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The Right Stuff


Steven Doloff

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 35.1, January/February 2011

In a college English class I was teaching, filled mostly with African American and Hispanic students, a reading assignment prompted a discussion of ethnic minorities' economic disadvantages in the United States. Assuming we were all on the same page, as a “liberal” I couldn't resist weighing in and expressing my own professorial indignation on the subject as well. But one slightly older student (let's call him Roberto), who until now had said little during the semester, politely demurred.

“I don't believe that,” he said. “I can't believe that.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I was in the Marines,” he answered. “They told me about ‘the door.' Do you know what I'm talking about?”

No one did, so he explained: “In the Marines they taught me that no matter what horrible situation I might find myself in, there will be a door that will let me out, and if I look for that door I will find it. If you tell me because I'm Hispanic I'm screwed, I can't accept that. I don't care what statistics you give me. I have a wife and a kid and a job, and this school is my door, and I believe we're going to be okay. No offense, but you're not helping me by telling me I'm disadvantaged being Hispanic in America.”

A lively class discussion ensued, and my own head spun.

The facts of minority disadvantage notwithstanding, for the first time I realized how an American mindset-perhaps the American mindset-can place itself in flat-out opposition to a logically constraining reality, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Roberto's perspective reminded me of “the right stuff” that Tom Wolfe explored in his 1979 book of the same name. Wolfe was describing the essential fighter-pilot mentality of the early NASA Mercury Program astronauts of the 1960s. They ignored the grim statistics on combat and experimental aviation and instead viewed mission failure (death) under any circumstances as the result of individual human error-avoidable by those endowed with a sufficient amount of a particular but somewhat ineffable combination of steely confidence and initiative: “the right stuff.”

This willful trumping of circumstantial disadvantage by sheer faith in innate resourcefulness harkens back to a more primal American ethos, that of the early New England Puritans. America's first European settlers believed that those among them predestined to be saved also had “the right [spiritual] stuff” and were therefore divinely allowed to prosper in their new land. Those who didn't have it failed. Simply put, personal courage bespoke salvation in this world and the next.

It has often been noted how this same faith in self-demonstrating salvation has, in a more secularized form, permeated the cultural DNA of American society ever since. Social commentators during the nation's nineteenth-century industrial boom idealized the innately proactive “self-made man” and stigmatized the will-deficient “born loser.” If economic socialism remains an anathema in American public discourse today-at least as an abstract proposition-it is because our citizens just can't grasp how personal self-affirmation can be achieved through federal dispensation. (And also, why should slackers be saved?) Similarly, if labor-union membership is at a record low, it's probably because American workers, deep down, still believe that individual gumption and resourcefulness will get them what they need-or else they don't deserve it. (And collective bargaining seems like just more socialism for noncompetitive losers.)

But who knows? Maybe this trait of optimistic individualism is truly genetic. The great majority of Americans are the descendants of-or are themselves-immigrants who believed enough in themselves and their personal chances of success to jump headlong into a rough-and-tumble new world. So we are literally a self-selected gene pool of risk takers, hardwired to believe in Roberto's door.

To be sure, it is no coincidence that, as social critic Barbara Ehrenreich has observed, Americans have also been exploited since the mid-nineteenth century by a massive and massively profitable “positive thinking” industry. Today, despite the hard-nosed economic realists piping in the media and genuine suffering caused by the recession, Americans remain awash in the monetized optimism business. Whether fronted by megastar self-help boosters like Oprah Winfrey, alternative-medicine gurus like Deepak Chopra, or corporate motivational speakers like Tony Robbins, the message has never been louder: if you believe-really believe-you can (diet, heal, profit, succeed, whatever), then you can! But as Ehrenreich has pointed out, the essential cheat in this message is not in the dreams themselves but in the seductive ease, the implied “wishing makes it so” means, by which these dreams may be realized.

If we Americans seem so susceptible to these profiteering pied pipers of confidence, it may be because, ironically, they really had us at “hello.” Despite all the stark statistics, sober analysis, and smell-the-coffee reality dispensed before and after the recent financial crises, odds are that we (or more likely our children) will again recklessly invest in pie-in-the-sky IPOs that pop like bubbles. We will again, if permitted, take out mortgages we should rationally anticipate not being able to pay off. And count on it: we will again crash and burn, simply because we don't believe we will. Perhaps it is in the nature of how true liberty works. If we are really free in America, then we must be free to be fools, too. We will pay for our mistakes (and yes, the burden will fall much more on some than others-we need to do something about that) and then we will make more.

For better or for worse, there is clearly some fundamental expression of American character in this disposition of perennial, reckless optimism. Not sure? Answer me this: do you or don't you, in your gut, expect America to come out of this recession sooner rather than later and (eventually) get to Mars? I rest my case.

Steven Doloff

Steven Doloff is a professor of English and Humanities at the Pratt Institute in New York City.