The All-American Virtue of Self-Pity

Why am I running so many items on this theme? I don't actually care* about the person who will always be known as the "whiny law professor" from the University of Chicago. (Sadly, that name works better than "the Marie Antoinette of the Midway Plaisance.") But his story -- income in the top 1% of everyone in America, accompanied by a keen sense of being put-upon and very little evident awareness of good fortune -- seems to be a trigger for a lot of concerns about the shape of American society these days. The distributions of wealth and income are becoming more polarized; people have fewer and fewer opportunities to deal with those unlike them as real people (and not "the man who cuts the lawn"); it is harder and harder to talk about public goods or public projects, starting with public education.

I keep receiving an absolute torrent of really interesting responses on this theme. As I can, I'll keep sorting them into rough groups and sharing them. Today, a stand-alone about why self-pity is actually The American Way. This one is also timely because of the Rick Sanchez and Social Network pegs:

It seems to me that, just as the movie "The Social Network" suggests, everybody in America (except perhaps the direct descendants of the Mayflower crowd) thinks that they are the outsiders, the discriminated and the disadvantaged, and therefore deserving of pity. Witness the radio broadcast outburst of Rick Sanchez that costs his job: can you believe that a man who became the day-time anchor of CNN can claim that he was discriminated against because of his race? Similarly, my multi-millionaire Jewish friend keeps obsessed about how fellow Americans "don't like them".

However, also as the movie suggests, I believe it is this endless chip-on-the-shoulder feeling that drives American entrepreneurship.

At the very least, it drives my own entrepreneurship. I felt oppressed the day I landed on Wall Street. As a homosexual, an Asian, a geek, an unpolished new arrival to the country who still speaks with heavy Cantonese accent and has no connections whatsoever, I had every reason to feel self-pity. And indeed I didn't feel that I fit in at all on the trading floor of the august banks and hedge funds that I worked in. But hey, they hired me despite all my shortcomings! After a few painful years, I finally quit, without acquiring much wealth from the industry, and became a finance entrepreneur. Like everyone else, I started writing a blog. And quite to my surprise, large publishing houses came to me with book contracts, New York Times called for my comments, CNBC interviewed me, people out of nowhere wanted to be my clients, and I acquired influential partners beyond my imagination a few years ago. I still speak my heavy Cantonese accent, and still am not wealthy, but I no longer feel self-pity. On the other hand, I now recognize, self-pity is what makes America ticks!

* OK, to be honest, it would be interesting to listen in on his classes this semester -- or hear from him why his years as a corporate lawyer before joining academia, plus his other years with McKinsey, hadn't made a bigger dent in the student loans. But, it's not really about him, which is why I haven't been using his name.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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