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Legitimizing American meritocracy – Danny Haiphong

Host Chris Hedges talks with journalist Danny Haiphong about how the myths of American meritocracy and individualism are used to legitimize the accumulation of inherited wealth by the ruling elite class.  Haiphong’s new book with Roberto Sirvent is called, ‘American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News – From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror’.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss American exceptionalism with journalist Danny Haiphong.

DH: The right-wing dreams of the United States as a white country, as a nation that the American Dream has worked for for white people.  However, there’s another side to it, the more neoliberal side of the coin where people like Oprah become representatives of the notion that actually the American Dream can work for everybody, it can work for those who have been historically oppressed and disadvantaged by US imperialism, capitalism.  Look, I’m an example of that.  And she has made a fortune doing that.  And it--and what we try to say and show is that this is a more effective evil.

CH: At the core of the American myth is the idea that we live in a meritocracy, work hard, go to school, obey the rules, and believe in yourself, and anything we are told as possible.  This mantra preach from the pulpits of megachurches, pumped out over the airwaves by celebrity hosts such as Oprah Winfrey, repeated by politicians and embraced by the Christian right self-help gurus and positive psychologists is a lie.  It is the mendacious veneer that legitimates the obscene wealth, an inherited privilege of the ruling class.  This myth is buttressed by the relentless promotion of individualism, the self-made man or woman as the root to economic and social success.  The ruling ideology fetishizes the wealth and success of celebrities, professional athletes, business elites, and politicians.  Don’t build labor unions.  Don’t organize for social and economic justice.  Don’t question the system of corporate capitalism.  Just dream big.  The success of this indoctrination is crippled, social movements, and our perceptions of ourselves.  Joining me in the studio to discuss this is the journalist Danny Haiphong.  So you write about this issue and you write about it very well.  And it’s been a very effective ideological form of social control going back generations and has been, in many ways, the ideological engine of white supremacy and oligarchic control.

DH: Yeah, definitely.  I--you know, me and Roberto Sirvent who wrote the upcoming book about American exceptionalism, American innocence, we really wanted to focus much of our book on the economic engine of capitalism and American capitalism in particular.  And to us, that is the American Dream, this notion that the United States is the most prosperous, the most developed country in the world, that it provides everyone with prosperity, and that those who do not succeed in the system are ultimately failures who were not able to individually lift themselves up.  But we’re seeing now a lot of data and a lot of developments like the Sanders phenomenon politically, and the Occupy Wall Street movement five years before that.  We’re seeing this increase--increasing disdain with the unreality of the American Dream.  The fact that, you know, there’s a trillion dollar student loan debt bubble that is ready to burst and the fact that one of our chapters really focuses on which is the dwindling black wealth in the United States.

CH: But let’s look at that because you have a figure here according to the Institute of Policy Studies, black wealth in America will hit zero by 2053.  If current trends persist black median wealth has dropped from $6,800 in 1983 to just $1,700 in 2013.  That’s a decrease of 75%.  White American wealth has increased by 14% from $102,200 per family household to $116,800 over the same period.  And you, again, you quote--figures for home equity for black Americans was $16,700 less into 2017 over 21% of black men unemployed.  But this isn’t new.  I mean the--going all the way back to reconstruction, you have--with the Emancipation Proclamation, you essentially created a landless surf community of primarily African Americans never giving any kind of reparations for the labor.  I mean they built the country.  And they’ve been effectively kept there.  We--you have a quote here, it’s about Wells Fargo, these are how--but Wells Fargo, which is just a nasty Bank, but all these banks do this, that Wells Fargo employees allege that the bank deliberately tricked middleclass black families who they called mud people into subprime “Ghetto loans” and so you--at one time, you have an ideological system that that is intertwined with a system of capitalism, whether that’s redlining, whether that’s allowing inner city infrastructure and schools to be substandard to essentially keep the poor poor.

DH: Exactly.  And what we try to do is try to connect American exceptionalism in this notion that everyone benefits from what the United States does here at home and abroad, with the reality that what goes on on the ground, especially for black people in the United States, it is entirely different.  And those numbers that you cited are conservative estimates when we consider that the economic crisis of 2007, 2008 was the reason why there was such a big dip in the wealth numbers for black Americans.  And then we’ll see again that this happens periodically under capitalism, so we know that although current trends over the last several decades may point to a state of wealthlessness by 2053, that could happen much sooner.  And when we think about $1,700 in wealth, we’re thinking absolutely nothing already because the United States has become an extremely costly society with low wages, you know, expensive education, educational degrees, and the like.  So, yeah, what I’m trying to…

CH: Well, “White Americans,” you write, “control over 90% of the nation--national wealth.  It would take the average black family 228 years to amass the wealth of the average of a white American family.”  Let’s talk about how the dream works because it is effective and it is pumped out from all sorts of diffused sources including the Christian right, magic Jesus and--but you do write about Oprah and her billion-dollar fortune by, as you say, prescribing individualistic or individualist solutions for systemic problems.  These figures, especially like Oprah who did grow up in poverty and has this kind of compelling life story, become very effective sales people for this ideology.

DH: For sure.  And as you said, the--what we try to do in this book is show that there are two sides to the ideology of American exceptionalism and the American Dream, as an extension of that.  We show that the right-wing dreams of the United States as a white country, as a nation that the American Dream has worked for for white people.  However, there’s another side to it, the more neoliberal side of the coin where people like Oprah become representatives of the notion that actually the American Dream can work for everybody, it can work for those who have been historically oppressed and disadvantaged by US imperialism and capitalism.  Look, I’m an example of that.  And she has made a fortune doing that and what we try to say and show is that this is a more effective evil.  It’s a more effective way of promoting the ideology.

CH: This kind of propaganda?

DH: Yeah.  It’s a more--it’s more effective.  The right-wing can be dismissed often for, you know, harkening to white supremacy and, you know, white people especially.  But when you have Oprah who is a billion-dollar black woman, that makes the ideology that much more effective when people can look at her and say, “Oh, well maybe I can also succeed as well.”

CH: Well, even Donald Trump praises Oprah.

DH: Yeah.  Exactly.

CH: One of most--one of the mechanisms that gives--or is used to attempt to give validity to this dream is professional sports.  LeBron James, you know, Michael Jordan, and you talk about the NBA and the NFL as mechanisms of propaganda in essence.  Explain.

DH: So the NFL especially has come under recent attention because of the protests to the national--during the national anthem against police brutality that was started by Colin Kaepernick.  But I think the narrative of American exceptionalism is so pervasive in all sporting leagues in the United States, especially the most popular being the NFL and the NBA.  Basically what you have are leagues dominated by black players owned in the vast majority by white owners of the teams, as well as the entire structure.  And what you see in these leagues is this constant promotion of militarism, this constant promotion of how the NBA cares or how the NFL represents this patriotic notion of, you know, the United States being a superior place.  And you see its opulent wealth that supposedly leaks down to the players, but what we see is that actually--and black play--black people don’t make up any segment of ownership or management, or even coaching in much of these leagues.  What we have is a scenario where black people are mostly exploited in these leagues where…

CH: Well, the--we have to deal with the issue that black players can earn significant amounts of money.

DH: Yeah.  Uh-hmm.

CH: But you draw--or you quote people like Matt Taibbi and others who’ve written about this, who really liken--I mean Taibbi directly, the NFL draft, he calls it a “creepy slave-auction vibe and armies of drooling, flesh-peddling scouts looking for raw gladiatorial muscle whose sweat-drenched faces will be hidden under the helmets as coaches drive them to be rapidly ground into hamburger.”  And there is that very perverse kind of sense of ownership of large male bodies.  And while these people are compensated, and I think you write in the book, about they’re also expected to show gratitude.  Frederick Douglass talked about that of course, concept of showing gratitude to the white master.  Explain that whole process.

DH: Right.  So, what we saw during the initial protests that Colin Kaepernick led during the national anthem was an extreme backlash from both liberals and conservatives, where they were saying he needs to be appreciated.  We saw Donald Trump call him a son of a bitch and that he would fire him if he had the ability to.  And so there is this notion that because NFL players, NBA players make relatively decent incomes comparatively to almost any other job opportunity that is afforded to workers, but especially black people in the United States, that somehow they should appreciate the fact that they are also--that they are in this country, that they are living in this country, and that they’re playing for NFL teams and NBA teams that are ultimately paying them handsomely.  And it wouldn’t--if it weren’t for the United States, if it weren’t for capitalism, weren’t for imperialism, this is subtly, you know, basically the message.  If it weren’t for the system that you live in, you wouldn’t be in this situation.

CH: Well, we’ll come back to that.  When we return, we’ll continue our conversation with journalist Danny Haiphong.

CH: Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about American myths with Danny Haiphong.  So we were talking about the NFL and I think we should preface this by saying that almost all other opportunities in terms of employment, in terms of education, are denied to this segment of the population.  But they can be compensated and even highly compensated if they are exceptional athletes or exceptional entertainers, but if that happens, they are required to exhibit a certain kind of behavior.  And if like Kaepernick they don’t, a Kaepernick gets blacklisted.

DH: Exactly.  And that’s what American exceptionalism and American innocence, these ideologies have presumed the United States to be a force for good.  That’s what they’re really all about.  They’re about appreciating where you are regardless of the circumstances.  Despite the fact that NFL players make relatively high incomes, the costs of the career is very high.  What…

CH: We should be clear.  In the NFL, they don’t--the average player doesn’t play that many years anyway.

DH: No.

CH: The average player.

DH: So we’re talking--yes, so we’re talking about a very short amount of labor time that you’re putting in to your particular position.  And after that, we’re talking about long-term injuries.  We’re seeing NFL players who retire or are forced to retire end up dead within a [INDISTINCT] amount of years due to traumatic brain injury and whatnot.  And so what we’re seeing here with Colin Kaepernick and the protests that continue because NFL teams, there’s this conversation about completely banning protests and incurring heavy fines on NFL teams who allow it to happen.  What we’re seeing is this narrative of appreciation continue to shape politics and policy, and sports leagues are a great example of it with the NFL leading the way and showing people and everyone who’s watching and seeing what happens to you if you do challenge this notion that maybe the United States isn’t so great after all.  Maybe police brutality, you know, exploitation of the black community as a whole economically, maybe these are issues that really need to be addressed.  And if NFL players end up addressing them or anyone for that matter, there are severe consequences and I think that’s a big…

CH: Well, it comes to--I think to Frederick Douglass’s point that, you know, if you are compensated in a way that others are not, even on a plantation, you are required to be obsequious in your gratitude.  And if you are not, as Kaepernick was not, you are pushed aside.  We’re watching exactly the same paradigm, because fundamentally, something like the NFL or the NBA is a powerful tool to perpetuate the myth.

DH: Uh-hmm.  Exactly.  And it’s--and it’s very militaristic on the face of it because what you’re really doing when we’re talking about the NFL is you’re forcing players to salute to the flag.  You’re forcing them to salute to the oppression of black people because that’s what it’s synonymous with, and I think this is very important to follow because what we try to talk about is how this notion of forcing NFL players that are majority black, to appreciate on what they have, is ultimately telling them, and also telling everyone who’s watching to ignore whatever the United States does domestically and internationally because a lot of our book is about, well, what Colin Kaepernick did is a--is a signifier of US foreign policy because the response was not a response to his kneeling, to his disrespect.  It was the fact that by kneeling and so-called disrespecting the flag, he was really disrespecting US policy and the US international domestic system of power.

CH: It does--this myth of the self-made man or woman, it is very destructive psychologically, and you quote Scott Sandage in his book “Born Losers, A History of Failure in America,” where he writes, “Ours is an ideology of achieved identity.  Obligatory striving is its method and failure and success are its outcomes.  We reckon our incomes once a year, but audit ourselves daily by standards of long-forgotten origin.  Who thinks of the old county house when we say take stock of how we spent our lives, take credit for our gains, or try not to end up third-rate or good-for-nothing?  Someday we hope the bottom line will show that we amount to something.  By this kind of talk, we balance our whole lives not just our accounts.”  It creates a way of perceiving our position in the world, which for the vast majority of people who are not LeBron James or Oprah Winfrey, is quite self-destructive.

DH: Exactly, because we’re ultimately running up against a system shaped by class, shaped by racism.  And we’re being constantly told by this myth of American exceptionalism and the American Dream as its economic component, that we need to do whatever we can as an individual to achieve some form of opulent wealth, you know, achieve…

CH: Well, that we’re--that we’re a failure if we haven’t.

DH: Yeah.  And the fact is that most people haven’t.  The United States is mired in inequality.

CH: Well, and most people aren’t--they can’t.

DH: Nope.

CH: It’s not even an option.

DH: Not an option.  We--half of the country is considered “Near poor.”  What that really means is if we look at real living standards in the United States, that means half the country is poor and most likely most of the country is poor when you have many individuals, the vast majority making $30,000 a year or less.  We know that in the United States, you can’t get far with that.  You can’t “move up” on an income like that.  And really what we try to get at is how American exceptionalism and the American Dream cloud our ability to understand the process that is making all of this occur.  What is--why is it that half of the country is near poor?  We think it’s because capitalism is inherently exploitative and exploits labor for the profits of the few.  And that’s what we’re really trying to demystify when we talk about these narratives of appreciation.

CH: Well, the other thing about the kind of myth of the self-made man or woman is that in almost all cases, it’s a lie, as Trump is the perfect example because it’s based on inherited wealth and inherited privilege.  White.

DH: Yes.  Exactly.  Many capitalists, you know, even Jeff Bezos and these more liberal types, they like to talk about how they came from nothing but really, we know that inheritance is a huge reason why wealth is accumulated for particular individuals that [INDISTINCT] we see all these Oxfam world reports that shows it’s impossible for these numbers to exist while at the same time all of these self-made individuals are coming up and talking about how they’ve made it.  No actually, you’ve had it.

CH: Well, social mobility in the United States is almost impossible.  It’s very rare in any real sense.  You talk about philanthropy and nonprofit what you call the nonprofit industrial complex.

DH: Right.

CH: You make some good points.

DH: Yeah.  The nonprofit industrial complex is basically the institutional mechanism of philanthropy.  It is mostly private.  The--their foundations are tax-exempt, which ultimately provide tax breaks for the wealthiest individuals in this country.  They serve a particular purpose.  Usually, they are targeting some perceived or real social problem and what they do is they channel energy of the masses into acceptable forms of protest or acceptable forms of so-called resolutions to problems.  So we have, for example, the Gates Foundation which I’ve talked to many people that I worked with.  You know, I’m in the social work field and they think it’s an amazing thing.  You know, they think it’s a wealthy capitalist who’s giving his money that he’s earned, right, so this whole notion, the American Dream again.

CH: Well, because you pointed out in the book, it justifies the wealth.

DH: Exactly.  And what people don’t understand is the Gates Foundation, in its operations in Africa, have done a lot to prevent things like subsidized health care from occurring because they’re funneling private dollars, a lot of which are our tax dollars, into ventures that essentially privatize health care in places like Mozambique.  So…

CH: Well, again, it sets the parameters of what acceptable philanthropy or charity is and you have a quote in 2000, “60% of the foundation board members were men, 90% were white.  They may have a few program officers who are people of color, but it’s trustees, the people who determine how those grants are given, come out of the ruling elite.  And so you have the foundations setting the agenda for art, for culture, for research, try and get a grant from the Ford Foundation or any other large foundation and it is--it is going to be vetted.”  It’s going to--so the funding is used under the guise of benevolence to essentially buttress the system itself.

DH: Exactly.  And it’s this notion of charity, this idea that these wealthy board members and trustees, in fact, care about these issues when in fact a lot of--most nonprofits and foundations, their roots are really in response to social upheaval.  A lot of the nonprofits in the United States that exist are responses to revolutionary movements like the Black Panther party.  Internationally, it was a response to the Cold War, which, you know, the United States and its capitalist partners saw as really a war against alternative economic system and socialism.  And a lot of foundations serve the purpose of actually making oppressed people here in the United States and around the world dependent upon structures…

CH: Well, they would fund--they would fund labor unions or the FLC, I always love this, that were “anti-communist.”  But it was really a way to destroy radical or leftist movements.  I just want to close, clearly the ideology of neoliberalism has lost its currency and yet it appears that that myth of American individualism of--the ability to work hard still remains pretty powerful, don’t you think?

DH: It is.  It is very powerful.  And I think in the age of Trump, in this age of neoliberalism where we’re seeing a steep decline in the legitimacy of the system as a whole, we’re seeing--especially the Democratic Party but, the two-party system as a whole in complete disarray and literally shoving themselves into the forefront of popular discourse with this deep desire to protect, and to preserve American exceptionalism.  We heard during the campaign in 2016, Donald Trump said “Make America great again.”  And Hillary Clinton say, “We don’t need to make America great again.  It’s already great.”  When you watch the corporate media about Russia--when they’re talking about Russia, or talking about anything that Trump does, really what they’re saying is we’re embarrassed by Donald Trump.  They’re not saying that they oppose the policies that are actually taking place.  They’re embarrassed by him.  They’re embarrassed that he is not exceptional, that he is not their definition of exceptional.  And…

CH: And we’ll stop there.  Because he certainly isn’t.  Thank you.  That was journalist Danny Haiphong.

DH: Thanks.