This week the fantasy of the American dream died — in nooses designed for our most senior elected officials. It was a chilling end to the American dream.
It never actually existed.
The American experiment was created to enrich white men. The governance of our ‘democracy’ gave them the political and economic power to succeed regardless of their effort, intelligence, or ethics.
Our government gave white men:
- The right to vote
- The right to own property
- The right to enslave others
- The right to judge and punish others
- The right to make financial decisions and access banking
- The right to reasonable loans and financing
- The right to make money off of property ownership
- Preference in receiving government benefits (like receiving health care, unemployment, and social security ‘full-time’ vs ‘hourly’ work or tax-credits for higher education, philanthropy, and donations).
- The right to ‘free’ land, secured and controlled by the nation's military
The dream these men promulgated is that they earned these rights based on their inherent superiority. When others failed to succeed, the implication was that they were not smart enough or did not work hard enough — that they did not deserve it. The impact of systemic barriers were judged as individual failings and used as ‘proof’ that some people were undeserving. The patriarchal lie was that successful people ‘pulled themselves up by their bootstraps’, and because white men were more successful, it must follow that they worked harder and were more deserving.
The truth is that given all these structural advantages, it is hard for white men to fail. White men could be dumb, lazy, cruel, and craven — and still succeed. Centuries of this dynamic have led white me to expect success. Failure is an aberration. Even an offense.
Over time, native tribes, women, immigrants, Blacks, and other marginalized groups have fought and died in vast numbers to make incremental gains in equity. Almost all of our internal social turmoil has resulted from the original sin of the patriarcial lie— including the unending Indian Wars, The Texas Revolution, The Civil War, Reconstruction, women’s suffrage, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and more.
And yet collectively we refuse to see and understand that these movements to demand rights are not unrelated events of disgruntled individuals or groups — they are all a symptom of patriarchal governance that advantages white men above all others.
For generations, white men were the only people allowed to own property (women, for example, only got the right to have bank accounts and loans without a man’s signature in the early 70s). The U.S. government grants huge tax shelters to those with property — it is a critical mechanism for wealth creation. Having limited rights to ownership dramatically circumvents financial equity. Because of those tax benefits, those with property see its value compound over time — and over generations. Those without property are stuck in a linear value model, where they earn money incrementally based on the time they work, forcing them to work harder to make the same as someone who starts off with property but might earn less. The logic is bizarre; because you own things you deserve to own more, regardless of your effort, ethics, or skill.
I could go on and on but the point is that white men used government to do everything possible to make success easy for themselves and hard for others — and they succeeded. Because they controlled most large organizations, the narratives that were published, shared, and reinforced were that white men were superior, confirmed by their success — and that success was a result of their inherent abilities, hard work, and intelligence. White men grew to expect success so much so that they did not even understand it, deluding themselves that they had earned it through their own efforts.
This lie — this delusion of the self-made, superior white man — was easier to sustain when society was fragmented and individuals isolated. It was easy to create the impression for individuals and each marginalized group that their experience was abnormal or an exception and it was their individual failings that caused the disparities they lived with daily. It was easy to normalize this dynamic in our homes and workplaces.
With the explosion of information over the last twenty years, all the cracks are being brought into the light and seen collectively. The delusions of superiority are harder to maintain. And people are rightly angry.
Ironically, the group that is perhaps the angriest is white men themselves. They were fed a lie of superiority — that they deserved to succeed — and now they can see all the ways in which they do not deserve what they have or perhaps have not been successful in spite of all these benefits. They see other groups incrementally getting more equity, attention, and opportunity and they are angry because they think those opportunities were promised to them.
White men are on the precipice of losing power even though much of that power was unearned. Those in a position of losing power are far more likely to be enraged and violent than those who are gaining power they never had. By defending their right to power white men are justifying to themselves that they deserve it. But many also know, viscerally, they did not earn their advantages and they have gnawing insecurity that they cannot express for fear that it might be true. President Trump is validating that they are deserving of that power regardless of whether they earned it — absolving them of that internal culpability and insecurity. It brings relief that their nagging insecurities might not be valid after all.
But it doesn’t remove the anxiety of being exposed, of accepting that they may not deserve what they have, of having to negotiate with people they feel should be subservient, and even of just having to listen and accept the horrible pain and abuse that others have gone through because of people like them. To acknowledge that anxiety for what it is would force them to acknowledge their weaknesses — and that makes them angry because they have always been lied to and told they are strong and perfect.
Many white women are anxious too because they benefit from the power accrued to them by their association with white men even while they suffer under the control of white men. The prospect of having to compete with Black and brown people instead of enjoying the advantages they have is threatening. Equity makes them admit to themselves that they are both controlled and controlling; both disempowered and abusive in equal measure. They are angry because more equality makes them feel both stuck and weak. Many have accepted the patriarchal narrative, giving up their power to white men but now being held responsible for the way they have always regained their sense of control; by abusing even more marginalized people.
This cycle of co-dependency and denial of reality in white people has created a culture of insecurity, anxiety, and defensiveness. We are fed the myth that we inherently deserve more than what we viscerally know to be true, based on superficial or artificial traits. Because of that, we are not encouraged to accept ourselves as we are; with confidence in our strengths and compassion for our weaknesses. That denial of ourselves prevents us from accepting others as they are; supporting them when they falter and celebrating them when they succeed. It keeps us from ourselves and keeps us from each other.
It is a scary prospect to accept and acknowledge personal faults if you have always experienced a world that ignores them, effectively telling you that you have none — and yet your know better and have hidden those faults and anxieties away in shame and silence, ironically creating deep-seated insecurity. It is scary to lose protections that make life easy and gives you advantages, especially given the deep anxieties about your worth.
Acknowledging weaknesses and giving up undeserved protections holds people to account. It subjects them to their own abilities, which people are unsure of because they have never had them fully tested. It’s not a situation people readily or willingly subject themselves to, especially if they have always experienced advantages by merely walking in the door.
2020 and 2021 have brought us to a massive cultural reckoning, playing out in our national politics. On one side are those that know the only way forward is by acknowledging disparities and rectifying them — and that it will lead to something much better. On the other side are those that cannot see the structural issues and are still caught up in the lie of the self-made man and the inherent superiority of white men. They like things the way they are because they cannot see the toxic rot that afflicts them and how dismantling that lie with actually free them. It is a brutal struggle — one that has been played out again and again since Europeans came to North America.
There will be no resolution this year but we are being tested and asked to decide in which direction we will travel. While in my mind there is no question which way society will eventually go, there are decisions that will make the short-term path much rockier and violent and decisions that will help us heal. I hope we choose wisely.