The Con that is America.
Shell Game – Flickr Creative Commons
I did not say the American Dream for the con was what this country has been about from the get go. As author Morris Berman points out in this interview with Nomi Prins. As Nomi begins this is a story about hustling.
Financial bigwigs lead their affluent lives, unaffected, unremorseful, and unindicted for wreaking havoc on the nation. Why? Because they won. They hustled better. They are living the American Dream.
This is not the American Dream that says if you work hard you can be more comfortable than your parents; but rather, if you connive well, game the rules, and rule the game, your take from others is unlimited. In this paradigm, human empathy, caring, compassion, and connection have been devalued from the get-go. This is the flaw in the entire premise of the American Dream: if we can have it all, it must by definition be at someone else’s expense. [emphases mine]
This is after all the basic tenant of American business big or small. Always pass the all expenses on to the
next sucker customer. The author goes on to tell how he came about to write is current book, Why America Failed, a postmortem if you will on this country.
By the time I sat down to write the third volume, Why America Failed, I was past the point of issuing warnings. The book is basically a postmortem for a dying nation. The argument is that we failed for reasons that go back more than 400 years. As a result, the historical momentum to not undertake a reassessment, and just continue on with business as usual, is very powerful. At this point we can no more reverse our downward trajectory than we can turn around an aircraft carrier in a bathtub.
And that even a few of the founding fathers were less than admirable in the way they did business. His description of the American culture of vulture capitalism is epitomized in this account he relates.
There is a story, probably apocryphal, of a Native American scouting expedition that came across the starving members of the Donner Party in 1847, who were snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas and resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. The expedition, which had never seen white people before, observed the Donner Party from a distance, then returned to base camp to report what they had seen. The report consisted of four words: “They eat each other.” Frankly, if I could summarize the argument of Why America Failed in a single phrase, this would be it. Unless Occupy Wall Street (or some other sociopolitical movement) manages to turn things around in a fundamental way, “They ate each other” will be our epitaph.
I should add that Why America Failed is actually part of a lineage, following the path initially staked out by Richard Hofstadter, C. Vann Woodward and Louis Hartz. Between 1948 and 1955 they all argued something similar; I just updated the argument.
Now he gets into the what my premise has been for some time. That both the left and the right suffer from variations on the same delusional thinking. That some how we can restore this fantasy known as The American Dream.
The Wall Street protests are, as during the Depression, a demand for restoring the American Dream; for letting more people into it. The Tea Party seeks a solution in returning to original American principles of hustling, i.e. of a laissez-faire economy and society, in which the government plays an extremely small role. Thus they see Obama as a socialist, which is absurd; even FDR doesn’t fit that description. There are great differences between the two movements, of course, but both are grounded in a deep malaise, a fear that someone or something has absconded with America.
. . . . .
The dominant thinking on the left, I suppose, is some variety of a “false consciousness” argument, that the elite have pulled the wool over the eyes of the vast majority of the population, and once the latter realizes that they’ve been had, they’ll rebel, they’ll move the country in a populist or democratic socialist direction. The problem I have with this is the evident fact that most Americans want the American Dream, not a different way of life—a Mercedes-Benz, as Janis Joplin once put it. Endless material wealth based on individual striving is the American ideal, and the desire to change that paradigm is practically nonexistent. Even the poor buy into this, which is why John Steinbeck once remarked that they regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Hence I would argue that nations get the governments they deserve; that the wool is the eyes.
And yet we hear the same arguments over and over about ideology. IDEOLOGY ? Most of these people wouldn’t know ideology if it came up an bit them in the ass ! What they want to do is party, party, party and some one else’s expense and they get pissed when the left calls them on it. Like the next store neighbors who hate being woken up at 3AM. The right sees the left as party poopers and left sees the right as obnoxious loud mouthed frat brats. Both with this enormous ego and arrogance.
One of the things the reviewer said was that America might be able to save itself if it decided to pay attention to its more serious critics. What would it take for most Americans to regard someone like myself as a patriot, and someone like Dick Cheney as a traitor? Or Ronald Reagan as a simpleton who did the country enormous damage, and Jimmy Carter as a visionary who was trying to rescue it? As I said, this is not a matter of intelligence as IQ, because in America even the bright are brainwashed—just check out the New York Times. It’s more of an “ontological” problem, if you will.
Let me give you a concrete example. A friend of mine who is a dean at one of the nation’s major medical schools was very taken by my discussion of Joyce Appleby’s work, in my book Dark Ages America. He went out and bought her essay, “Capitalism and a New Social Order,” in which she describes how the definition of “virtue” underwent a complete reversal in the 1790s—from putting your private interests aside for the sake of the greater good, to achieving individual material success in an opportunistic environment.
As a dean, my friend interacts with faculty a lot, at department meetings, cocktail parties, or whatever. He took these opportunities to raise the topic of the rapid redefinition of virtue in colonial America, only to discover that within 30 seconds, the eyes of whomever he was talking to glazed over and they would change the subject. Tocqueville said it in 1831, and it is even more true today: Americans simply cannot tolerate, cannot even hear, fundamental critiques of America. IQ has very little to do with it. In an ontological sense, they simply cannot bear it. And if this is true for the “best and the brightest,” then what does this say for the rest of us?
But look who some of our biggest heroes have been. Such notable statesman as Al Capone, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Faced Nelson and the Biggest Con artist of all Ronald Reagan. We even made musicals about them. That even our most notable inventors were not all that notable. That it took Lee DeForest – a physicist mind you – an unbelievable number of attempts to get the Audion from Flemming’s valve. And he still did not understand how the damn thing worked. That Edison did not, in fact invent the light bulb but his staff did and it took years to get the damn thing to work right.
And here is the main point to all this right here
Our political and cultural system never let fresh air in; it squelched the alternatives as quaint or feeble-minded. Appearances to the contrary, this is what “democracy” always meant in America—the freedom to become rich.
The left wants it on a level playing field and the right says FU. And any and all alternatives to this are summarily dismissed by both sides.
At this point, absolutely nothing can reverse the situation. If every American carries these values, then change would require a different people, a different country. In dialectical fashion, it is precisely those factors that made this nation materially great that are now working against us, and that thus need to be jettisoned. What we need now is a large-scale rejection of the American Dream, and an embracing of the alternative tradition..
This is what is necessary to change things. To change our attitudes toward wealth and possessions. To each other and society. But this is highly unlikely to occur any time soon, OWS not withstanding.
You know, the air is really “thin” in the United States, because the value-system is one-dimensional. It’s basically about economic and technological expansion, not much else; the “else” exists at the margins, if it exists at all. I first discovered this when I traveled around Europe in my mid-20s. I saw that the citizens of those countries talked about lots of things, not just about material success. Money is of course important to the citizens of other countries, Mexico included, but it’s not necessarily the center of their lives. Here’s what the US lacks, which I believe Mexico has: community, friendship, appreciation of beauty, craftsmanship as opposed to obsessive technology, and—despite what you read in the American newspapers—huge graciousness; a large, beating heart. I never found very much of those things in the US; certainly, I never found much heart. American cities and suburbs have to be the most soulless places in the world. In a word, America has its priorities upside down, and after decades of living there, I was simply tired of being a stranger in a strange land.
This is why in Greece and Spain and France and other countries you see thousands of people take to the streets when the feel they are being screwed and why here it’s simply…whatever. And now this con is coming apart at the seams and there is not one that can save it.