Promoting Dispostionism through Entertainment – Part II
Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on March 1, 2007
In Part I of this series, we described how Americans pursue happiness by watching heroes like Rocky Balboa and Chris Gardner pursue theirs. We spend $10 per ticket and $8 per popcorn bucket to watch more-or-less fictional stories of the downtrodden rise up through sheer force of will and good life choices. Feels very satisfying.
We have an insatiable appetite for such stories, in part because they tell us what we want to hear: anyone in this country can go from the bottom to the top. The Horatio Alger story continues to sell and sell and sell, because, to paraphrase P.T. Barnum, there is a dispositionist situational character born every minute.
But does this sort of entertainment influence how we perceive law and policy? Absolutely.
The basic scripts for Rocky Balboa and Pursuit of Happyness—just like those for Rudy, Radio, Racing Stripes, Race the Sun, Raise Your Voice, and that’s just the “r”s—are the also the foundational scripts employed by most influential policymakers and legal theorists today. Laws, we’ve been told, particularly since Ronald Reagan occupied the Oval Office, should facilitate choice – placing the individual in charge, making the consumer sovereign, and letting power and responsibility fall to the person, while minimizing the role of the collectivist, paternalistic, and intermeddling “regulator” or “social program.” When the state and its laws simply facilitate individual choice, we can be confident that those among us who are holding the long straw drew well, while those stuck with the short straw chose badly.
So how does dispositionism explain inequality, poverty, and the disappearing middle class? Easy: the less equal lack the will, the commitment, the character, the drive, and the heart, of a champion. The more equal pursue their happiness with the eye of the tiger. What about credit problems that seem increasingly to plague so many Americans? No problem: people lack the financial discipline to spend wisely. If they would stop wasting their paycheck on plasma televisions and $150 sneaker, maybe they’d have enough to pay their rent. Okay, but what about the increasing national girth and the ill-health effects associated with the obesity epidemic. Again, the answer can be found in “choice” — specifically the good choices of the thin (but not too thin) and the bad choices of the couch potatoes, video game players, and everyone else too lazy to choose healthy.
Take any inequity or social problem, ask a dispostionist to explain its existence, and you will almost certainly receive a straightforward, pleasantly simplistic, choice-based explanation that attributes most of the blame to the disadvantaged individual — or his parents. And it is this perception of the person that has propelled much of the late twentieth century’s policy scripts of more markets and less regulation, more freedom and lower taxes, more individualism and less collectivism and state.
This person-schema/law-schema connection is explicit in both Rocky and The Pursuit of Happyness. Consider that Rocky Balboa’s biggest single obstacle isn’t his age, or his willingness to train, or even the sincere doubts of his loved ones. No, it’s those pesky government bureaucrats who, at least initially, deny him his license to fight and thus his “right” to pursue his idiosyncratic version of personal happiness. In a verbal counterpunch that draws as many cheers from theater-goers as the actual (fake) fighting does, Rocky delivers these policy-oriented “hurtin’ bombs”:
Rocky Balboa: Yo, don’t I got some rights?
Boxing Commissioner: What rights do you think you’re referring to?
Rocky Balboa: Rights, like in that official piece of paper they wrote down the street there?
Boxing Commissioner: That’s the Bill of Rights.
Rocky Balboa: Yeah, yeah. Bill of Rights. Don’t it say something about going after what makes you happy?
Boxing Commissioner: No, that’s the pursuit of happiness. But what’s your point?
Rocky Balboa: My point is I’m pursuing something and nobody looks too happy about it.
Boxing Commissioner: But . . . we’re just looking out for your interests.
Rocky Balboa: I appreciate that, but maybe you’re looking out for your interests just a little bit more. . . . I mean maybe you’re doing your job but why you gotta stop me from doing mine? Cause if you’re willing to go through all the battling you got to go through to get where you want to get, who’s got the right to stop you? I mean maybe some of you guys got something you never finished, something you really want to do, something you never said to someone, something . . . and you’re told no, even after you paid your dues? Who’s got the right to tell you that, who? Nobody! It’s your right to listen to your gut, it ain’t nobody’s right to say no after you earned the right to be where you want to be and do what you want to do! . . . You know, the older I get the more things I gotta leave behind, that’s life. The only thing I’m asking you guys to leave on the table . . . is what’s right.
Chris Gardner is even more pro-individual and anti-state. Unsurprisingly, given the movie’s title, Gardner weaves the dispostionist language of the Declaration of Independence throughout his autobiographical voice-overs. At one point he declares:
It was right then that I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson, the declaration of independence, and our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and I remember thinking; how did he know to put the pursuit part in there. That maybe happiness is something we can only pursue, and maybe actually we can never have it, no matter what. How did he know that?
And what is Gardner’s biggest challenge in his personal, private pursuit? Is it when his wife, the mother of his young son, leaves him? Nope. Is it when he has no place to sleep and spends the night on the floor of the subway men’s room with his son’s head on his lap and his meager possessions around them? Try again. Is it when he shows up to a job interview with Dean Witter disheveled and dirty, after spending a night in jail? Uh uh. When he is hit by a car? Not even close—just the opposite, actually, we watch him intrepidly bounce right back up in the middle of traffic telling the despondent car driver who hit him to not worry.
No, Chris Gardner’s announces that his lowest point is when the I.R.S. seizes $600 of “my money!” from “my bank account” for taxes long unpaid. “How can they do that?,” he asks.
The answer to that rhetorical question can be found in the movie’s core value: don’t begrudge the wealthy for their wealth, accept that it is earned and deserved, and go pursue it for yourself at full speed; when you face obstacles, as everyone must, don’t make excuses and don’t ask the government to bail you out. In that vein, the film’s stark contrasts between extravagance and squalor, between smiling and squabbling, between “me being stupid” and “happyness” are not intended to raise questions about whether there is something wrong in the system. It is intended to assure us that the system is fine. The question is whether the individual wants something bad enough. Period.
Not convinced? Just consider how the movie’s “keep yo hands out my pockets” anti-taxation sensibility is never reconciled with the clear absence of shelters for the homeless (at least two of whom are portrayed as mighty blameless), with the public transportation system, deficient as it may be, on which Gardner and son so heavily rely for both transport and shelter, and with the absence of social welfare programs that might have saved a marriage and subsidized the budget-busting childcare.
No, The Pursuit of Happyness is about recognizing that the rich and the poor are equally deserving of their condition. That’s true even though Gardner doesn’t mind stealing a $20 fare from a desperate taxi driver but knows never ever to ask for a single penny from the wealthy businessman who actually accrued the fare. Similarly, Gardner empties his wallet to loan the senior partner in the Dean Witter office, Martin Frohm, $5. The wealth-dripping boss has no trouble asking for money, but Gardner understands that he must be silent about the fact that the loan will break him. Meanwhile, Gardner is repeatedly singled out by his immediate supervisor to fetch coffee and doughnuts, park his car, and tend to those menial tasks suitable for the the only black intern in the program. Again, Gardner understands the implicit rules of success: don’t complain, don’t even flinch, in fact, don’t even notice; just work that much harder. Getting the job means getting along. Getting along means going along.
“You want something? Go get it. Period.”
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The next post in this series looks at a few of the situationist lessons of Rocky and The Pursuit of Happyness.
*****See also Part I of this Series.*****