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.

Matt Zeitlin on class in our marriage debate

I threw my hat into the blogosphere’s recent marriage debate (see Martin, Singal, Matthews, and Marcotte, phew) last week with a post on how much gender plays a role in a person’s acceptance of critiques of marriage as weak or strong.

Matt Zeitlin at Pushback adds a critical component to the debate, when he zooms out and reminds us just how bourgeois our debate is:

We all know that when families far apart, children generally suffer. And with the college wage premium and financial returns to education both at all-time highs, any disruption to a working-class child’s life makes advancement much more difficult. Unstable family structures aren’t great for adults either, especially women. When parents split, it is usually the woman who is left to raise the child, meaning that she has to provide a loving, supportive home, all the while trying to make ends meet as the head of a single-paycheck family.

For those with high amounts of social capital and good jobs, this is a much simpler task, but for everyone else, it is incredibly difficult. This all gets worse when children are born out of wedlock; when parents don’t want to sanctify their bond and commitments to each other, it becomes all the easier for one parent to skip out.

I agree with Matt to a certain extent. It’s important to note what the context of considering marriage is for middle class bloggers. However, I’m always skeptical of arguments that suggest the crumbling of the traditional, two-parent family is contributing to economic deprivation for kids. Blaming “the family” for the larger economic and social factors hurting poor kids, especially kids of color, is often a right-wing talking point, in my opinion, and a cop-out for the failures of our government and society.

I have to disagree with Matt’s assessment that parents who don’t “sanctify their bonds,” are less likely to stick around and hold up their end of the parenting bargain. A dead-beat parent is a dead-beat parent in or out of a marriage. While abandoning one’s financial responsibility to his/her children may be more difficult to a certain legal extent within marriage, I’m highly skeptical that one who wants to abandon their children would only stick around because of the inconvenience of divorce. After all, I know a few dead-beat dads myself who just took off at some point but remain married to the mother of their children. If babies are being born to couples in which one or both partners are less than committed to emotionally or financially supporting the child, the obvious problem seems to be that parents who are going to bail are having kids. After all, poor parents, married or single, are poor parents.

I guess this is all a way of saying, I think the marriage disparity between high and low-income people is more a symptom of economic and social turmoil than a cause of it.

The much better explanation for the class-marriage disparity to me, is that wealthy people who are more often married long-term and having children in those relationships, have more of a financial interest in being married and staying married. They’ve got a lot to lose in a divorce. But when a woman gets pregnant with a guy who makes no money and is a dead-beat, why would she want to marry him? If anything, she wants to make sure the courts will be enforcing his child-support payments and to see little of him afterward. Even when completely committed working-class couples get married and have kids, their marriages face much higher levels of stress than the more successful marriages of the privileges, because of their financial struggles. This undoubtedly contributes to the higher rates of divorce.

Now I can see quite clearly that having two parents who are involved in your life, both financially and emotionally, is going to contribute to a more secure life, but then, the argument should be for planned, well prepared parenthood, rather than for marriage.

The myth that marriage is morally sound is part of a larger dialogue to convince people they shouldn’t expect to be able to support themselves and their kin with one, full-time income. I think they should be able to do so. Ideally, the fact that by the time I’m ready to have children, I likely will be able to do so, would be the usual situation for a woman, rather than the exception.

Now I recognize the reality is that in our current society, most people cannot expect to be able to support a family with one income and one committed parent, and this undoubtedly makes marriage or at least reliable, long-term parenting a desirable outcome for many working-class people, but I don’t think the statistics about marriage and class and race mean marriage itself is the answer to working-class problems.

If working-class people do manage to find a partner who will be committed to sharing the responsibilities of parenting, they too will have the opportunity to determine whether this commitment will be in or outside a marriage.