Friday, October 07, 2011

Why Do Some Conservatives Resent My Success?

I have lately been reflecting on my life, where I came from and where I've ended up; and I find that what I consider to be a crowning achievement tends to be viewed by many conservatives as something to belittle.

I grew up in a working-class family.  My parents got married at ages 18 (dad) and 17 (mom).  They didn't finish high school and had to settle for their GEDs.  My parents had 6 kids in 7 years.  By the time my mom was 24 and my dad was 25, we had an 8-person family.  My dad worked 6 to 7 days a week as an electrician.  And as my siblings and I grew up and became more expensive to feed and clothe, my mom had to find a job as a secretary/clerk just so we could avoid having to rely on food stamps and welfare to survive.  This happened when I, the oldest, was about 13 years old.  I remember getting home from school before my mom did and having to hold down the fort for about an hour or so until my mom got home from work.

I always did well in school; but in order to help out the family finances, I started working when I was about 14 years old at the family electrical contracting company, where my dad worked, as an electrician's helper, so that I could earn my lunch money and a bit of pocket money to buy my own clothes so that my parents wouldn't have to spend their incomes on these things for me.  I would work every Saturday during the school year and would work the entire summer.

The whole approach to life in my family was shared sacrifice, hard work, and compassion for the poor -- partly because we were always on the verge of poverty ourselves and so we could relate.

I was smart enough to earn admission to some very good private colleges; and my family was poor enough to qualify for need-based scholarships/grants, plus federally-subsidized college loans.  So I went into debt and maxed out my federal work-study awards to earn some pocket money in order to see me through college.  I worked about 15-20 hours a week, on average, as a student worker through the work-study program; and I got my college degree.

I could only afford to fly home for Christmas and for the summer break.  I spent every Thanksgiving and Spring Break in Washington, DC, where I wen to college at Georgetown University.  Sometimes, I spent those holidays alone because everyone else I knew was headed home for the breaks.

I did well enough in college, and scored high enough on the GRE test, to be admitted to graduate school with a full fellowship and a modest living stipend.  And so I went to graduate school, during which time I also worked side jobs to supplement my income.  At the end of this whole process, I walked away with a Ph.D. in a field of study that I absolutely love.  And I have been working a dream job as a college professor and administrator ever since.

For their part, my parents and the rest of my extended family are proud of my accomplishments.  And it gives me a great deal of personal satisfaction to have measured up to their expectations.  In fact, I sometimes am embarrassed by my family's deference to my accomplishments.  My parents, in the pride that only parents can have about their kids' accomplishments, often joke with me and to their friends about how I'm sure to be next in line to advise the President on important matters of foreign policy related to the Latin American region or be the next Ambassador to Mexico or some such foolishness (my Ph.D. is in Latin American Studies, with a concentration in Latin American Politics and International Relations).  It's all done in a spirit of good-natured banter, but I can tell that they are extremely proud of my accomplishments.  My career in academia is celebrated as evidence of hard work, accomplishment, and success.  

And I must admit that I, myself, am proud of this accomplishment, too.  I see where I am today as the epitome of the American dream; and I see my ability to occupy a position among an intellectual elite that can advance knowledge at a very high and complex level of thought as something to embrace as worthy and good.  It is a validation of all that hard work and sacrifice that both I and my family have done over the years to get me to this point.

It is primarily for this reason that I get angry when conservatives seek to belittle my academic and intellectual achievements.  I fail to grasp how my success is somehow less admirable than any other person's success, that my success as an academic is much more worthy of ridicule, just because my success is wrapped up in an ability to deploy my mind at a high level, because I can fashion complex arguments in a debate, because I can write and speak in grammatically and rhetorically "proper" ways, because I can call upon a relatively much larger vocabulary and intellectual toolkit than the average person, etc.

The "wealth" of my accomplishments in not contained in my bank account, but in my cerebrum.   Conservatives who criticize my "wealth" are doing nothing less than what they claim liberals do to those whose wealth is measured by the dollars they have in their savings accounts.  Furthermore, they are insulting the very measure of success that they claim to embrace: a person who rose up against difficult odds and earned his place in the realm of the intellectual elite.  And, in a way, they are also insulting those among my family who made my success possible.  It's really quite a shame that achieving such an accomplishment is viewed so suspiciously and, often, derisively, by many on the right.  I think it's fair to say that the Tea Partier who, upon finding out that I have a Ph.D. and that I work at a prestigious private college, doesn't have a knee-jerk hostile reaction to my accomplishment, is an endangered species.

Why such folks would resent my success is something that I just cannot understand.


Eric said...

Some unsuccessful people will find a reason to resent anyone who has achieved any measure of success. And even some successful folks will criticise people who measure success using a different metric. For every conservative who snickers at your academic achievements, I'll show you a liberal who belittles a person who has had success in business, and there is no shortage of liberal or conservative willingness to shortchange the individual who drops out of academic and business pursuits in order to engage in a determined focus on spiritual fulfillment.

These people all suffer from the same malady, and it isn't political in nature.

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