I know what people mean when they say someone is a “self-made man” (I’ve rarely heard the phrase “self-made woman” spoken): a person who has risen from dire circumstances to success by hard work and ingenuity. Benjamin Franklin – the tenth son of a humble candle maker – printed, invented, flew a kite, authored, and became a great American patriarch. Frederick Douglass – the son of an unknown father (most likely his original master) and a slave mother – escaped slavery to preach, write, speak, and become a foremost abolitionist and statesman. These two giants of American history have exemplified the term in question for generations.
Franklin I appreciate and Douglass I revere. The credo of hard work and ingenuity I wholeheartedly support. But the term used to describe Franklin’s and Douglass’s accomplishments – self-made? I’m not a fan of the term, nor do I ever use it. Franklin went to school until he was ten at a time when few did, and apprenticed under a brother to learn the printing trade. The wife of a subsequent Douglass master taught young Frederick to read (later, her husband coerced her to renounce this radical activity). Even though Franklin’s beginnings were humble and Douglass’s cruel and unjust, neither could claim complete freedom from the guidance and assistance of others. A community of some sort provided a foothold and direction.
Later historical figures – Carnegie and Rockefeller – and contemporary figures – Oprah Winfrey and Nasty Gal proprietor Sophia Amoruso – fit the bill of achieving success while overcoming difficult circumstances. But again, none of these four could or can honestly say that they did it all on their own. Contemporary figures who have enjoyed business success, such as Ross Perot, Mark Cuban, Michael Jordan, Sean Combs, and Michael Dell all rose from middle class or upper-middle class beginnings.
Little human beings need more caretaking and rearing than any other mammal. Newly born bears, orangutans, and elephants all require less time and effort to develop into adults than do newly born Olivia and Ezra (two of the most popular baby names in the US during 2016). When the raising up of our young ones is negligent or haphazard, catastrophes often result. Combine this proven reality with US society’s increasing inequality, and current troubles could ripen into future disasters.
Robert Putnam, in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2015), joins many in the last few years to say that the phrase “self-made” has outlived its usefulness. Economic mobility in the US (the ability of a person to improve – or lower – their financial status) has not improved in the past fifty years. We no longer lead the world in economic mobility and many older Americans consequently overestimate its vibrancy. Other countries, such as Canada, France, and Denmark, boast higher rates of economic or social mobility than does the US. The cycle self-perpetuates: inequality makes the great American attribute of social mobility a myth because of its availability only to a minority. The majority of American males born today, for better or worse, will live into the same financial status of their fathers. For these, economic immobility is their American reality.
Putnam advocates public policy and private citizen action to support all that can be done to raise up (a phrase of striking symbolism) children born into impoverished situations: investments social and financial in poor neighborhoods, establishment of more mixed income housing developments, and ending the pay-to-play aspect of extracurricular activities in public school systems. Simply relying upon an American attribute increasingly unattainable won’t make for a better society for the generations that come after us. Individual initiative emboldened by hard work and ingenuity is still an absolute necessity, but it must be manifested within the greater context of communal support and societal resolve.
That today’s “self-made man” is a raging financial success who can live the life of ease and luxury is a clear bastardization of the term’s original understanding. In contrast, during Douglass’s day, the self-made man was a positive force in society for integrity, honesty, and love. The point of making money was not personal enrichment, but liberation from the necessity of work, freeing oneself to labor for the betterment of society.
Jesus was not a self-made man. A strong mother, a supportive family, and an established communal tradition raised up, in the course of thirty years, a son who advocated the renewal of society based upon love of neighbor, forgiveness, and compassion – values representative of the coming kingdom of God. Additionally, Jesus criticized excessive trust in wealth, labeling it a worldly, not kingdom of God, attribute.
What twenty-first century America needs: fewer “self-made” millionaires and billionaires who want to tell how they did it (so the rest of us can also strike it rich) and more citizens, be they rich or poor, who understand that strong and healthy communities produce the best and brightest individuals.
This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.
If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.
Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.
The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!
¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!