To Dream the American Dream
When I was an exchange student in Ohio almost 40 years ago, our history teachers told us that the American Dream was dead.
They never explained what in heck they were talking about, so I don’t know precisely what they meant by that. They waved vaguely in the direction of Horatio Alger and assured us that the U.S. was now on the way to becoming a wholly stratified society and that there was no escape.
Over the dead corpse of the American Dream, our history book preached dreams of social justice. Only they didn’t call it that yet, and frankly, if any of us had used “woke” our advanced grammar teacher would have made us rue the day. (As she should, says the ex-ESL teacher in me.)
Yesterday I had a moment of deja vu.
You see, I watch a lot of discussions among my leftist colleagues. I still belong to a lot of email lists where everyone has forgotten me and I have a lot of friends whose entire Facebook circle is left (and who, helpfully, call on me to witness dumpster fires with annoying regularity.)
Unless I have a lot of time and energy, which hasn’t happened these last few weeks (replacing carpet with wood floors is work for younger and more fit people. Unfortunately the younger and more fit people are all busy), I don’t even try to participate. There is no point. The point of internet arguing is the spectators, but in my field — at least among those involved in traditional publishing — there aren’t that many spectators. There are just churchgoers in the church of Marx ritually making their responsorial sermons.
To interrupt them is to do as the crazy people do who periodically go to churches and start interrupting services with (normally completely irrelevant) screams or displays of public nudity. The churchgoers aren’t at a place where they’d debate their beliefs, and as for public nudity, I can safely say all of us religious people have seen naked people before and contrary to leftist beliefs the sight of one more pasty, flabby leftist body doesn’t explode our world.
Anyway, yesterday there was this thread on Facebook exploring an interesting question of why so many imaginary worlds are feudal or hierarchical.
The answers.… You know the “never read the comments, thing”? Yeah, that.
Now, you, probably, like most normal human beings, looked at that and went “feudal or hierarchical of course means as a birth hierarchy.” Yeah, I did too. Because last I checked I had some vestiges of sanity.
Sure, there are too many books and worlds in which the default setting is feudal or hierarchical. I do it myself in Darkship Thieves, and there are reasons, mostly the reason being that it’s a profoundly unpleasant regime which needs to go down in flames.
Perhaps part of it — admittedly — is like the agrammatical “woke” ones fighting Nazism. It’s the evil we know.
But the other part of it is that feudalism and hierarchies of birth seem to be the default human beings fall into. If you read a lot of history — and if you write science fiction you should -- you do. It’s just history turned upside down — you see it over and over again. You see it also in modern times as the end stage of communist countries. And you see it in the attempt to make a go in the land of the free with our self-proclaimed elites trying to keep the “deplorables” in flyover country from having a say in their own governance. (Oh, between control of the increasingly mendacious media, rampant vote fraud and the attack on the Electoral College, we can give them an "A" for effort.)
That is the most probable answer, though geeks and science fiction fans (but I repeat myself) can discuss all the nuances ad nauseam.
Unless, of course, they are “woke” science fiction fans. In which case they make it clear at the outset that their definitions of terms like “feudal” and particularly “hierarchical” are unlike things any sane person would even think of.
Yes, indeed, unlike the rest of us who see feudalism where it is, in the decaying corpses of communism, they see it in the fact that some people are “privileged.” (Which to them roughly means “has advantages I don’t think I had and does something with them.”) But mostly, they see hierarchy as a bad thing. As in, if you advance and get ahead, you’re “privileged” and bad.
I’m not absolutely sure they’ve ever met a human being.
No, seriously. I know you people get tired of me comparing various leftist figures to space aliens, but I’ll be honest, they sound like they’ve never met a human being.
Human beings are hierarchical. That’s what we are. There’s nothing wrong with it, either, provided it’s mobile, and not a hierarchy of birth.
Humans just naturally self-organize by who does what best. And people with less experience at some trade, craft or way of being pay attention to those who have more experience. It’s what happens. It’s a hierarchy as old as the primate band.
To suppress it, it requires ruthless policing, unnatural redistribution of resources and uncountable deaths. And even then it comes back again, the minute vigilance relaxes or someone learns the way of being of ruthless oppression and becomes the new feudal lord.
Why would anyone want that? In the name of what?
The clue is in the fact that these people dragged out “the American Dream” to kick around. In their version (interestingly, revealingly) the American Dream is that you will just naturally and without effort end up at the top of society, lording it over the peons.
If you’re blinking at that, so am I, but remember that these people learned a thoroughly distorted and truncated version of history — like, for instance, I keep running into more and more people, some of them considerably brighter than Occasional Cortex, who think Hitler built the Berlin Wall to keep the Jews out of Germany. Yeah, I know. One doesn’t know whether to laugh, cry or vomit — and therefore can’t make sense of much of anything.
What it is revealing of is both their mental structures and why they want both the American Dream and “hierarchical society” to end.
These are scared children. Yes, I know a lot of them are older than me. They are still scared children. These are people profoundly dissatisfied with their position in life, but who have despaired of ever doing better.
Why do they despair?
Perhaps they’ve tried. In oligopsonistic systems like traditional publishing, or for that matter Hollywood, or academia, or, now I think about it, anywhere that leftists are a majority, there is almost no correlation between effort and success. As in leftist paradises, it all depends on appeasing and appealing to those with power over you and the gatekeepers.
Any writer with three years in the traditional field and enough honesty to look at her own face in the mirror knows talent, work, and craft DO meet sometimes in publishing: but so rarely that we revere the exceptions. Ninety percent of the field is baksheesh and ass kissing.
So I do understand people immersed in such systems and who are too provincial to see outside them thinking that you just get picked to have power or whatever. (Though honestly there is no explanation — except baksheesh, ass kissing and trying to please gatekeepers — to attribute that to being white or male.)
However, I suspect the majority of them haven’t even tried.
I was there once at the start of the journey, and looked at published works like — as grandma would put it — a cow looking at a palace. I knew there was a structure there, but it seemed impossible for someone like me to erect it.
Fortunately, I believed in the American Dream. The real one. That is, I believed that if I worked my ass off and sacrificed, if I learned from those who’d gone before me, if I put in the number of hours and words needed I might one day be good enough to do this stuff for a living.
And it has worked. Ish. It has worked better than if I believed that on seeing me people would naturally know how to place me in some hierarchy, without effort, without trying, without sacrifice or craft or doubt. Which seems to be what the left thinks is “the American dream.”
I understand the attraction of their vision. It absolves them from failing. If you know the system is inherently unjust (it is, actually. Traditional publishing, academia, any system run by the left is inherently unjust, because it rewards you for characteristics having nothing to do with competence) then if you fail there is no blame and no guilt.
But there is no success either.
That hope: knowing you can fight your way somewhere, and if you fail you fail at a higher level, IS the American dream. It is also the engine of success and Western civilization. Any individual, anywhere, willing to work hard enough can better himself.
And fortunately, contrary to what my history books in the seventies said, contrary to what the leftists believe, the American dream is alive and well.
Yes, I know, there are more barriers than there used to be. And anywhere the leftists get a foothold becomes elitist and credentialist and irrational.
But there are still ways to get around it. The essence of Americans is that we undermine established systems. I don’t know why, but I suspect it’s all down to being human and being given a chance to do so, unlike in the sclerotic regimes of Europe and Asia. So even things like publishing and academia are being overturned by tech geeks who created systems to deliver the product better, faster, and cheaper -- and incidentally unseat the gatekeepers. Even Hollywood will feel this and not in the too distant future. (Soon, my precious, soon.)
Americans keep finding new ways to get around hierarchies. And each of us finds ways to his own dreams. I’ve been in this country for almost 35 years. Sometimes I’ve been broke and hungry. Sometimes I’ve been defeated and hopeless. But I didn’t stay there.
Very few of my friends stayed in such a place.
We’re Americans. We dream. And then we put our shoulder to the wheel and make it a reality.
To the leftists, trapped in the guilt-free hopelessness of their upbringing, I proclaim: it was never hopeless. You just have to accept your guilt and your fear and work towards your goal. Aim high. If you fail, you’ll still fail at a pretty high level.
Embrace liberty. She lifts her lamp beside the golden door.