Mitt Romney‘s comments at a May fundraiser describing 47% of the American population as, roughly, a bunch of no-goodnik moochers are merely the latest expression of one aspect of a peculiar view that many reasonably intelligent folks are fond of espousing. It is a view that insists on imposing a facile dichotomy on this world and its people: the world is made up of makers and takers, of those who produce and those who consume, of those who are self-reliant, independent, rugged types, and those who are quivering, jelly-kneed, dependent leeches. The logical conclusion–even if entirely fallacious–of this line of reasoning is the most ludicrous fantasy of all: the self-made man. (Rather unbelievably, so impoverished and misguided is this view that it has actually provoked David Brooks into writing a coherent sentence or two in his latest Op-Ed; that alone should give you some indicator of the intellectual poverty that lies at its heart.)
It’s not particularly difficult to see why this view is such a non-starter given that we begin our lives naked, bawling, and helpless, and spend the next few years unable to clean up after ourselves, fed at regular intervals, clothed, sheltered, and closely supervised by our parents. But it persists, a stunning testimony to our ability to tell ourselves comforting fairy tales that elevate us in our own estimation: geocentrism, the Great Chain of Being, perfect self-knowledge, autonomous action, the list goes on. We are, after all, an extremely chauvinistic species, convinced we are God’s finest creation, the summum bonum of all that is good and wonderful about the universe. Once we are done crowning ourselves masters of the universe, why not look a little closer, and impose some further gradations among human beings as well? Perhaps that way, we can determine, even within our closed ranks, who the true summiteers are, the ones leaving the rest of the grubby masses back at base camp. We are, it seems, hell-bent on relying on vacuous, offensive hierarchies.
This misguided view persists even when it is pointed out that almost every single second of our waking lives we come into contact with the product of the labor of others, perfect strangers sometimes, who have stepped up to the pot of common resources and put in their share. (You, dear reader, are reading this post on a computing device, the abstract principles for which are due to a gay man, Alan Turing, hounded to his death for being so. The code for your computing device is the product of, presumably, dozens, if not hundreds of programmers.)
That little mountaineering metaphor I invoked above tells us all we need to know about the stupidity and incoherence of the sad trope of the self-reliant man: even the most austere Alpinist, even a Reinhold Messner-extraordinaire does not summit without having relied on others. Messner went solo to the highest peaks in the world, but he used maps, axes, boots, goggles, warm-weather gear, canned food, ropes, pitons, carabiners; the list is never-ending. Messner didn’t make those with his bare hands. He was a taker too.
The next time you find yourself tempted to classify the world into makers and takers, look up the word ‘ecology’ in a dictionary. Think about how it might apply to the human world. I promise you, a richer world will spring into view. It is an exhilarating vision.