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An (unintended?) analysis of the evils of US meritocracy and society
on 10 March 2011
I am surprised at how many people have chosen to mis-categorise this story as heart-warming and uplifting when, in fact, it is the complete opposite. It is, in fact a story of unadulterated greed from almost all the principal characters. It is also (and perhaps it is unintended, though I could never be sure of Lewis' intentions), a damning indictment of what is wrong with the American Dream particularly as it impacts on African-Americans.
The Blind Side is a story that exemplifies all that is wrong for inner-city, underprivileged African-Americans: that the only routes out are through gangs/drugs or sporting excellence. Michael Oher gets lucky because he is built to play left tackle. As a result, he comes under the influence and support of the Tuohy family. Would he have been supported and tutored had he been 5 foot nothing and a physical weakling? Of course not. This is a story about how if you are underprivileged and a physical freak you get the breaks and the rest are left in the projects. In other words, it's about money and greed. Oher is destined for sporting stardom, everyone sees his potential and jumps on the bandwagon.
What is so thoroughly depressing is that by the end, even Michael Oher himself doesn't recognise the injustice of the system. He too has been brainwashed in the ideals of meritocracy or social Darwinism (i.e. that if you work hard enough anyone can be make it and if you fail, you deserve it). At the end of the book, Oher is reported as commenting that he has little contact with his mother and siblings and remarks that they are lazy, need to hear the word "No", and, most damningly, he remarks that they had the same chances he had (seriously!).
This is, of course, utter nonsense - Oher was adopted by a millionaire family, privately educated, privately tutored and groomed for college based on his physical potential alone while his siblings were left to run away from foster homes and live rough in the projects. So instead of giving a helping hand to his family and others in need, he adopts exactly the sort of mantra and mindset of the super-rich white Republican milieu he now moves in: "I made it because I worked harder than you, you choose to live in the ghetto on welfare so don't come to me for handouts".
That Oher doesn't recognise that his assent from the street to the penthouse is not a simple matter of merit and hard work and everything to with blind luck and a social/economic system that places higher value on sporting achievement is disappointing, but given the interactions reported in the book, hardly surprising.
I am also surprised that so few people found the relationship between Oher and the Tuohys slightly disturbing. Obviously Oher would not have come under their wing had he not been a prospective lineman, but there is merit in what the Tuohys do, certainly, and they must be applauded for their charity and generally caring attitude. But it's the details that make them appear so unlikeable, like telling Oher when he learns that his father has died that it's for the best as when he becomes successful his father would only have made claims on his money. The things that the Tuohys value and think Oher should know and appreciate are also puzzling: Ms Tuohy orders everything at an Italian restaurant so Oher can appreciate the difference between pesto and puttanesca. Well that will avoid embarassment at the country club I suppose. They buy him a backpack that is the preserve of little rich kids, and when Oher questions their choice, he's informed that he is himself now a little rich kid. Charming. The Tuohys come across as treating Oher like a pet or a worthy social experiment rather than a human.
What the Blind Side does reveal is the naked greed of everyone involved in Oher's rise as a left tackle and the appalling disparity of wealth and influence in the US. Like the high school and college coaches who drool over him and offer what amount to little more than bribes to get him to play for them. Or Sean Jr demanding privileges from prospective college coaches and then questioning why his sister and Oher aren't written out of his parent's will as they are/will be independently rich.
The disparity between rich and poor is shocking. On one side of Memphis there are the ghettos, on the other families with private jets whose daughters date the billionaire owners of FedEx. For a poor black boy, the only way he can move from one to the other is a result of sporting prowess. This is not something to celebrate, it is an indictment on society, as is the fact that by the end, the poor black boy thinks this is how it should be.