Massachusetts senator Scott Brown has released his first ad of the fall campaign, and it's a fairly anodyne message about how Brown is independent, since Republicans aren't too popular in the Bay State. But there is something highly objectionable in the ad (it's at the bottom of this post if you want to watch it), which is when we see Brown telling a bunch of teenagers, "There's absolutely nothing in this world that you can't get if you work hard at it." There may be no single piece of advice that politicians deliver to young people more often than this. Democrats, Republicans, Whigs, Tories, no matter who they are, you stick 'em in a room with a bunch of kids and before long they'll deliver the sage insight that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Well, I'm here to say: bullshit.
I'll spare you the disquisition on rising inequality and the imperfections of capitalism. But just as a message delivered from a grown person to a young person, is there anything more meaningless than this? Can't you think of something better to say? If that was the last thing your beloved grandmother told you on her deathbed, wouldn't you feel cheated, like after a lifetime of experiences she couldn't come up with anything better? I realize we shouldn't be looking to candidates for our life lessons, but come on.
Don't get me wrong—hard work is very important. But so are other things, like innate talent and luck, and if you don't have those there are limits to how far your work can take you (not to mention the fact that if you do have them, you can get pretty far without working all that hard). Is there any kid who will hear this and say, "You know, that senator really inspired me. I used to think my life was going to kind of suck, but now I know to shoot for the stars. And I'm going to start by making sure I do a great job on this report on photosynthesis." And frankly, the "work hard and anything is possible" message can lead to some misguided beliefs, like the idea many kids have that if they work hard at singing or sports then they can become a pop star or a professional athlete, and therefore school isn't all that important.
As an antidote to the kind of tripe politicians deliver when they encounter children, I'd encourage you to listen to some of the interviews Terry Gross did with Maurice Sendak, who sadly died yesterday. Sendak was simultaneously emotionally insightful and unsentimental about himself, about children, and about life in general. He understood that childhood could be frightening and unpleasant at times. He didn't treat children, either in person or in his books, like they were idiots who only wanted to hear happy stories untouched by anything dark. He was deeply saddened by the grim inevitability of death, as you can tell by the extraordinarily moving interview they recorded last September, in which Sendak is frank about the losses he has experienced and his feelings about his own impending death, to the point that he cries freely during the interview, saying in the end, "I will cry my way all the way to the grave."
I'm not saying that politicians should, when visiting a junior high school class, tell the kids that life is an endless forced march of suffering and disappointment culminating in the eternal emptiness of oblivion. But maybe they could come up with something better than "If you work hard, you can achieve anything."
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