WAMC OCT 20 2011
Dr. Steven A. Leibo is the Sage Colleges Professor of international history & politics
“Remembering Horatio Alger”
His name was Horatio Alger, but not many remember him today. Still it strikes this commentator that he has been one of the most influential figures in the entire “Occupy Wall Street” movement because long ago, in the late 1800s Alger, hit upon a literary formula that guaranteed his success for years. A once famous series of novels he wrote about impoverished nineteen- century boys that through diligence and commitment attained middle class security and respectability.
And though Alger was active relatively late in the American experience his success stemmed no doubt from having so well tapped into the essence of the American social contract, a mindset that has had little truck with grand schemes of revolutionary social change.
A community that regularly rejected talk of class warfare focusing instead on a basic pride in an American system that was said to allow every individual through their own efforts to rise from even the lowest levels of society a people not much inclined to step into the streets as the Nazis once wrote, When they felt small into the waiting arms of the larger community, where they felt big.
Rather ours was a community that has idealized the determined individual honored the maverick, occasionally building entire political campaigns around the idea as in 2008. Yes, we have embraced the single motivated individual who makes his own destiny for some each our own Howard Roark.
The American way of success if you will, as personified in literature from Horatio Alger’s work to Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead. A nation that saw progress not in changing society but in making it as easy as possible for those who committed themselves to getting an education to advance or for the inspired drop outs, folks who rejected formal training and just took the leap, individuals from Bill Gates to Steve Jobs.
Not forgetting all those who just keep looking for the newest get rich quick scheme, an attitude perhaps most amusingly embraced by the once famous Joe the Plumber who obtained fleeting fame by aggressively challenging presidential candidate Barack Obama for proposing taxes on higher incomes good old Joe simply assumed he would eventually be successful enough to have to pay.
A society that has long accepted enormous gaps in wealth on the theory that all of us had a chance to break into the ranks of the successful, a reality this commentator personally experienced while rising from an impoverished childhood on welfare to a reasonably successful life as a middle class professor and public radio commentator.
A contract our political parties too bought into with the republicans claiming everyone could pull themselves up by their bootstraps as long as government stays out of the way while the democratic occasionally reminded us that not everyone has any boot straps to pull up — thus justifying a bit of governmental help.
A system that prevailed at least through the early internet boom but that has been breaking down ever so dramatically since the new century emerged as the k-12 educational system long critical to our personal aspirations has increasingly failed.
And of course, college, once the great hope of so many for generations has become increasingly unobtainable without one taking on levels of financial burden akin to the debt slavery of another era. While Wall Street’s 2008 recklessness destroyed even more of our faith even as those who created the mess got off largely scot free protected by their political body guards, deaf to the growing frustrations that the long open doors of American opportunity seem to be closing behind an increasingly permanent aristocracy of American wealth.
While for the rest of us sustained for so long on the image and occasional reality of the Horatio Alger’s stories see the possibility of real success flowing beyond our reach making the occupy wall street movement, that has now spread across the nation as an understandable a movement as one could possibly imagine. Inspired by an aroused American public, angry that the essence of the American social contract been broken