“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The famous beginning of the Dickens novel about the French revolution applies well enough to our own times.
What’s “best” about the current economic mess? For one thing, the refreshing outrage over obscene salaries and bonuses, being reminded that greed is not a virtue but a vice, that what’s good for big corporations may not in fact be good for the rest of us. Most of us have entertained such heresies privately all along. But it feels good and right to have it said out loud. Simple honesty of a “emperor’s not wearing any clothes” sort leavens life these days, providing some compensation for the bad economic news.
On the other hand: recently New York Times’ David Brooks wrote a column that lays out for us the character and soul of America: We are the “commercial republic” whose citizens are all about the possibility of become rich This pursuit defines us. We “work longer hours than any other people” not because we happen to be born into an economic system in which we have no choice about that, but because its our “elemental nature”, our “cultural DNA”.
We are, lamentably according to Brooks, in a “noncommercial moment” with the economic crisis, but we will soon return to our true nature, following our heroes like Horatio Alger and Donald Trump scrambling after the almighty buck.
My reaction was: What an indictment, what an insult. Who is this shallow, greed-driven, American you’re talking about? Maybe those who have been running companies into the ground and skimming obscene salaries and bonuses off the top. But that’s not me, or anybody I know.
It seems to me that most Americans are not stupid enough to believe that the economic system will allow us all to get rich and in any case not shallow enough to believe that a life based mainly on the pursuit of wealth is a good life. But it is true that for decades we have allowed ourselves to be characterized as the “consumer society.” Yes, this silly, demeaning view of ourselves is sort of a national joke. (“When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”) When Bush said in that post-911 national moment of great seriousness that the most patriotic thing you can do is go out and buy stuff, we laughed , but at the expense of ourselves. And we didn’t come up with a better idea.
Privately we know that the winner in life is not in fact the one who dies with the most toys, that Brooks’ commercial definition of our soul is ignoble, decadent, and not worthy of us. But we are each a part of a population that has allowed itself to be so defined. We’ve had a public image values and image crisis. There was a time when self- image for many, no matter how poor, was helping to develop a continent and build a nation. Then it was saving the world with our productive capacity and inventiveness. Then it was rebuilding a world torn apart by World War Two. (Sure, all these projects had their problems, but they were not silly.)
Just what that new national meaning will be now is not clear but seems to me we’ve known all along that accumulating wealth and buying stuff doesn’t cut it. We need another whole take on the meaning of life and success. The “best” of the present moment, when the flaws of the commercially based life are so exposed, is that we have the chance to start the process of redefinition by rejecting the prevailing venial image of ourselves as a nation of consumers, as Brooks’ “commercial republic”.
It’s not the French revolution, but self-images are powerful and overthrowing a debilitating self-image can be a refreshing act of national renovation. To adapt a famous song, “take this self-image and shove it, we ain’t buyin’ it any more.”
The “commercial republic”: is this really what we’re like? Or what those who profit from such an idea want us to believe?