This is the internet weblog of Bix Frankonis.

Stay Gold, Ponyboy

In retrospect, it should have been glaringly obvious what was nagging at me about Arthur C. Brooks’ paean to becoming an outsider: only someone whom normative society does not consider already to be an outsider can contemplate the idea of freely choosing to become one. It’s not that there are no benefits to being an outsider (especially when the relevant insides, whatever they may be, are rotten), it’s that being an outsider is not some of kind of rejuvenating, spiritual idyll.

Brooks does take a paragraph out of his rhapsody in order briefly to glance at this flip side of being an unintentional or circumstantial outsider.

Outsiders do tend to face particular genres of hardships, especially distrust by insiders. Despite the biblical injunction “Do not oppress a foreigner,” even believers often disregard friendliness in favor of tribal instinct when it comes to immigrants. You don’t have to move to a new place to feel the ill effects. People at the margins of society, by virtue of the language they speak or the lifestyle they choose, often bear the brunt of hostility. Joseph Stalin, for example, felt a particular animosity for the people he and his supporters called “rootless cosmopolitans”—generally, Jewish intellectuals, who he considered to live outside of mainstream Soviet society despite the fact that they lived in Soviet cities.

(“Particular animosity” here a bit underplays the concerted campaign to harass, fire, ban, and kill said rootless cosmopolitans, which included among other things a fabricated accusation resulting in the dismissal, arrest, and torture of a number of doctors, and the execution of a dozen poets. I only bring this up because I suspect that other readers might, like me, have had only the loosest, most general idea of Stalin’s actions and Brooks doesn’t bother to fill them in.)

We’re meant to be convinced, in part, by Brooks’ own experience, which he doesn’t relate until the end.

In candor, I’m approaching this topic with a fair amount of bias. Being an outsider early in my adulthood was the most positive experience I have ever had. At 25, I moved to a foreign country where I didn’t speak a word of the language, and knew not one soul save for a woman I hoped to marry, but who spoke little English. It was brutal, but life-changing in the best way. After a few years, I had lost my fear of new things, whether it was an unfamiliar language, working with strangers, new love, or a community hostile to foreigners.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that however personally challenging this might have been, moving to Spain when you’re twenty-five is not quite the same level or kind of outsiderness experienced by any number of less privileged people and populations even when they never stray from home. However hard it might have been to know “not one soul” in Spain (actually, according to Wikipedia, he was “the associate principal French hornist with the City Orchestra of Barcelona”), his path led him not only to the American Enterprise Institute, but to Harvard’s Kennedy and Business schools, and to the pages of The Atlantic.

Not quite the life of most outsiders. Outsiderness isn’t some sort of life hack or wellness strategy. True outsiderness is an almost complete lack of both power and the opportunity or invitation to access it—something even more foreign to Arthur C. Brooks than the city of Barcelona.

This post originally was published 1 year ago by Bix Frankonis on Posts older than a decade might not reflect my current views.