Watching the latest revision of Robin Hood, one is invited to disgust with the way Americans keep consuming stories that alleviate the responsibility to innovate, to create, to contribute – to be extraordinary. Latent in it one finds work without significance, for the vast majority of people – just contented drudgery relieved by dancing, screwing, and copious alcohol consumption – work only made significant by attachment to the special people. And what of the special people and their work? One of the great quotations in film is this:
“The man who judges by the group is a pea wit… I’ll be treated as I deserve, not as my father deserved.” – Gettysburg
In it is denied the theory that significance comes from lineage, from the works of another person, from belonging to a class, a culture, or an ideological group – in short, from having power over weaker persons, and from being above them in some way – from having access to a reality that they do not. That film argues for a shared reality – one we all get access to – for the opportunity of each person to do things he can take seriously.
And yet, the aristocratic view of vocation – that it belongs to those who are already exceptional because of some other un-earned status – birth or fate – rather than each person having the opportunity to find and pursue his own unique vocation, still ensnares the imaginations of Americans. How many movies have you seen in which we get:
- A man discovers his true birthright, his heritage, (he’s not really an orphan, but is secretly a child of nobility) and so he steps up to be great, because he’s actually already fated for this by birthright (as in this wretched film).
- The boy or girl who learns she is “special” – she has special powers – magic powers, psychic gifts, special perceptions – whatever – just like her grandma (the Jensen women have always had this in the family… or “you’re special, Harry, just like your parents…”, etc.)
It does wonders for explaining amazing contributions to the world – not by reference to the skill, talent, and hard work of an individual – not by industry, and the relentless pursuit of one’s vocation – but as the products of people that were, of course, destined to it, unlike you and I. We do get to dream about it, but you and I aren’t secretly a princess or a wizard. And if anyone does something wonderful, we can look for an explanation in heredity or the coincidence of time and cosmic forces, the modern equivalents of which are the impersonal forces of economics or historical progress. What we don’t do is say “Gee, that guy really rocks – he’s an f*ing rock star, and I am going to try to be like him” – because, of course, we can’t. He got dealt a special hand by the cosmos.
The falsehood is that great contributions come from great semen – from the bloodline – from DNA – or from unexplained forces. It’s a bit like suggesting illness is the result of demons or witchcraft. This is the attitude of cultures that carve out the hearts of those they conquer so, in eating them, they can possess their power, their fortitude, their brilliance – because of course, it’s not in the will, the determination, the attitude – it’s some innate thing they couldn’t help – it’s in the blood – they were special – they just had really high IQs – they have innate magic. Or as any dimestore half wit will tell you about those who make money in the stock market, “they must be really smart”. No, they mustn’t, actually – but such is the hereditary theory of prosperity, happiness, and joy in one’s work among the American people. It’s the mentality of those who, not long ago in the West, drilled holes in human heads to let the other people inside out. To the mediaeval occultist, the source of brilliant talent was ‘genius’ – which was a term meaning a spirit that lived in you, who actually did the brilliant work through you.
We still hear this theory in the rhetoric of those who lobby for a supposed ‘underclass’ – claiming they aren’t smart enough or innately talented enough (by heredity or magic) to take care of themselves. They can’t be expected to create their own value and offer it to society – they must be rescued from outsourcing, from downsizing, from obsolescence, and ‘given’ jobs – even if the jobs are in areas we no longer need. We must replace the machines with more humans, replace automation with more factory laborers, replace the street cleaning trucks with individual people wielding straw brooms. Heck, let’s go back to bicycle messengers or the Pony Express. Why? Because the underclass aren’t even smart enough, so the theory goes, to be re-educated, or insightful enough, aware enough, prepared enough, to even seek or consent to re-education. They’re too far along in life, and have somehow gotten stupider, not smarter. It’s too late for them, etc. Or, if retraining will work, then they can’t be expected to pay for it, because they can’t possibly work their way through school like a kid in state college, nor can they be saddled with the understanding that life involves constant change, constantly reassessing your skills, not resting on the laurels of something you’re good at past the point that it matters. That’s too much to ask. That’s only for the special people. One wonders, if they’re smart enough to receive training at all, why they’re not smart enough to seek it, work toward it, or make it a routine part of their lives.
There’s a false dichotomy at work. The genius-filled, hereditarily smart, magically-gifted special people who constantly reinvent ways to add value, who start companies,or who look for new ways to contribut, and generate value, are actually constantly reinventing themselves – otherwise, they too lose their companies, and get taken down by the market. If the job seeker made obsolete can receive training at all – if there is any value in retraining or any sensibility in investing in it, are we not saying that the jobseeker not only can but must reinvent himself as well? Perhaps there really is no disparity between the perceived builders and innovators, on the one hand, and the ‘workforce’ on the other. We’re all in the same boat, and the same thing is required of us.
The theory of an underclass who must be taken care of, who is so big that it must not be allowed to fail, who cannot function by themselves without the parental care of those gifted by magic or heredity with the ability to reinvent and innovate, suggests not only that superstition and almost a kind of racism (certainly a theory of people and innate superpeople) govern our policy, but that this same underclass cannot be expected to learn from the continual historical need, obvious everywhere, to reinvent one’s role in society. Instead, they will need to be watched over for the rest of their lives, and their offspring will likely need the same thing. No one seems to be suggesting that the “workforce” wake up and realize there is nothing permanent, and reinventing your contribution is a lifelong requirement, and you’re not even a decent parent if you don’t equip your kids with that understanding. In fact, it is systematic indoctrination taking place in all the training grounds of employment that tells them, no, no, trust us – you get the right certification and you’ll be good to go for life. It’s a lie, and it certainly produces worker loyalty, but at the expense of their lives and livelihoods. Doctrine is wiping them out, not economic change.
Policy aside, it’s most heartbreaking that the culture is indoctrinating the vast majority of people with the notion that there is no “my work” – “my unique work in life” – “my way of contributing” for them – a vocation – one that is expressed not in one particular job title but in a plentitude of possible ways to work, contribute, and live. No, that’s for Harry Potter and Robin Hood, isn’t it? That’s for the girl who discovers she’s a princess, or for the Cinderella who merely attaches herself to royalty – to money, in other words. But unless you find that Duke in your family tree, or you can make your breakfast cereal levitate from an early age or talk to snakes, well you’ll just have to go take the first job where someone will employ you. Jeez, what a bum deal. How lousy is that? You mean the ordinary person, the regular Joe, is basically just a machine? Of course, those who offer us these ideas, in the form of policy or in what they feed us as consumer art, like some of these films, are the special people – the priviledged – explaining what went wrong with the rest of us. We weren’t uniquely gifted. We weren’t actually King Arthur, destined to pull the sword from the stone. But what if that’s horse shit? What if a) each of us is uniquely gifted with something we are capable of mastering with virtuosity, and can apply to a number of possible lines of work, and b) we’re responsible – ultimately, personally responsible – if we don’t? See, it’s hard to get people to sign onto that – it’s a dual edged sword – once you’ve convinced them it’s not their fault – their misery is your responsibility.
It’s true, other people can rob us of our vocations. The person abused from childhood, sold into sexual slavery, forced into machine-like servitude in a Chinese clothing factory, or constantly indoctrinated with toxic ideas is being systematically robbed. We get that, many of us builders do – a lot of us barely made it – a lot of us had zero help from our parents along these lines, and we had a lot of serious harm done – including by idiots in the academy and corporate life. But if the most awful cases, prevalent as they may be, aren’t exceptions, then our parents were right. If we really didn’t amount to anything, really couldn’t contribute anything unique, really had no virtuosity of talent latent within us, wanting to come out, then what’s wrong with being forced into a machine-like existence, after all? We can be robbed of something, precisely because we have something of which to be robbed. Bad parents are bad parents, and we can’t excuse them. But the ideologies of sending money down the castle chute to the helpless below are edifices designed by the abusers. Those are more institutionalized claims that ‘you can’t do anything’ – ‘you’re unable to take care of yourself’ – ‘you have nothing special to give those of us who live up here’ – depend on us – you are not independent – rely on us – you are not self-reliant – don’t create – let us create a role for you. Sure, it appeals to those of the lowest character, but it also corrupts those of the best potential.
“A man can change his stars” – A Knight’s Tale
Frankly, this is why so many of the rags to riches types of builders reject such social policies, and such theories of work, which are really theories of man. It’s easy to say that it’s because they’re selfish, and don’t want to ‘give back’ now that they have received their come uppance from the gods, or fate, or Hogwarts School of Wizards and exceptional entrepreneurs and savvy investors. But many of them know that they really could have failed, that they had to fight against nasty challenges, perhaps even primarily in the form of the theorizers of fated winners and destined failures, to rise. And the last thing they want to do is articulate the same abusive theory. They know that throwing money down the chute, instead of saying, “but you *are* capable of amazing things, and you really *are* able to reinvent yourself, to innovate – yes you *are* smart enough”, is not only wasteful, it’s harmful. It’s insulting. It’s abusive. It’s nasty, and not charitable at all. Rule of Work: Charity is always an affirmation of the other person, never a denial of their uniqueness. You can dump all your scraps down the chute and it still be a form of contempt. Real charity is offered not because there’s no hope, but because there is. This is why I like Kiva.org and microlending so much – because it’s focused on small, impoverished entrepreneurs – it continually reaffirms that people are not destined to oblivion – they can change their stars.
Incidentally, I’m not dismissing outright charitable giving by referring to Kiva and microlending to the poor, but I select charitable projects (I use GlobalGiving.org) with which I can help enhance the possibility for individuals to extend their reach and the effectiveness of their lives for pursuing their own vocations (which is most projects on GG – every project I’ve seen, in fact) – and so I refer to it as investing charitably, not giving per se in the sense that people often mean something one is randomly throwing away. I am buying a kind of world I want to exist. I am literally making and creating the universe. As such, I consider it a godlike act, and the ultimate purpose of wealth, the capacity for which I was endowed with by my Creator. To be like him, I must create as he created and, like him, the world I desire to exist is one in which each of us can find the straightest path to our reason for being, our salvation, our god-given work that we each will find it supreme joy to do.
“What does that mean to be noble?” – Braveheart.
The United States is a country founded on the belief that nobility is a plenitude – it’s available to everyone. It has never lived up to that doctrine, I’m sorry to say. Ayn Rand successfully pointed that out. But those of us who look out over its expanse and see not its limits but a vast potential are still trying to prove that any man can be a king.
On that note: Screw Robin Hood. To Hell with Harry Potter. Get up, especially if you are among the rich (or the “cable” poor). You were given an incredible mind, an amazing set of survival skills, and a plenitude of raw talent – and that’s just the one of us that’s below average – as well as some really nice environmental advantages. There is no me vs. you – we’re the same. Sure, it’s great to laud someone who does something wonderful. I look up to a host of people. But they’re not gods, not wizards, and they’re not princes. Each of them is one of us. We can’t take credit – like people who don’t know crap about science do when they talk about “us” having made great scientific advances. But we can take inspiration. Let’s be honest about this stuff. When one of us rises up and does something extraordinary, it’s not another testament to fate or affirmation of the importance of heredity, it is yet another affirmation that any of us can do something extraordinary. And some of that, honestly, is lost in all the cries about the top 1% controlling everything, and alienation from the means of production. The marxism of the NYC occupation is a mistake, though I sympathize deeply with some of their attitudes.
There is one fundamental philosophical error at work in the West that has you and I enslaved to these ridiculous ideas that are part of a magical worldview – and it’s just as prevalent among the atheists, voodoo though it may be. It is the confusion of person with operation – the conflation of who one is with what one does. Robin Hood and Harry Potter tell us that great achievements are a result of things one couldn’t help and can’t really take credit for – that they are matters of identity not industry – they are the result of who the person is, not what the person does. One cannot really create these things – we are powerless – we can only enjoy them. Anything that isn’t built into us from the beginning is impossible. Identity is destiny. And that’s a biological theory of superiority that we fought a world war to refute. It is cultural heresy, folks. Character is destiny. Identity is who you are – character is how you live – it’s what you do about the world, not who you are in it.
This is the biggest beef I have with video game and role-playing game culture. It’s always your “stats” that make you extraordinary, sometimes enhanced by money or equipment. It’s rarely, almost never, hard work and real thought. “Fun” in that crowd is being something you’re not – presumably only then can you do something you otherwise couldn’t – and this form of entertainment is sought out in the extreme by those who don’t feel extraordinary and so don’t think themselves capable of extraordinary things. Those of us already doing extraordinary things are easily bored by games, because they aren’t delivering the real deal. If you made something new today, or had a new idea, or built something that works and makes the world better, then who gives a shit about slaying orcs or what level you achieved in Call of Duty? The error that makes what we do that is either extraordinary or banal into who we are removes both responsibility and ability. It’s like one of those tar pits that trapped ancient creatures who struggled, died, and are preserved to this day. Somewhere, a guy who games 20 hours/week is embalming himself with bean dip and will be held up as a specimen a millenia from now – some poor, hapless creature who wandered into purposeless oblivion and finally accepted his ‘fate’.
Such people, and their social sponsors among the “priviledged”, look at someone who has not founded anything, or built anything, created anything, made anything, etc. and conclude that it’s because he is incapable, because he is inherently not a builder or creator or founder or maker. He is a permanent, biological underclass, because of lower IQ or bad genes, or because it’s not possible to exceed one’s upbringing, which is supposed to be absolute. And that is an entirely different view of man, an entirely different anthropological philosophy, than that which prevails among people who do innovate, who do contribute heavily, who do constantly reinvent and offer value. It is a philosphy of supermen and machine men – it is the ultimate elitism – not a meritocracy but a hereditary aristocracy. And frankly, it’s been distorted into a 60 year argument between fascists and socialists – between the right and the left – people who want the wealthy to receive more dividends regardless of the havoc they wreak on society as a whole, and people who want the ordinary to receive more distributions without any expectation of adapting, overcoming, reinventing new ways to add value. And both sides want to be the parasitic administrators of whichever deal they’re sponsoring – both sides want to rob the innovators to fund their ideology. Both hate man, have an attitude toward man that is mechanical and destructive. And both are missing the point. And it’s awfully tempting to take up with one or another of those seedy, bankrupt, superstitions isn’t it?
“No man has to bow, no man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was.” – Gettysburg
To paraphrase: there’s a difference between operation and person – between what you do and who you are. You may just be Joe – average Joe – and the possibilities for what you do may not seem endless. But they are extraordinary. Can’t afford college? I’ve got 3 degrees, and I think they’re in a notebook somewhere – they aren’t worth a dime to me right now. Can’t afford to start a business? I started my first one with $100 and a crappy old hatchback. It can be done, and there was nothing “genius” about it. Can’t get a job? Hell, I couldn’t keep a job. I got laid off more than Colin Farrell’s been laid. Think you’re too old to reinvent yourself? I thing I began adulthood at 25 (and took about 10 years to really get into it), and I didn’t figure out my vocation until 35, and was 45 before I dumped corporate life to really even start work on it. What, you needed to have it done by now? It’s not like we’re farmers in the 1800s that died of old age at 40. Besides, you and I have learned something by now that will be useful, that we wouldn’t have known at 18. I’m less worried about how old I am, and more concerned with how I spent this afternoon. You can get old without growing old – you know? We can’t afford to worry about that stuff. Get excellent insurance and save all you can, but put your thinking into what you’re doing now – especially if you can’t yet afford excellent insurance or to save anything.
I do realize that some people really want to be employees – great – but then accept that you are giving up a lot of control over your destiny, and don’t whine about it when the job ends. Everyone is a contractor now. There’s no such thing as permanent employment, except as a status on paper. But it’s a fiction. Don’t ask people to sympathize because you wanted with so much of your heart to believe it, that you abstained from taking responsibility for change. Change is coming. Always. If employment, for you, is just a cop out – just a way of not having to think, of letting someone else take care of all the details, then you’re living in Harry Potter’s world, not this one. Eventually Hogwarts restructures, closes down, sells out, or just doesn’t need you anymore. Back to contracting or, as employment-minded people call it, “the job market”.
There are a series of questions we ask ourselves in life that take our whole lives to answer, and you can’t let them be confused with one another. Who am I? What is the world? What is my relationship to the world? What must I do? If you don’t know any of the answers to these questions yet, you’re not too old to get started – you’re too young to stop. And if you do know some of the answers, you’re already moving in a useful direction, and you just have to self-correct. Thinking the world would always give us a job is like driving in a straight line and thinking we’ll never hit a fork in the road. The world will never just hand us continuity, because continuity forever just isn’t possible. We’ll have to choose a different path, always – but every time we get to do it, it’s not a limitation imposed on us, but a normal exchange of continuity for more options. In other words – no job? OK, you have more options for what you do next than you did when you were punching a clock. Not to be flippant, it’s really true that we aren’t “destined” for anything – greatness or despair, failure or success. We don’t have to have our blood checked to read our future like tea leaves, and we needn’t shrug off greatness because no one dropped a magic sword into our laps. Frankly, a rampant desire to be Neo, the “chosen one”, puts all our minds in the Matrix. If you really want to free your mind, it’s not the spoon that doesn’t exist. It’s Neo. We’re all chosen ones. Sorry Keanu.