Friday, October 24, 2014

The Myth of the Self-Made Man

A little before I left for Galveston, I read an article that made me think about our current socio-economic reality and how it relates to people like Jean and Pierre Laffite and also to their offspring, such as Pierre's children and grandchildren by Marie Villard. But I had no time to sit down and organize my thoughts about this. So I just shared the article on my Twitter feed and moved on.

The article was published on Slate by John Swansburg, and it was called "The Self-Made Man: the Story of America's Most Pliable, Pernicious and Irrepressible Myth."  I have linked the article here, so you can go read it in its entirety. It is very, very long, contains a lot of historical details and is sort of apologetic of the good fortune of some, including the father of the author, who happens to have been one of those "self-made men."

The article is nuanced, has a reasonable tone, is not too dogmatic, but it was basically written to appeal to the progressive sensibility. There's a lot of truth to what it has to say, but at the same time, it misses what to me is the real point of upward mobility and the melting pot.

 Some of the points the author made include these perfectly unobjectionable observations:

  • get-rich-quick schemes are a by-product of gullibility in the general public that has allowed itself to swallow the myth that extreme success is open to everyone, regardless of effort, talent or other qualifications.
  • The myth of the self-made man has changed over the years from being based on the Puritan work ethic, where industry, hard work and frugality were its basis,  which also allowed for circumstances shaping the man, to some sort of idea of individual drive being the chief qualification, so that if you want it badly enough success will come, and now ambition is in itself a virtue.
  • A lot of the self-help industry is based on this myth.
  • People who did succeed were not entirely self-made, as they came from families where the skills and virtues that led to success were already taught and part of the socio-economic and cultural heritage of the entrepreneur.
Nobody is self-made, so, of course, taken in its most literal sense, there is no such thing as a self-made man. Our DNA comes from someplace. Our flesh, including our brain cells and our most basic predilections all come from others, passed down through a long chain of ancestors, the earliest of which were not even human.

"You're self made, eh?" the Progressive scoffs. "Well, did you invent bipedalism all by yourself? How about the wheel? Language? Writing? Algebra?" 

In a somewhat less absurd move, Swansburg points out that Jewish immigrants to the United States who became successful in the garment industry already had garment industry experience in Europe, before immigrating. That makes sense. But does it take away from the achievements of the few who succeeded grandly, despite poverty and a language barrier?

Or how about the fact that many East Asian immigrant children come from a culture where literacy and studiousness are already very much valued and encouraged, which is why they tend to excel in academics far and above their Anglo-Saxon classmates, whose ancestors were still illiterate savages at a time when the East had a well developed culture?  Does this mean that we should put quotas on university entry by Asian-Americans?

The fallacy is in thinking that the melting pot and upward mobility in the United States was ever supposed to be based on dispossessing people of the individual advantages that came from belonging to a particular family or ethnic group. The idea was always that you got to compete based on everything you left home with, and that nobody would ever penalize you for what sort of home you had. Rising based on your own merit was not supposed to be tempered by handicapping certain people for coming into the race with certain built-in advantages. In fact, the myth of the self-made man was that everybody was allowed to shine based on their built-in advantages, regardless of anything else.

"But it's not fair that some people come better equipped!" some complain.  Fair to whom? To the consumer who wants to buy inexpensive well-made garments? To the university that seeks the brightest students? To the employer who is looking for the best workers money can buy?

Social Darwinism is frowned upon. as a misunderstanding of the theory of evolution. But the theory of evolution, some have pointed out, is a tautology. It is true by definition. If traits are selected for in future generations based on the survival of the fittest, then how do you determine who the fittest were, except by looking around to see who survived? Fittest does not mean some kind of absolute virtue -- it just means most adapted to the particular environment. When the environment changes, the traits that make us most fit also change.

In today's market, those who are willing to do necessary blue collar work are at an advantage over the merely studious, because the market is flooded with college graduates who have no useful skills. Half a century ago it might have been different. Tinker with the marketplace, and you change the fitness of all the participants.

Upward mobility at present is at an all time low, some complain. I'm not sure whether that is true or not, but I do know that even during slavery, there was upward mobility for blacks. Marie Villard was a descendant of slaves, but she was a free woman who owned property. Though miscegenation laws prevented Pierre Laffite from marrying her, his children by her were well provided for under a binding contract. After a few generations, the descendants of Marie Villard had been so assimilated into New Orleans society that they did not even know they were black. They remembered they had a famous "pirate" in their lineage, but they conveniently forgot about Marie Villard. (Source: Davis, The Pirates Laffite.)

That is in fact how upward mobility and the American melting pot worked. Though all people have certain advantages inherited from their ancestors, over time we become assimilated to the point where we no longer remember where we came from, and then it may appear that we are entirely self-made. It may be a myth, but it is also one of the advantages of the American culture of the nineteenth century, because by allowing people to forget their origins, society was able to let individuals fully claim every useful trait that came built in, to the advantage of not only the individual, but also society as whole.

Jean Laffite never denied his roots. He was proud of his ancestors and of the way he used what he inherited from them to become a successful entrepreneur, leader and patriot. Was he a self-made man? As much so as anyone ever was. He was just unusually honest about where he came from. That was perhaps his greatest flaw, and the reason he never received the recognition he deserved.


  1. Our ancestry may provide us with capabilities that others do not have, such as the ones you mention above. For example, being from Louisiana, I definitely have skills with making many of the cajun dishes that LA folks are known for, in a broader sense - cooking. But, I look at all these things we have inherited as "tools". Whether we use them or not is our choice and what determines how we turn out - successful (in our own estimation), or not. That's what makes us "self-made" in my opinion - whether we decide to use our own tools or make new ones.

    1. I agree, Kathy. It's what you make of what you've got that makes you "self-made." Everybody has something, and then the question is how best to use what we've got under the circumstances and how to also build new tools, in many cases by using the old to fashion the new. En route, we also discard some old tools and old ways of looking at things.