Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Every one's a bootstrapper...at least in their own minds

There are things people often refer to as certainties, like death and taxes, things that are always present or eventually occur no matter what we do, how we live, or where we live. And the things cited run the gamut, from natural occurrences like death, changing weather, and rising suns, to societal ones, like taxes, lawsuits, and political arguments. When it comes to politicians, proper, there are some things we come to expect from our elected leaders as a matter of course: we expect them to tell us what we want to hear, to make promises, to project themselves as caring, honest citizens just like us.

When it comes to the last, which we all know to be something of a game, there is one common tool used to this end by most politicians: a bootstrapping narrative of their origins.

The idea of bootstrapping is essentially that of succeeding--in life or a particular task--without the help of anyone else. The term itself has been around for a long time, since the the nineteenth century, at least. Specifically, its meaning is to pull oneself up by the straps of one's boots. Such straps still exist on most boots today, usually in the form of loops on either side of the boot to allow the insertion of hooks which one would then pull to help get the boot properly on the foot. Many sneakers have such straps, too, a single loop directly on the top of the back edge.

Thus in theory, to pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps would be an impossible task. Linguist Ben Zimmer discussed the origins of the term, noting the following:
Cites from the 19th century are easy enough to find on the databases, though the original sense was not simply "to raise or better oneself by one's own unaided efforts", but to try to do so in a ludicrously far-fetched or quixotic manner. The 1834 cite below, for instance, is ridiculing a person who claimed to have invented a perpetual motion machine...

The shift in the metaphor's sense to suggest a *possible* task doesn't seem to have occurred until the early 20th century. Even in the 1927 article I cited in a previous post ("The Bootstrapper", reprinted from the Times of London), the headstrong American belief in self-improvement is presented as rather preposterous.
Portrait of Baron von Münchhausen, 
by G. Bruckner, 1740
He also talks about the idea of the term originating in the stories of Baron von Münchhausen, the 18th century German nobleman known for telling outlandish stories about his adventures. In one of these stories, he recounted how he had saved himself from drowning in a swamp by pulling himself--and his horse--out of the swamp using his own hair, an obvious impossibility. Even though there is no evidence to support the idea the the term "bootstrapping" had ever been a part of this tale--it was always the hair--the gist of it was the same, an outrageous act of self-betterment.

But again, in current parlance "bootstrapping" has lost this quixotic aspect; it is recognized as a valid thing, a descriptive term that can be fairly applied to many, many people. And--as a group--politicians generally seem to believe it should be applied to them.

In some cases it's quite defensible. A number of U.S. Presidents rose up from the most humble of beginnings, based largely on their own efforts, their will to improve themselves and their station in life. Bill Clinton is a fair example in this regard. So to is Richard Nixon and a number of others. Some, however, do not fit such a narrative in the least. Many of the early Presidents were very much children of privilege, men whose political careers were a consequence of family wealth and power, above all else. And one could fairly add George W. Bush to this list. But by and large, most Presidents--like the current one--fall between these two extremes: that of being born into great wealth and that of being born into dire poverty.

Still, when on the campaign trail, the bootstrapping narrative is introduced whenever possible by politicians at every level, because it just seems to play so well, because it makes a candidate--when done properly--look like a "man (or women) of the people." But of course, problems arise when such narratives are not based wholly on fact. Obama experienced some such problems, when trying to portray his own background as exceedingly humble. Many other politicians have had similar experiences. Most recently, there is Wendy Davis in Texas, whose own bootstrapping narrative has been called into question.

But I'm not going to dwell on Davis'--or any one else's--misrepresentations and exaggerations when it comes to personal histories. Rest assured, there is no ideological angle here: politicians of every stripe play the same game--or at least try to--whenever they can get away with it. For instance, Mitt Romney--a child of privilege if there ever was one--still managed to weave a tale of self-betterment during his campaign. And I think that goes to the fundamental issue at play: people want to believe in themselves and tend to create these kinds of self-serving narratives as a matter of course.

It is the rare person who, leading a highly successful life, is prepared to say "well, I had very little to do with my success, I never had any struggles to speak of and everything has just worked out great for me, through no effort on my part." And true enough, it is the rare person for whom this is absolutely true. We all have struggles; the issue is comparing those struggles, allowing that someone else's are far more significant than our own, allowing that it is not always easy or even possible to understand what another went through.

And that is a consequence of the human condition, in my opinion. To be human is to understand what that "being" entails as a matter of course. To suppose that there are real holes in such understanding, that the humanity of one is somehow not the same as the humanity of another poses a serious problem for the intellect or, if you will, the ego.

So really, we shouldn't be surprised when politicians get caught exaggerating about their own backgrounds, making their lives seem more difficult than we might think they actually were. For in our own minds, our lives are fraught with trials and tribulations unique to ourselves; struggles are an integral part of life and we are not prepared to simply set aside our own--regardless of their extent or lack thereof--as lesser ones, as compared to those of another.

In the public discourse, when people are put in a position where they must talk about or even explain their own backgrounds, it's unreasonable to expect them to minimize their own experiences. Indeed, they are far more likely to look for praise and/or sympathy in this regard, particularly when they are seeking votes. The danger for the politician is going too far, is playing the part of a modern-day Münchhausen and telling tall tales that can be undone by simple research.

Still, we all tend to exaggerate, we all want to believe we earned what we have, in fact deserve it and more, for one reason or another. And at the end of the day, it's because we want to believe we are in control of our lives and destinies to some extent, that we can pull ourselves up by the proverbial bootstraps, whether or not this is really the case.

Cheers, all.

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