Sunday, October 7, 2012

"The Rumble" in an Air Conditioned Auditorium with Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly and a comment about American mythology

Last night, the enormously famous Jon Stewart, of Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart fame, and Bill "Can't Explain That" O'Reilly, of FOX News's The O'Reilly Factor, met for a debate. Slightly spoiling the event for those who haven't seen it yet, O'Reilly answers the last question last, getting the last word, while responding to an audience question that asks what advice the two figures have for young Americans. He says,
Alright, young pinheads, work hard, be honest, get off the Net, go outside, travel as much as you can, find your passion--everybody's good at something--find what you're good at--everybody, that's why I believe in God, everybody has a talent--find what you're good at and make money doing it.
Let me first say that I agree with a fair portion of O'Reilly's general advice: work hard, be honest, travel as much as you can, find your passion, find a balance of life that doesn't forget the real world for the virtual one. I agree with all of this. I don't agree with O'Reilly here, though, on his central point and see it as part of a far larger ideological problem that we might identify as "Americanism," or American mythology in general.

Now, the normal theme on this blog might bring me to attack O'Reilly's abysmally bad and incorrect reason for believing in God, but that point is small, easy, and inconsequential. An argument from talent hardly suggests even that there is a deity that is defined as being a "talent-giver," and it is much further from establishing that the deity laid out in any of the ancient scriptures is real.

The more consequential point that bears making from O'Reilly's commentary is one that is central to American mythology and, indeed, conservative ideology. "Find what you're good at and make money doing it." An episode of South Park uncovered the fallacy behind this notion brilliantly years ago when they introduced the "Underpants Gnomes," whose fundamental plan is:
  1. Collect underpants
  2. ????
  3. Profit.
This is precisely the recipe that O'Reilly recommends to America's "young pinheads":
  1. Find what you're good at
  2. ????
  3. Make money doing it.
The only way that ???? makes any sense under O'Reilly's conception is if part of "what you're good at" happens to be "monetizing what you do." This is a fundamental piece of American mythology, that anyone, literally anyone, should be able to find what he is good at and make money doing it, and it doesn't match reality in the least. For people who are enormously good at things and enormously bad at making money doing it, it just doesn't pan out.

Conservative ideology is built upon this concept, though, along with a handful of other ideas. The concept has the corollary that "if someone can't make money doing what they are good at, then they aren't working hard enough at it." This, however, is often untrue and leaves open the door to an enormous possibility for demonization, which is powerfully politically useful to just about everyone's detriment. Indeed, the entire construction is flawed at it's core.

People may be very good at and passionate about things that just aren't very marketable in and of themselves. Step one in O'Reilly's formulation, then, sounds better than it is. What it needs to say is "find something that you like doing, that you're good at, and that is able to be sold."

People may be good at and passionate about marketable things but not be able to put them into a context that is marketable or be unable to market them. So again we have to modify O'Reilly's formulation, which sounds better than it is. What it needs to say is "find something that you like doing, that you're good at, that is able to be sold, and that you are able to bring to market." We realize that that last point is, indeed, itself a skill that someone would have to be passionate about and good at in his self-made-person formulation, though, because of the existence of "marketer" as a career. Some people are just bad at marketing--as we should expect based purely on statistical inference--and this self-made-person conception ignores that reality.

Surely the American dream notes the economic law of comparative advantage, though, and points out that if someone is not good at marketing, then they should find someone who is and hire them to do that aspect of the job for them. This presumes the opportunity and ability to do that, which is usually measured in terms of available liquid capital, and that the passion at hand is actually marketable (and able to make it in a highly competitive market that has a vested interest in squashing competition as it arises, say, for example, like we might see from large energy corporations working against the development of alternative energy sources). So O'Reilly's conception here literally requires people to have access to the kind of capital required to market their passion and know-how. Again, his bootstraps look better than they are.

Speaking of bootstraps, that's where we get to O'Reilly's Step 2: ????. Of course, O'Reilly doesn't say that's what Step 2 is, but as he leaves it blank in his formulation, "find what you're good at and make money doing it," we can assume that he is not offering a prescription for how that is to be achieved. The American mythology that O'Reilly is presenting here is that being good at something and having a passion for it will lead to being able to make money doing it if you work hard enough. Luck, opportunity, connections, etc., are either all ignored or considered to be part of the "working hard enough." This simply isn't how things work, though.

The problem with this nugget of American--nay, capitalist--mythology is that it is presented most often as O'Reilly has presented it: as a feel-good abstraction that lacks in all of the necessary details while ignoring significant chunks of reality. Because it is a simple, feel-good abstraction, it has a lot of rhetorical appeal and is thus useful as part of the foundation of an ideology, which we might define functionally as a belief system that puts reality second to wish-thinking about how things actually are. That appeal has given the concept a lot of ideological weight with a significant portion of the American population who accepts at face value the premise that if someone is hard-working and works at what they are good at, then they can make money doing it, with the corollary notion that if that plan doesn't work out, the failure must be related to the person's work ethic. The problem, in reality, is the ideology promoting the idea, or rather that the ideology is not actually consistent with the realities of the economic system it is tied to.

We see this problem enormously in our culture right now, and I'm not going to point just at the lack of opportunity that presents itself to those with less privilege and luck than others, say those who are too busy working hard at something they hate just so their kids can eat to actually pursue their dreams, let alone how to market the fruits of those dreams. We see it most clearly, in fact, in the generation of kids who were sold this idea who are graduating college into the worst job market in generations with student loan debts that are likely to outlive them. Many of these folks have followed O'Reilly's advice for their entire two-decade existences: find what you're good at, ????, and make money doing it. No one ever filled in the ???? for them, and no one really ever told them that it had to be filled in. Here they are, then, saddled with debt from banks that bear no responsibility after being brought up on a notion that if they just chase their dreams then they can make a living doing it.

Of course, loud-mouthed and self-righteous pundits like O'Reilly are quick to displace the blame from themselves (probably somewhat fairly), from the culture that espouses those claims (unfairly), and from the refrains that they themselves repeat as a core principle (entirely unfairly). They point the finger at the English major who can't get a job, the psychology major who enters a swamped field, and the art history major who spent five or six years getting a master's degree in something that simply cannot be sold at a living wage. "You should have majored in engineering or architecture or journalism [or something that society values]" (not an actual quote) is the flavor of the blame-shift thrown, designed to protect the failed mythology that forms a core principle and to drown out the cognitive dissonance created where that principle clashes with reality. Really, O'Reilly? Really? "Find what you're good at and make money doing it." It's that simple, right? Until it doesn't work, it is, and then someone should have made better choices or worked hard to "find what they're good at" or to realize the prescription you offered them was an ideological crock of baloney in the first place. "Find what you're good at, as long as it is marketable and you know how to market it (or can afford to have someone market it for you), and make money doing it" is far more accurate a precept in our current economy.

People believe crazy things. I've said that before, and I say it again now. Many, many Americans believe that if they just find something they're good at and work hard at it, then they can make money doing it. This is not how reality works. Our present economy is based upon finding profitable niches and filling them, by being able to find places where people will give us money for our abilities and then taking advantage of those opportunities. In most cases--the vast majority of cases--this means finding something you can do that someone will pay you for, not finding what you're good at, and then making money doing it. Selling the dream would probably be an honorable thing if it wasn't used as such a tool by the successful and contempt to point a finger of blame instead of actually servicing the nightmare it creates.

Another problem with O'Reilly's construction, or really the conservative ideology that holds this capitalist notion of "make money doing it" at the center, is that what we do should be measured entirely in terms of money. "Find what you are good at and make money doing it." Not "find what you are good at and let it give meaning to your life," or "find what you are good at and use it to help other people live better lives," or "find what you are good at and simply enjoy it." No. None of that. "Find what you are good at and make money doing it." While it makes some sense to be able to monetize our talents and efforts, and it is entirely reasonable for people to be able to want to make a living off their efforts, it is part of the central problem of American mythology, nay capitalist mythology, that the central point of these talents and efforts is to capitalize them, i.e. to give them economic worth.

Besides being psychologically dissatisfying and dangerously misplaced thinking, this gives rise to the very entitlement attitude that folks like O'Reilly decry--people who feel that the purpose of effort is monetary gain and therefore feel entitled to it for their efforts. When people work hard and do not get the return their ideology has taught them that they should receive, they become disenfranchised with the system that has not met their expectations and become less invested in supporting the functioning of the entire system. "Mooching," as O'Reilly might call it, ceases to have the moral impact that it might have had otherwise, a certain more general conception of noblesse oblige. Conservative ideologies like O'Reilly's answers that with a posteriori punishments, and therefore threats, that don't always increase compliance, to say nothing of how they fail to address the underlying problem, which is a certain kind of societal motivation. It would seem that raising children with a particular set of expectations that don't match reality--or maintaining economic systems that don't match the cultural reality we want to have--is a stout recipe for disenfranchised disinterest in societal obligation. Need we even mention the conservative ideological notion of rugged individualism here, in terms of the impact on dissolving a conception of societal cohesion and social obligation? How about the notion that there is a real social hierarchy that should be preserved, be that defined economically, racially, or otherwise? [It turns out I don't... just after I finished this, I stumbled across this brilliant article to point from Cracked: "6 Things Rich People Need to Stop Saying." I recommend reading all of it.]

I spend almost all of the time in God Doesn't; We Do attacking religion, but in reality, ideology is the root of the problem. Religions are just huge, mostly damaging ideological systems that have grown into obsolescence. Americanism has it's own mythologies, though, and this Underpants Gnome myth of all-access bootstrapped profitability is a core one with dire consequences.

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