort and the struggles of the impoverished as sloth—and then shame those in poverty by demanding that they behave in ways that the privilege are never required to assume.
We refuse to step away from the gaze on the conditions and actions of the individual in order to confront the failures of our society: the Social Darwinism of our capitalist commitments to competition and materialism.
To place this in pop culture terms, the U.S. has too long been a Superman culture, the most rugged of rugged individuals, and it is time to replace that myth with a commitment to the X-Men (while not perfect, the X-Men mythology is grounded in community and a moral imperative about the sacred humanity in every person regardless of his/her status at birth, an imperative that rejects the tyranny of the norm).
Once we recognize that community and solidarity are powerful, we will collectively change the paradigm, and like Hamlet, we will tear away false promises of the oligarchs, recognizing that the privileged ruling class in the U.S. (like kings in Hamlet’s Denmark) are substantially one level below excrement (“how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar”); and thus, the promise of a free people, the promise of democracy can be served only if we recognize our shared interests as workers, as humans, as the majority, and ultimately as the moral grounding too long ignored by the billionaire class we now serve.