About a decade ago, I read an article by a sociologist who studied business cultures. He said that of all the companies he had studied, there was one which was unusual, because he had never seen such a uniformity of political orientation in the executives of any other company. Ethnically diverse, yes, but politically, no. They were all reading off the same conservative script: The poor are poor only because they want to be. They don’t want to work, and they don’t want to take risks. Government has no right to regulate businesses. Taxes are bad. Social Security was unnecessary and should be done away with. They all felt that they were successful because they were smarter, harder-working, and more willing to take risks than others. They deserved their success, because they were simply better at what they did than anyone else. The company they worked for? A company that was making headlines at the moment for it’s spectacular crash and illegal manipulation of its books: Enron. I sometimes wonder if those people felt the same way after their world crashed around them.
In looking at many of the current Tea Party screeds, it’s something I’ve had cause to remember. The sense of “we’re better than those people” keeps coming through. Their success is due only to their hard work, skill, and just being “better.” What all of them are ignoring is that there was a strong element of chance – of luck – in their success. Yes, they might well have been hard working, smart, skillful – but so were a lot of other people. They were in the right place at the right time. They had the right “connections.” They had a network of people with the financial resources to help them out. In short, they had some advantages to begin with, and no small amount of luck as well. “Failure” is not the catastrophic “I’m homeless on the streets and penniless” deal it is with someone else.
It’s easy to think that chance played no part in your success, particularly when you’re getting praised for being so good. Cultures throughout history have recognized that, as well as the need to have a reminder that you should have some humility as well. Romans used to treat victorious generals like gods. Literally. But they also put a slave in the chariot carrying the victor , whose job was to tell the general “Respice post te! Hominem te memento!” (Look behind you! Remember you are but a man! ) It’s also called “memento mori” – “remember, you are mortal.” A part of the ceremony for the coronation of the Pope used to be the reminder: “Sancte Pater, sic transit gloria mundi!” (“Holy Father, so passes worldly glory!”) Another common saying that has lost currency is “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
It’s always tempting to think that you “deserve” what you have because you are “special.” Many seem to act like the person of whom it was recently said: “They were born on third base, and think they hit a triple.” Because of that, they’ve forgotten that they are where they are not just because they were good – they were lucky, too.