No cultural myth needs to be demythologized – exposed as fraudulent – more than the “myth of the bootstrap.”
The myth appears in the claim, “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps.”
It is the myth of the self-made man, the one who lifts himself out of poverty to conspicuous wealth through nothing more than hard work – work without the help of anyone else, without the benefit of community.
“The slogan that we pull ourselves from our bootstraps … is a lie … I have yet to see somebody pull themselves from their bootstraps,” said Javier Elizondo, executive vice president at the Baptist University of the Americas in the EthicsDaily.com documentary BeneaththeSkin.
“I came from Mexico when I was 15 with no money, no education. I was able to get an education in the United States … But I can tell you, I didn’t pull myself by my bootstraps,” said Elizondo.
“There had to be people who came over alongside and helped me carry my burden,” he said. “That’s the other imagery. Carrying one another’s burdens. And I can mention you the names of the all the people who from age 15 to age 54 have walked alongside me to help me carry that burden.”
Given the disadvantages of economics, education, ethnicity and language in a new country, if anyone could trumpet the “bootstrap myth,” it would be Elizondo.
Look at his remarkable achievements: academic degrees culminating with a doctorate from Baylor University and professional advancement to the position of provost.
Yet listen to his attitude – one of honest assessment and gratitude for community.
Contrast Elizondo, a first-generation American, with presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a child of wealth and privilege, who by education, aspiration and connection is as much a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant as he is a Mormon.
During a presidential debate in South Carolina, Romney said he could have stayed in Detroit and been pulled up into the automobile industry. But he went off on his own to achieve his success.
“I didn’t inherit money from my parents. What I have, I earned. I worked hard, the American way,” said Romney to the cheers and applause of the audience.
During a presidential debate in Florida, Romney said he went to work in his first job in 1970 at “the bottom level of a consulting firm.”
He later said: “I will not apologize for having been successful. I did not inherit what my wife and I have, nor did she. What we have – what – what I was able to build, I built the old-fashioned way, by earning it, by working hard.”
One should neither deny his financial success nor doubt his work ethic. Romney has many commendable qualities, not the least of which is his faithfulness to his family.
One should, however, challenge his weaving of the bootstrap myth into his life narrative.
Did he earn everything the “old-fashioned way”? Did he pull himself up by his bootstraps to Swiss Bank accounts?
His father, George W. Romney, was CEO of American Motors Co. (1954-62), governor of Michigan (1963-69) and secretary of Housing and Urban Development (1969-73).
His mother, Lenore LaFount, was a U.S. senate candidate in 1970. President Calvin Coolidge appointed her father to what is now the Federal Communications Commission.
Romney may have worked hard. But he hardly started off in a cheap pair of boots. No, he probably started off with a closet full of expensive shoes, suits, shirts and neckties.
If he had any boots, were they work boots or boots for recreation? If he had a job interview, what was the likelihood that the interviewer wasn’t connected to his patrician society?
Can one really claim they earned it the old-fashioned way when their father was CEO of one of the largest corporations on earth and at the head table of a political party?
The problem with the bootstrap myth is that it represents the assertion of autonomy.
The assertion of autonomy is entrenched in the secular faith that champions human sovereignty and self-sufficiency. It preaches radical self-reliance and denies a costly responsibility for others.
The assertion of autonomy runs in the opposite direction from authentic Christianity, which is hardwired to the confession of community.
The confession of community is rooted in the biblical faith that recognizes dependence on God and the interdependence of God’s children. It begins with gratitude and ends with responsibility for others.
As an ancient Celtic saying goes, we are who we are because we drink from wells that others dug and warm ourselves on fires that other struck.
Think of the divide between the confession of community and the assertion of autonomy in terms of early American history without theological coloration.
View it as the difference between the wagon train and the prospector.
The wagon train represents a community moving together for the welfare of all to a better tomorrow. The prospector represents the isolated individual searching for personal wealth.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.