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April 04, 2005

Social Mobility: Assume the Position

OK here's the deal. I think social mobility in America is fairly good but that people don't necessarily respect the mobility they have. But I also believe that there is a certain arrogant humility that most Americans don't have and don't strive for that restricts their social mobility.

'Arrogant humility' sounds oxymoronic don't it? Well, it is something of an ineffable quality, but that's the best handle I can put on something real that I've noticed in people in my line of work. But let's get racial for a moment in order to undermine some political correctness taht I suspect might be lurking in everyone's thinking as I 'go there'.

A long time ago, not long after I made friends with an impressive, but rather ordinary looking white guy named John, I wondered how I would cope with America if I were an ordinary looking white guy named John. It occured to me that if that were the case, I would have nowhere to go, and nothing to distinguish me except my skills. Just like Hilary Swank in 'Million Dollar Baby', just like Richard Gere in 'An Officer and a Gentleman'; nowhere else to go. You're nobody until somebody loves you.

Since I am something of a social climber in a society whose rules and expectations I often challenge just by showing up, I pay close attention to my peers. It has been a long time since I was in that prep school where the last names actually did connect. When they said O'Melveny it was *that* O'Melveny. When they said Crosby it was *that* Crosby. And now I find myself often in the company of guys who went to Kentucky U. rather than Yale. And yet they are successful by any measure of Americans. What you do when you are in the middle is that you simply assume the position.

How arrogant humility works is that you submit yourself to the process. If there is a career path, you follow it. If there is a manual, RTFM. Call yourself a square, play fair and try your hand, always assuming what? May the best man win. That's keeping it real middle America style.

Now there's a great deal of sentiment out there that this formula only works for ordinary white guys named John. In fact, the sentiment is almost hegemonic. But it's so plainly false that I have to keep pointing out the other thing that everybody knows to. It's easy to sell out. It's easy to be a Tom, a brown-noser, a toady, a kiss ass, a bootlicker, a stooge, a flunky and a pawn. In fact it's so easy that millions of not particularly intelligent Americans get mortgages. If they were anywhere else on the planet, there's no way that they could get a loan for $200,000 just for driving a truck.

There's the second key. You have to work the system. You have to understand what you get out of it and you have to bend your life around that. Just remember this: You're just an ordinary white guy named John. You've got nowhere else to go. You are forced to be humble, you're just an American citizen and that's all you got going for you. Your parents can't help you, you can't marry into success, you've got no title. All you've got is your honest face and elbow grease. And if the bastards in your little hick two horse town won't give you a break, you move to the city. Get in where you fit in.

I don't see what Americans under the influence of the hegemony don't understand about these facts.

Ahh but there's the arrogance. There's a very definite crabby mentality in the humility of John. See, since he can't get away with anything, he doesn't want you to get away with anything either. See, he's bitten the bullet and put his big red neck on the line and he doesn't see why you should take a different path. After all, you're none of the things he wants to be when he grows up. And so John will do what he can to insure that the system that worked for him only works that same way, it's only fair right?

Posted by mbowen at April 4, 2005 04:30 AM

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