I keep two CDs in my car: Nickel Creek’s self-titled album, and the 1992 Canadian cast recording of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Fine, that’s a lie. I have a whole CD case under the passenger seat (am I the only person on the planet who still listen to CDs in the car?), but that didn’t make a good introduction. And, anyway, those really are the only two I listen to regularly.
In fact, the Bwun has listened to the Joseph soundtrack so often that he snaps along with “Any Dream Will Do.” (No, he can’t actually snap. He tries.) He even calls it “the snap song.”
(An aside: we’re big into calling things “the ____ song” or “the ____ movie” around here. Tangled is “the hair movie.” Up is “the balloon movie.” Prince of Egypt is “the horse movie,” by the Bwun’s choice, and I think it’s because the race between Moses and Rameses early in the movie. The Emperor’s New Groove is “the llama movie.” Similarly, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Da” is “the zip song,” “Do Your Ears Hang Low” is “the ear song,” and so on.)
But back to my story. Oh, had I not gotten to a story yet? Here it comes, then.
Today I took the kids to jr’s 6-month checkup and then we drove up to see Aunt Krista, currently “Ann Kurshwa.” Meh, that’s close enough. It was an hour-long drive and both kids fell asleep, so I was lost in thought while I enjoyed the Joseph soundtrack. I really prefer the first act, and since we mainly drive around town, that’s all I usually listen to. On this longer trip I made it into the second act and was too absorbed to start the CD over. (As usual, I-15 is a mess of construction, which meant I actually had to pay attention to the road. Not that I don’t always do so. My point is that I was more focused on driving than on listening to the music.)
In the middle of “Stone the Crows” I was snapped out of my reverie by this line of Joseph’s, after he interprets Pharaoh’s dream and is promoted:
Anyone from anywhere can make it if they get a lucky break!
Now, maybe you haven’t heard me talk about the American dream before. If not, you’re about to. My understanding of the American dream is that with hard work, you can do or be anything you want. And I think the American dream is a lie.
I don’t deny that hard work can get you a long way. Joseph is a perfect example of this. In both Potiphar’s house and in prison, Joseph climbed the ranks because he was a dedicated, motivated man. But did you notice that in these situations, he was a slave and a prisoner, even after his hard work? There’s the key – circumstances beyond our control have a huge impact on our position in life.
Because as a society we believe fairly strongly in the idea of the American dream, we assume that a person’s socioeconomic status is a reflection of their work ethic. Hello, Max Weber? He wrote an entire book about how the Protestant belief that one’s calling and election was revealed through worldly success, which was seen as an indication of God’s favor, and that this led to the development of capitalism. We’ve secularized Weber’s idea and reversed it: poverty is a result not of God’s disfavor but of an underdeveloped work ethic.
I know the comparison to Joseph is never going to be perfect, because he really was favored of God and didn’t seem to deserve being sold into slavery and later imprisoned. But his words, via Andrew Lloyd Webber, capture the sentiment that a “lucky break” has a lot to do with success – or failure.
If I’m not making any sense, and I kind of suspect that I’m not, let me give an example. I was born to college-educated parents. This fact alone has determined a considerable portion of my life circumstances. It meant that I grew up reading books, I was taught to value education, I took it for granted that I would attend college, and I experienced significantly lower risks for forming deviant peer associations, abusing drugs, dropping out of school, or becoming pregnant as a teenager. Having college-educated parents makes a big difference in my life, but it isn’t a reflection of my personal characteristics.
Can you see the flip side? Someone who was born to high school dropouts probably won’t grow up reading books, won’t be taught to value education, won’t plan to attend college, and is at a higher risk for delinquent behaviors. And this is just one variable we’re talking about. Obviously, parental education level is intertwined with other socioeconomic factors, so you can’t say that it alone led me to be the respectable, educated person I am today.
It’s a starting point, though. Anyone from anywhere can make it – if they start out in favorable circumstances or get a lucky break along the way.
tl;dr – Don’t be so harsh on poor people.
Special thanks to Aubrey and Shawn for planting the seeds of thought that inspired this post, and, dare I say, to my parents for being smart.