Narratives, Vanity, and Empathy

A writer named Alissa Quart has a new book out, Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream, that challenges the American myth that one can “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” to succeed all on your own. It’s a fantasy of course; look closely at all the supposedly self-made billionaires and you will find that they had advantages that the vast majority of people have never had.

The Atlantic, Emi Nietfeld, 13 Mar 2023: America’s Most Insidious Myth, subtitled “It’s time to challenge our country’s dangerous obsession with self-reliance.”

A review of the book.

The Horatio Alger Association is one of the institutions that Alissa Quart, a journalist and the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, critiques in her new book, Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves From the American Dream. In a wide-ranging 230 pages, Quart challenges our nation’s obsession with self-reliance. According to Quart, the fiction that anyone who works hard can have a better life increases inequality and promotes policies that hurt us. Meanwhile, blaming people for their supposedly bad choices is “a kind of nationwide bullying” that the poor internalize. Bootstrapped puts words to beliefs that I struggled to articulate as a teen and that haunted me into adulthood: Both success and failure were up to me alone, I was valuable only when I triumphed, and if I couldn’t overcome, I’d be better off dead.

The term about bootstrapping goes back to 1834.

Quart then points out a number of cracks in our collective myth of self-sufficiency. While Henry David Thoreau stayed at Walden Pond—for many, the mecca of American individualism—his mother did his laundry. Ayn Rand, patron saint of libertarians, collected Social Security near the end of her life. Even Horatio Alger’s novels aren’t tales of genuine independence: In most, a wealthy benefactor steps in to sponsor a handsome teenage protagonist.

The writer describes her own issues as she went through college. And cuts to the chase.

[Quart] proposes commonsense changes to improve the social safety net, most of which are extensions of COVID-era policies: expanding the child tax credit, making recertification for Medicaid less onerous, and reducing administrative hurdles to seeking help.

Just as important, Bootstrapped urges readers to rethink their narratives of accomplishment. Quart encourages us to stop shaming others, and ourselves, for needing assistance and to acknowledge the ways we are all interdependent.


Washington Post, Alissa Quart, 14 Mar 2023: Opinion | How ditching America’s ‘bootstraps’ myth can open up politics

WaPo has the author with a gloss on her book.

In what you might call the “bootstraps” narrative, or the Horatio Alger story, politicians claim or imply that they come from humble beginnings but have since become powerful and wealthy, thanks to no one’s efforts but their own. The idea is that success is within reach of us all, and that hard work by a lone individual, unaided by others and regardless of where we come from, is the ticket to riches and renown.

If the bootstrapping narrative has been the norm in Congress up until now, that’s no coincidence, since it’s a story that flatters the typical politician in the House.

So apparently the author is focusing on politicians, but goes on to cite other examples throughout history, and concludes,

The bootstrapping story has captured American imaginations for a reason. But it is a tale that erases the roles of our parents, teachers and caretakers, as well as the part that wealth, gender, race, inherited property and a whole cache of related opportunities play in our lives. Politicians such as Frost can help bust the notion that the rich are inherently better or more deserving of public office, or that those who are poorer are less deserving of election. By showing their economic truth, they offer a counter-story to the one where blame is put on those who are financially unstable. They can fight myths about who in America is really self-made — and they can invite others who don’t see themselves in that story to join them in government.

What strikes me is the vanity of Americans who think of their country as “exceptional” among all nations, built up by entrepreneurs whose lone geniuses built technological or political empires. But it’s a fantasy. It recalls the “You didn’t build that road” comment of Obama, which was exactly right: without the infrastructure built up by a nation of taxpayers, the entrepreneurs would have nowhere to start.


This all reminds me of that famous Heinlein quote, which is on this goodreads page:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

This might have been apt for pioneers on the frontier, but it has long ceased to be true in today’s technological, multicultural, interdependent worldwide society. Build your own iPhone out there on the range, Heinlein.


A Facebook post the other day, apparently passed along by a chain of people (including David Gerrold and “wilwheaton”) includes these quotes.

In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trials 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connections all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.

Attributed to “Captain G.M. Gilbert, the Army psychologist assigned to watching the defendants at the Nuremberg trials”.

With responses from a couple Redditors, including this:

Conservatives attack empathetic people all the time. They invent new slurs just for empathy every 15 years, like “politically correct,” or “bleeding heart,” or “woke,” etc. Restricted or nonexistent empathy is a prerequisite for conservative ideology.”

And from some readers of the post, e.g.

Lack of empathy (and a general resistance to it) is why both early 20th Century European fascists and modern regressives want to ban books. Reading fiction has been shown to develop empathy. It encourages one to place one’s self in another’s situation, and to view the world from another person’s perspective.

OTOH a commentator notes that lack of empathy is an aspect of autism, so equating lack of empathy with evil is a bit simplistic.

Still, this is consistent with the charge, which I only heard recently, that conservatives think progressives are too “emotional” while conservatives themselves are the rational ones. Which seems upside down to me, since conservatives seem to cling to invalid ideologies while progressives (where virtually all the scientists reside) are open to evidence and the changing of minds.


This item is somewhat related.

NYT, Jonathan Weisman and Stuart A. Thompson, 14 Mar 2023: Banks, Trains and Political Finger-Pointing, subtitled “As two news events — banking turmoil and a train derailment — became flash points in America’s culture wars, conservative presidential hopefuls and media voices pounced.”

The title in today’s print paper was a bit more on point: “Framing Collapse as Culture War, Partisans Blame ‘Woke’ Banks”.

For the second time in two months, news events have revealed how the responses of the two major political parties distinguish their leaders, and how conservative media serves as an echo chamber even for the most improbable arguments.

The Republican fallback to blaming diversity, equity and inclusion policies is telling. They could have made a more logical economic argument that inflation fueled in part by Democratic policies decreased the value of what should have been safe assets — U.S. Treasury bonds — and forced Silicon Valley Bank to sell investments at a loss, setting off a bank run.

Instead, conservatives — including Mr. DeSantis; Representative James Comer of Kentucky, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee; Tucker Carlson of Fox News; and even a Wall Street Journal opinion writer — blamed “woke” diversity requirements that appear to have nothing to do with the implosions but speak to the G.O.P. base.

The article pairs this Republican response to a bank failure to the Democratic response to the train derailment; but the Trump administration did in fact roll back certain safety regulation for train brakes, as I understand it. (Another example of both-sides-ism?)

Here is the point about narrative: Republicans see anything bad happening, like a bank failure, as evidence of the evil of things they don’t like, like “woke” diversity requirements.

This reminds me of how religious conservatives for decades or centuries have blamed things like earthquakes and hurricanes on social trends they don’t like, especially in recent decades recognition of the gays, and same-sex marriage. They still do this.

Also this:

Slate, Ben Mathis-Lilley, 14 Mar 2023: The Right-Wing Freakout About Silicon Valley Bank’s “Wokeness” Began With a Reading Comprehension Error, subtitled “Some people are going to use the ol’ DEI scapegoat no matter the context.”

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