I saw a preview for Justin Bieber's new film "Never Say Never" last night. Now, let me just state for the record that I really don't have feelings one way or another about Justin Bieber. I don't know his music and I don't know him. If he wants to sing on stage and if other people want to make money promoting him, well that's just fine. I really don't care. But the film (or at least the preview) seems to be trying to sell Bieber as an authentic American success story. (Okay, he's Canadian, but whatever.) That is, he was a small-town kid with a dream, and he worked hard and his dreams came true. And if you do the same, you can become a star, just like Justin.
I find this infuriating. For whatever reason, Hollywood and Washington have conspired to tell us the same story over and over again -- you can do anything you want if you just want it bad enough. Why does this make me mad? Because it's patently untrue. We have very little social mobility in this country. If you're born poor, you're likely to die poor. If you take the view that anyone can do anything they want, then you're making the assumption that either most poor people want to remain poor or they didn't work hard enough to become rich. Either point of view is monstrous.
Now, of course, there's nothing wrong with trying to inspire people or to encourage them to strive, but the plain fact is that not everyone is going to make it big. For every Justin Bieber, there are hundreds or thousands of equally talented kids in small towns who will never get recording contracts because their parents don't know the right people or a talent scout didn't view their YouTube video at the right time or they lack an Internet connection and a camera to make a YouTube video or they don't have a supportive family, no matter how much drive they have personally. And as the book Outliers pointed out, for every Bill Gates, there are hundreds or thousands of equally talented and driven potential computer programmers who didn't live near a supercomputer at a pivotal time in recent history.
We have a lot of barriers to social mobility in this country, from school inequalities to persistent poverty to institutionalized racism. We're not going to fix them if we believe they don't exist.