"Bootstrapped" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Among the peculiar metaphoric images of U.S. culture is bootstrapping, a reference to leather flaps at the top of tall, tight boots, which provide the only way to pull them on. The conviction that you can “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” is fundamental to the promise of the American Dream. This trope maintains that if an individual works hard enough and fully exercises their innate resources they will succeed. The typical expression of the person who claims to be self-made is “I worked for it.”
Over the years we have learned that this emphasis on individualism, self-sufficiency, and personal accomplishment is a toxic myth that has harmed countless people. Those who aspire to the American Dream, but fail to attain it, feel shame and fault themselves for falling short of this unrealistic standard.
Blaming others for the failure to “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” has become many Americans’ explanation for poverty, homelessness, inequality, and prejudice. Alissa Quart exposes the social trauma “individualism” has produced in the United States, and describes its intrinsic hypocrisy that has made America less productive, less equal, and less healthy. She concludes her book with hopeful examples of how citizens can discard the unhealthy obsession with self-sufficiency.
In “Bootstrapped,” the author traces the American “fantasy of self-reliance” to its origins in the 1830s when the ideas of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “self-made man” initially appeared. In 1834, the magazine “Working Man's Advocate” ridiculed a local inventor by suggesting that a piece of equipment he had created would enable him to “hand himself over the Cumberland river... by the straps of his boots,” a physical impossibility since a person cannot lift their whole body by their shoes. But the joke became popular and soon became synonymous with self-reliance.
Two early champions of the “self-reliant” ideal were Ralph Waldo Emerson who had inherited personal wealth and privilege and Henry David Thoreau who depended “quite heavily” on others. These writers’ preoccupation with the meaning of individualism helped to define the American way. Later, Laura Ingalls Wilder embraced a child-friendly version of bootstrapping, and the phrase “rugged individualism” soon found its way into speeches of Presidents Herbert Hoover, Ronald Reagan, and others.
In her criticism of self-reliance, Quart writes, “The fiction is that we must strive on our own for singular success that is within reach of all of us. This notion doesn't just provoke foolish materialism or inevitable petty disappointment. It has had serious negative effects on our social fabric, sustaining inequality and hindering the better collective choices we could be making.”
For example, Quart is critical of the need for GoFundMe accounts as a social safety net and envisions an America where no one needs to put on “codified theatrical performances via social media” to get the help they need.
The author argues that Americans should become more comfortable acknowledging a more realistic American way is interdependence, where lives are shaped by the help of parents, teachers, caretakers, and access to opportunity. Quart comes at this after a lifetime of helping others in practical ways, including her work at the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which she founded. The examination of bootstrapping has opened her eyes to examples of interdependence, by which people help each other to succeed.
Insightful, cuttingly argued, and characterized by Quart’s extensive research and deep reporting, “Bootstrap” is a reasonable, rational look at what ails our society and how we can make it healthier for all.
About the Author: Alissa Quart is the executive editor of the journalism nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. She is also the author of two previous books “Squeezed“ and “Branded,” and two books of poetry. She has published feature articles and commentary and won an Emmy for executive producing the documentary “Jackson.”