The cocktail party’s engine hadn’t fully revved when I was cornered by the older guy from the West Coast. “I’ve got a question for you,” he said in dropped tones. “X [our host] told me you’ve worked with some of the tribes around here.”
“Yeh!.” (I already know I’m in for it).
“And you just came back from Africa” he continued.
“Good. I’ve a question for you.”
“What the hell is wrong with those people?”
…long awkward pause.
“Both of ’em. All of ’em. I mean it’s like we give them everything—aid, welfare, you name it—nothing happens. Nothing changes. They sit out there and they drink themselves into a stupor and they kill each other.”
I look down, shuffle my feet, conceptualize my exit. How do you answer all the racist and colonialist assumptions in that question? You could just write it off of course as completely uninformed racist nonsense. But I get this question a lot, often from otherwise thoughtful people. It’s asked differently, but with the same bedrock assumptions.
Many of this question’s assumptions find their ground in neo-liberal economic theory (your basic Reaganomics, etc.). Just try and refute that at a cocktail party, even a liberal one, and see how it goes.1 Not well, let me tell you.
I go for humor. “A friend of mine likes to tell the joke: “the reason I don’t like George Bush is that he was born on third base and he thinks he hit a triple.”
He chuckles, flaccid and wan.
I press the point, “I don’t know what base I was born on. I might think I’ve “earned” my success/place/whatever or that I’ve somehow pulled myself up by my proverbial bootstraps. I mean that’s America right? That’s the national fantasy, that each of us is born WITHOUT a social, or cultural, or economic inheritance; that we all plop out into—and I hate this next phrase—this playing field of a world on equal terms with equal opportunities. It’s why baseball is america’s game and it’s why the joke works. We all believe we’re all born at home plate, and we all get to stand up and take our swing. If we get to retirement age and we’re standing on third or whatever we define as success, we pat ourselves on the back like we’ve “earned it.”
“Whatever base I was born on, I do know it’s a helluva lot further around the horn so-to-speak than any American Indian or African. I don’t care if I was born a homeless white dude, I’m still a white dude. And I don’t know what base an African is born on or what base an American Indian is born on but I doubt it’s even in the ballpark.
“And, to continue what may be becoming an untenable metaphor, it’s not like us giving Africa aid is a sacrificial bunt that advances them to the next base even if we were to agree what the next base is. And the reality is that we’re giving them money not to advance them down the base path but to get them into the ballpark, where we want to sit in the stands, and politely use their new money to buy our hot dogs and our trinkets and cheer us on.”
“Well, I can tell you right now, I was born on home base,” he said.
“No one gave me anything.”
“ohhhh. I thought you meant (insert hand gestures of me circling the bases in both directions) born all the way around home-run style not at zero.”
“Wow. Are you serious? I mean you just told me that you grew up in view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Your father was a well-off businessman. You went to Stanford on the G.I. Bill and then to work for one of the largest corporations in the world that makes nearly all of its money off the taxpayers in the form of defense contracts. After an executive career, you retired to your stately home overlooking the bay in Marin. Seriously.”
He turned the conversation back to those “g*d%$ people.”
And here I understood the error of my ways. The joke relies on the recipient understanding a set of assumptions: that one can and does “advance” on one’s own merits and that we are suspicious of those born into high station. For these reasons, it’s a particularly “American” joke, a joke that was particularly “on us” during the Bush years (his “aw shucks” populism, his “working” ranch life photo ops, etc.). For this same reason, however, it’s doesn’t pierce the deep, unconscious slumber at the heart of the American Dream. In fact it supports it.
I was undeterred. I went to the theoretical bullpen and called out my closer.
Continued: Strike Two: the Greatest Generation Defense.
1unless it’s a Society for the Understanding of Primitive Accumulation mixer ’cause Marxists are a hoot.