Bootstraps versus Knapsacks


The California state budget fiasco has afforded me some free time recently, so I’ve been doing some spring cleaning.  Among the relics I unearthed from recent months were the collected handouts for a class  on race taught at my church last year.  It was a sad reminder that leftist agitprop had infiltrated the Sunday classroom.  I mean no disrespect for those who earnestly pursue God’s will in matters of race and justice.  Yet,  the ideas propagated in those papers and discussions contribute to an unhealthy, counterproductive worldview.

One particularly troubling area of the race curriculum is its prescribed journey from bootstraps to knapsacks.  Since I first encountered these two concepts in the same context, they have always seemed at odds.  Bootstraps and knapsacks are mutually exclusive; people tend to love one and hate the other.  In one corner is the classic “up by the bootstraps” idea that hard work begets success in America.  As an alternative, progressives offer the red pill notion that any comfort, success, and prosperity are owed instead to an “invisible knapsack of privilege.”  No, you can’t make this stuff up.  The  idea originated in the 1980s with feminist Peggy McIntosh.  Now if you take success and prosperity to be synonymous with  being white, you have the original gist of the knapsack.

McIntosh’s personal revelations notwithstanding, I find the knapsack lacks effective explanatory power from where I stand as a mixed race, conservative man in a tremendously free and prosperous society.  I find it more relevant to look at success in America as a general whole rather than assume that success is the exclusive reserve of some monolithic group called  “whites.”  Yet knapsack proponents are eager to showcase McIntosh’s writing as a contrast to bootstraps in the hope of inducing an aha! moment that race is integrally relevant to American success.  Any serious-minded person who encounters these two tangling visions must decide which one will ultimately color (no pun intended) their own life at the everyday level.

In their existential tendencies, knapsack and bootstraps could not be more divergent.  In spite of its good intentions, knapsack supplants bootstraps’ twin senses of gratitude and agency with a new malaise of victimhood and guilt.  In doing away with bootstraps, knapsack denies us the ability to thank our parents, ancestors, and even our Creator for their respective roles in contributing to our current comfort and success.  From its secular Leftist roots, knapsack can only give us an impersonal, monolithic explanation that oppression is the true father of our prosperity.  Its as depressing as when Luke Skywalker discovers that Darth Vader is his dad. Progressive Christians mean well when they attempt to carve a path for American repentance, but they damage worldviews when they uphold knapsack and dismiss bootstraps.  American history is marked more by opportunity than by oppression.  But supposing the facts to be in dispute, such an assertion would be better defended in a separate post.  Existentially, bootstraps thinking cultivates an “attitude of gratitude” that in turn nurtures desire for stewardship. This then necessitates individual accountability, and all three of these are integral to Christian living.  Knapsack, however, turns us to navel-gazing and perpetually renewed  calls for dialog that might make good sound bites but do little to effect meaningful change.  Instead of attending ponderous powwows that reinforce progressive dogmas, Christians sincerely pursuing what is right and good should look critically at knapsack thinking and reclaim as their own the virtues of the bootstraps ethic.

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About Lewis W
I earned an M.A. in Christian apologetics at Biola University, and occasionally write on ethics, truth, science and politics.

2 Responses to Bootstraps versus Knapsacks

  1. Aleck Lin says:

    While boostrapping ideology could nurture the attitude of gratitude, is it not true that it could also nurture a cornucopia of self-righteous pricks who believe they ought be be applauded for their efforts (the exact opposite of gradtitude in fact…) without realizing ultimately all the achievements accomplished are in one way or another “given” opportunities for success? It seems to me the attitude of gratitude should come first and has little to do with boostraps or knapacks. Maybe the truth is somewhere in between since I can see myself spin the arguments either way. At any rate, great article. luv it.

  2. Pingback: Anti-racist Yard Sale | Cogitating Duck

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