What Goes into the Making of a Self-Made Man?

ELLEN GOODMAN

July 26, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- I am not surprised to find that picking yourself up by your bootstraps is still the favorite American spectator sport. We have always cheered those who attempt this gravity-defying feat.

The image of the self-made man, the notion that talent, wile, energy, intelligence are more important than birth is what brought people to our country. Europe had its aristocracy, Asia its caste systems. But in America, moral one-ups-manship went to the underdog. And it still does.

To this day, the mythic American story is about the trip from the bottom -- the frontier log cabin, the inner-city housing project, the China Seas boat -- to the top of the class or the country. The prize goes to the ones who did it alone.

This time the star in the tournament of the self-made is Clarence Thomas. From the very moment he stood on the president's lawn, the man who was born into Southern poverty and segregation presented a compelling version of the story.

The Thomas nomination has provoked a long and searing debate about racial politics. But it has also kindled a more subtle dialogue about helping hands and bootstraps, self-help and self-esteem.

Those who admire his life story talk of the distance the judge has come and the odds he's overcome. But even those who criticize him use the ideology of the self-made man.

Judge Thomas, say some, suffers from the syndrome -- amnesia about where he came from and those he left behind. It's a disease that afflicts many who make it.

Judge Thomas, say some, is rather less the American archetype than meets the resume. His law-school admission may have come from an affirmative-action program. He didn't make President Bush's list on merit but on race. He's not his own man, but the conservatives' kept man.

Ironically, proponents of affirmative action also chip away at Judge Thomas' credibility by calling him a son of affirmative action. They offer unwitting evidence of the nominee's belief that such programs undermine the prizes that Americans award for individual success.

All of this has churned up dormant questions in our culture. Questions that we deal with as adults, children, parents, citizens. What part of our character and achievement do we owe to others? What is identifiably ours? What part of the self is manufactured by an assembly line of parents, teachers, friends, bosses and what part is indeed self-made?

When Judge Thomas was introduced to the country, this believer in self-reliance thanked his grandparents and the nuns who were ''adamant that I make something of myself.'' His definition of self-help includes family but is wary of government. What of others who may have found less help at home and need more from the government? Why is one sort of help right and the other wrong?

All but the most narcissistic of us know that no one is truly self-made. And all but the most foolish know that everyone must make his or her own life.

The ''self'' is an infinitely complex product. It's ''made'' through an interaction of biology and environment, chances that come our way and those we take, coincidence and free will, reality and attitude. But as a society it is the bootstrap narrative that resonates the most, that gets the Gold Medal in our national competition. It's so central to the way we think about ourselves.

So, we go on collectively nurturing people in the belief that they are self-reliant. As parents we sacrifice much to raise children who are told to be independent of us. As a group, we value individualism.

Sometimes, the result of our lopsided view is that we end up living in a community that praises how little people need. We forget how much easier it is to grab hold of a bootstrap with a helping hand.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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