The Baloney Detective: The self-made prince

By Tim Bearly
Reader Contributor

“Give a man a reputation as an early riser, and he can sleep ’til noon.” — Mark Twain

Alone and against the odds, like Moses being abandoned and floated downriver shortly after his birth, he overcame adversity and climbed his way to top of the social ladder — all by himself, one rung at a time. Starting out with nothing but a well-connected upper-class family, private tutors, a multi-million dollar tax-free trust fund inheritance, a legacy admission into an Ivy League university and a dream of success; it was his work ethic, superior intellect and many other sterling qualities that would eventually help him to become an exemplar of the American dream — i.e., the American Dream. 

“Who is he?” you ask.

Why, he is the paragon of virtue. A boostrappin’,  “rags-to-riches” success story; he is the archetypical “self-made man.”

Well, at least that’s what he tells the ladies on the dating websites. 

There are, of course, some individuals (e.g., Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Carnegie) who achieved their success more on the basis of merit than people like, say, Donald J. Trump. Unfortunately, it seems that for every legitimate self-made story there are a thousand pseudo-self-made stories — thus delegitimizing the term.

With the phrase “self-made man” being a bit of an oxymoron, I guess you could say that the term sort of delegitimizes itself. Imagine, if you will, a man giving birth to himself; then — using the tools he taught himself to manufacture — cutting down trees and building himself a forest abode, subsequently teaching himself to read and write, learning the fundamentals of software development, and eventually forming a tech start-up, from scratch, that would eventually become a multi-billion dollar company. 

Indeed, this kind of entrepreneurial success story may be motivating and inspiring (so much so that we might believe it even though we know it’s a fiction); however, it’s impossible to imagine this “self-made” man doing all of these things without any help from the preceding or current generation.

Author John Frost wrote: “A self-made man means one who has rendered himself accomplished, eminent, rich or great by his own unaided efforts.” 

Of course, no one’s rise to the top to the pyramid is “unaided” in a literal sense, it’s only meant to be allegorical, right? Well, there appears to be some ambiguity with the term “self-made,” and the degree to which one interprets it literally seems to vary from person to person. 

The focus here, however, is on the counterfeits — those who were dealt a royal flush, deny that the deck was stacked and blame others for having only a pair of twos. (Cue the patronizing refrain: “Poor people just need to learn, as I did, to play the hand that they were dealt.”)

It’s like a game of “Monopoly” in which one player — let’s say, the one with the top hat — gets to start out with all the properties, hotels and cash. You’d think he’d be a little bit more sympathetic to the plight of those who can’t even afford the rent at Baltic Avenue, but no, he arrogantly tells them that they had every opportunity he did, they just didn’t apply themselves. This, on a macro-level, is the pervasive myth that the aforementioned scion of privilege — with his “internal locus of control” — helps to perpetuate. 

Why do we fall for it hook, line and sinker?

The rather obvious answer to that question can be summed up in a nutshell: indoctrination.

The propaganda goes all the way back to the Gilded Age — a time, not far removed from today, marked by grotesque inequality and social stratification. In his book, A People’s History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn wrote: “While some multimillionaires started in poverty, most did not. A study of the origins of 303 textile, railroad and steel executives of the 1870s showed that 90 percent came from middle- or upper-class families. The Horatio Alger stories of ‘rags to riches’ were true for a few men, but mostly a myth, and a useful myth for control.”

Indeed, the myth of the self-made man — which goes hand-in-hand with the myth of meritocracy — helps to stave off dissent, keeps people in line and fosters the illusion of economic justice (i.e., everyone gets what they deserve).

Today the myth, no longer excluded to just men, is even more pervasive. In August 2018, Kylie Jenner was on the cover of Forbes magazine with the caption: “At 21, she’s set to be the youngest-ever self-made billionaire. Welcome to the era of extreme fame leverage.” 

Now, in her defense, she did not refer to herself as self-made, nor has she — at least to my knowledge — blamed the poor for not being savvy enough to “leverage their fame” like she did. 

That said, the fact that someone who’s born into such privilege can be considered self-made is a testament to how far the bar has been lowered. Soon, it seems, we’ll be living in a world in which wealth and fame will be synonymous with hard work, and poverty will be synonymous with laziness. (*Removes tongue from cheek* —  that’s right, we already reside in such a world.) 

On the bright side, at least we’ve made some progress: Now that men no longer have exclusive rights to the self-made pretense, women who were born on third base can also pretend to have hit a triple — just like their male peers.

Chalk up another tally mark for equal opportunity.

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