We like to believe, as Americans, that this country is a meritocracy. The idea—Horatio Alger, Thomas Edison, McGuyver, all emblematic of this notion—that the best qualified rise to the top, that those who can display and apply ability, skill, and intelligence are the ones who are selected—either by themselves or through the recognition of society—to do important jobs and that this, as opposed to elitist canards like family or school affiliation or looks or race, counts for more in this society. We like to believe that we judge people by their competence, not other things. It’s a driving national myth.
We like to tell ourselves that such people are Heroes.
Like most myths, there’s an element of truth to it. It is certainly the case that the opposite of such ability gets derided once exposed and the people who are less capable lose whatever consideration they’ve received. Eventually. Under the right circumstances.
But we all know that as a guiding ethic, merit is like anything else, and does not hold universal sway over our sentiment.
Perversely, many people display what can only be described as fear of people who are genuinely competent and talented, depending on the circumstances. All one need do is look at the condition of regard in which science is held by many people and the way professionals are often mistrusted and we’ve all seen instances where the person at the party who actually knows a thing or three—and dares express that knowledge—often as not ends up not invited back.
It’s a complex and contradictory attitude Americans have toward ability. We admire and respect it—until it contradicts a long-held belief or runs afoul a prejudice or makes us feel, in ourselves, a bit stupid.
It is probably more cloyingly and illogically represented in our general attitudes toward race.
Let me put it as bluntly as possible—in American history, how often has genuine merit been rewarded if the potential recipient is not white? Or male?
This is largely rhetorical. Most people very well know the answer—seldom, and often when such a person does stand out, attempts are made to diminish his or her achievements. We have been persistently whittling away at this problem for a long time now and we may be forgiven if from time to time we seem to feel it has been solved. It takes a shock to remind us how far we have yet to go.
In fact, part of the aftershock ought to be a recognition that this is a problem somehow wired into human nature, and that if we solve it for one group, it will simply move to another.
What kind of shock am I talking about?
Let me point you to this from John Scalzi’s Whatever. Go read it, then come on back here.
A couple of things I note—one, the reporter in question is herself clearly a minority. So one wonders why she would be duped into reporting this in this way without being outraged. The other is, the unattributed assertions made in the report.
But the main problem goes back to the merit argument.
These two people—Barack and Michelle Obama—are representative of our mythical Competent People ideal. They’ve Done It. They are deserving of our respect for their achievements and therefore deserve to be considered on their abilities.
They seem to be of the wrong group. Hmm. How did that happen?
Wrong group? Do we still think that way?
Well, you know, maybe not, but we have this other national ideal that tends to undermine the first one, and that is Winning Is Everything. We talk about fair play and sportsmanship and all that, but we don’t believe in it, not when the possibility of losing is in the mix, and this is a presidential race. In politics, all the stops get pulled out, and if one of the weapons is to be race, well, then, perhaps the engineers of such tactics are not themselves blatant racists, but they have no qualms about using discredited tactics in the all-important attempt to win, merit aside.
Because you really don’t see people very often graciously stand aside for the better qualified. It would be nice if you did, it would say so much to the next generation about what is important. But we’ve debased that coin for 200 + years.
Equally important, though, is the question of why those who put this out there would believe it would have any impact.
Because it will. Because a lot of Americans, though they might never say it, still fear the ramifications of such a possibility.
Which is why I will believe no poll this year. I believe people will be ashamed to admit their prejudices and tell pollsters that they will support Obama, but once they’re inside the voting booth will stop and ask themselves if they’re really ready to see a black man as president.
Unfortunately, this is America. We may surprise ourselves. Or we may see the upcoming election one in which the next president is the one who simply lost least.
Joanna Russ, a teacher and science fiction writer and savvy thinker, published a book in 1983 called How To Suppress Women’s Writing. It is a lucid textbook on cultural oppression. The subjects are women and writing, but the methods and tendencies she lays out apply to virtually any sub-group and occupation. It is worth finding and reading. It delineates the subtle—and not-so-subtle—ways in which we as a culture steal merit from those we don’t wish to see possess it. In the prologue, she writes:
In a nominally egalitarian society, the ideal situation (socially speaking) is one in which the members of the “wrong” groups have the freedom to engage in literature (or equally significant activities) and yet do not do so, thus proving that they can’t. But, alas, give them the least reall freedom and they will do it. The trick thus becomes to make the freedom as nominal a freedom as possible and then—since some of the so-and-so’s will do it anyway—develop various strategies for ignoring, condemning, or belittling the artistic works that result. If properly done, these strategies result in a social situation in which the “wrong” people are (supposedly) free to commit literature, art, or whatever, but very few do, and those who do (it seems) do it badly, so we can all go home to lunch.
Some will do it well, and then you see the tactics of disenfranchisement take a few steps up the scale of panic and ugliness. Never mind that Hank Aaron actually broke Babe Ruth’s record, he’s black, and shouldn’t have been able to, but since he was about to anyway he had to be prevented. Death threats ensued. Washington Carver was a brilliant chemist, certainly, but look what he did! All his research was based on, well, peanuts. What can one expect from a black man? (It wasn’t, but even so, the denigration ignores the achievement.) Frank Yerby was a brilliant novelist, but he was fluke, the exception that proved the rule that blacks couldn’t write anything other than about themselves. He moved to Spain finally to get away from the racist belittlement of his work.
The list goes on and on. Add now this absurd, obscene attempt to paint Michelle Obama as exactly the same as every white bigot’s worst fear of a welfare queen sitting in the White House.
Merit is ignored. Ignored long enough and thoroughly enough, and it cannot shine through.
At least, so such purveyors of intolerance wish.
It might not work this time. If it doesn’t, it would be nice to think that, for a change, merit counts for more. But it may also be that further attempts like this will trigger another American ideal, that being our almost reflexive sympathy with so-called underdogs. If that puts Obama in the White House, well, goody for us. But it would also be success that ignores merit. It will be a serendipitous achievement based on our national dislike of bullies.
What then will be learned from it all?
If we were, as we would like to believe, concerned with ability and competence above all, then it is inconceivable that George W. Bush could have been elected, even in the first place. Both his opponents are by any measure his superiors in ability.
The truth is, we value comfort more and Bush, in his own way, is comforting to many people. He’s not our better. He’s “just like us” in presentation and, sadly, ability. He doesn’t make us feel inferior (by now, probably, quite the opposite) and he doesn’t challenge us to rise above mediocrity. With Bush you could share a beer and talk about baseball. With Obama? In truth, you probably could, but more likely if the subject moved on to something real—like taxes or foreign policy—most of us likely couldn’t keep up. He understands these things in a way that most of us don’t.
Not because we can’t. Because we have neither the time or patience to really understand them.
How can I say that?
Well, the evidence. If we did understand such things, we wouldn’t have had to put up with Bush for eight years.
And we wouldn’t be afraid of Obama.