Michael Phelps: Man of Privilege

I’ve had as much fun as the next person watching Michael Phelps do the unthinkable in Beijing. But I think Saxon Baird at my other blog, Pushback, raises some really critical points when he reminds us that success and failure at the Olympics are not disconnected from economic or national privilege.

Michael Phelps just put on what was arguably the most spectacular exhibition of athleticism in Olympic history. Newspapers across the country have hailed him as possibly the greatest Olympian of all time. And while Phelps’ talent is undeniable, I can’t help but view his success as not just a demonstration of talent and hard work, but of resources and economic backing. Not to take away from Phelps’ historic Olympic success, but I have to ask: Would Phelps have done as well swimming for a country with fewer economic resources to support its athletes? I doubt it.

The top three medal winning countries as of today are China, the United States, and Russia. All of which are large, economically affluent countries. Australia, Germany, and France make up the fourth through six th spots. In the top 10 medal winners there are only three Asian countries, and none located in Africa or South America. The reason for this is clear: A country’s Olympic success directly correlates to the level of funding and the quality of training it can provide to its Olympic athletes.

I’ll add that Phelps’ success isn’t just about the economic resources of his country, but also about the resources of his family. Not everyone in the world could have the chance to train like he has, and neither could everyone in the United States. Phelps was lucky to be born to a family that could dedicate so much time and money to their son’s athletics.

This isn’t to take anything away from Michael Phelps’ success and athleticism, but I think it is important when we take part in these “if you believe in it, anything is possible” narratives that we also remember some things are more possible for certain people than they are for others.

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Systemic, economic explanations of human behavior? BORING!

Courtney Martin at Feministing has this really troubling post about being contacted by a morning news program about a story on a social networking site for women looking for sugar daddies (ick, reminds me of this post). After telling the producer what she’d say about some of the social and economic factors that often lead women to seek financial support in men, instead of simply calling these women trash, as the producer wanted, Courtney heard nothing back from them. That just wasn’t good TV. They wanted something a little more… “feisty.”

This is not entirely unexpected, but so bothersome when you hear about how calculated TV news is in a real instance. News media must make money. Sensationalism brings in the viewers and the money. Blaming individuals and framing a debate as a cat fight is sensational. Legitimate, boring explanations that have to do with money and social inequality…meh, we’ll pass. This really is so frustrating.

With stakes like these in the mainstream media, it’s hard to imagine real social change being instigated in these traditional forums…This is part of the reason I’m so grateful for alternative media (like Democracy Now! just as an example), and especially for the existence of blogs. I know we always question just what kind of impact or influence blogs have, but just think where we’d be without them. Though the audiences for blogs are self-selected and certainly more limited than the audience that would be watching the morning news show Courtney was asked to speak on, the very fact that we can turn to Feministing to hear about this instance and to hear the very arguments Courtney wanted to share on TV is a huge step forward. It’s progress, and I think an essential part of the path to positive social change.

Poor people are poor because they have bad attitudes. Huh?

Kayla Walker at Campus Progress has a great review of the book Scratch Beginnings, in which some privileged dude seeks to prove the American dream really is possible if people would just work hard enough. Well, yeah, no kidding it’s possible — for an educated white male who already lives a life of status and comfort.

Adam Shepard was sick of hearing the impoverished in America whine and complain. He was “frustrated with the materialistic individualism that seems to be shaping every thirteen-year-old to be the next teen diva,” Shepard wrote in the introduction to Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream. In a move that is reminiscent of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, Shepard boarded a train to Charleston, S.C., with nothing more than $25 in his pocket, the clothes on his back, a sleeping bag, and a tarp.

Shepard set out to disprove books like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. He wanted to achieve the so-called American Dream—without using his college degree, friends, or exemplary credit history—proving that it is still possible in America to break one’s way out of poverty. Shepard gave himself just one year to break from poverty and homelessness. Completion of his project would be considered successful if Shepard was able to own a functioning automobile, be living in a furnished apartment, have $2,500, and have the prospects to go to school or start his own business.

Shepard later concludes that poor people could live the American dream if they’d just stop being so damn pessimistic. Hey, um, maybe they’re pessimistic because they and their families have been trying for generations to get ahead and they haven’t been able to make their hope turn into reality? Hey, maybe if society gave poor people a reason to be optimistic about the future that didn’t self-righteously blame them for their own predicaments, they’d see the future a little more brightly?

Hey, maybe you should admit that being an educated person who is able to dig your way out of a hole after a year of an arrogance soaked experiment which you went into with the least sympathetic presumptions I’ve ever heard does not qualify you to diagnose the causes of poverty in the U.S., when the people who are actually poor have done a pretty good job of diagnosing the roots of it themselves?

Kayla makes a great point as she acknowledges the obvious point that inequality is related to immobility, and it’s poverty itself that reinforces the conditions of poverty. Of course temporary, self-inflicted deprivation for a highly privileged person won’t render him socioeconomically immobile. Why are the reproductive, cyclical conditions of poverty so difficult for otherwise logical people to understand?

Ok, ok, I’m being hard on this Shepard guy, considering I haven’t even read his book. But God, even the very basic facts of his little experiment are dripping with so much privilege I really struggle to give him the benefit of the doubt.