On Envy and American Culture

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the envious have their eyes sewn shut with wire because they have gained sinful pleasure from seeing others brought low.

We typically think of Lady Justice as blind so that that she can do justice without regard to who is before her. But perhaps she is blind so that there is no possibility of pleasure in what happens to a sinner. Her blessed blindness is not to achieve justice, but to prevent the ugliness of any pleasure at human torment, even to one deserving it.

But this is a form of envy for which a German word is necessary, Schadenfreude, and for which no precise English equivalent is available. It is one thing to hate the fortune of another — that is envy — and a step further to celebrate the misfortune of another — that is Schadenfreude.

The strength of a culture can be measured by its indulgence of envy and Schadenfreude. A predominance of the former is alarming. A predominance of the latter is corrosive and fatal.

“But it is Schadenfreude,” says Arthur Schopenhauer, “a mischievous delight in the misfortunes of others, which remains the worst trait in human nature. It is a feeling which is closely akin to cruelty, and differs from it, to say the truth, only as theory from practice.”

When certain European intellectuals expressed perverse pleasure at the toppling of the towers on 9-11, that was Schadenfreude in its quintessentially corrupt European and disgusting form. Its finest spokesman was French philosopher Jean Beaudrillard:

That we dreamed of this event, that everyone without exception dreamed of it, because no one can fail to dream of the destruction of a power exercising such a hegemony – that is unacceptable for the Western moral conscience. And yet it is a fact, which can be measured by the pathetic violence of all the discourses that try to cover it up. In the end, they did it, but we wanted it.

Envy, says Kant, is a propensity to view the well-being of others with distress, even though it does not detract from one’s own. In the Russian version of the game, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, “Ask the Audience” was deleted as a life-line because Russian audiences deliberately gave the wrong answer. They didn’t want to help the player. That is deep cultural cynicism.

I tee this up to insist that the character of a person matters and the character of a culture matters, to insist further that making excuses for the bad character of persons and cultures invites decline, and finally to ask where are we as a nation. Envy in American culture has historically been an isolated vice. Our narrative has tended more toward the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story, the steadfast belief in opportunity, the admiration — rather than envy — of success.

If there is anything to the notion of American exceptionalism, it is rooted in three qualities: (1) a steadfast belief in our culture of freedom, opportunity and hard work; (2) a sincere desire for everyone’s liberty and success — from the Germans and Japanese after World War II to the Iraqis and Afghanis in 2012, with a host of American helping projects in between; and (3) the belief that extraordinary power, contrary to centuries of terrible lessons about power, can in fact be exercised sacrificially and fairly and without demand for real estate, on behalf of global stability. No other country in human history has ever combined these qualities.

Key to our American self-understanding — to whatever it may be that makes us exceptional — is rejection of envy and its corrosive power. Envy is always a net negative. Nothing good comes from it and it shrivels the soul of the envier. It makes him permanently less than he could be because he is fixated on the fortune of another, convinced it is ill-gotten, and no longer productive himself, except as a victim, because his guiding mantra is now the “unfairness” of it all. And the moment a man, or a culture, shifts primarily to a victim narrative, the cynical rot of decline sets in.

We’re confronted now with competing narratives in America. The 1% narrative seems clever — all that solidarity — but it is predicated on envy and demonization of the rich, and demand for free stuff (like forgiveness of student loans) — and why?

Is class warfare good for America? Do we solve anything — seriously anything — by encouraging the middle and lower classes to envy and despise the rich? Is Warren Buffet evil? Is Bill Gates evil?

To be sure, we’ve been fascinated and repulsed by the super-rich. They can be ostentatious and stupid — typically because they’re folks just like you and me who got suddenly rich and behaved hideously. And just as typically, they squandered their wealth and toppled to something like you and me. Life chastens most people. By the time they have a little bit of wisdom, they’ve been whacked.

Except for the super-rich, who do some of the finest things that human beings are capable of doing on this planet. If I had to gauge the good that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have done with their billions, I’d say the 1% fare very favorably as good human beings compared to the 99%.

We should be on our knees thanking that 1%. They’re, on average, better than us.

To whatever extent we wish to be focused on the rich, we’re indulging envy and missing the larger point. There isn’t anything the rich could do to save our economy. Screaming about the rich paying their fair share = envy. It’s not a solution. It’s a political talking point. The rich could fork over all of their fortune and put only a tiny dent in our massive deficit.

Stop the envy. Give no quarter to Schadenfreude. Our nation powers forward on the strength of people believing in themselves, never as victims, always resolved to succeed, and admiring success. Make it a little less, make it about blaming, and we are a culture in decline.

 

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President Obama’s State of the Union Address, January 25, 2011

Our president delivered another fine address, and touched brilliantly on a few points, somewhat disingenuously on a few others. My reactions:

  • What initially struck me as gimmicky — Democrats and Republicans agreeing to sit together, rather than their usual separate camps, ended up working well as political theater, in my opinion. A Republican friend earlier this week opined that this ploy was cynically designed to blunt the optics of opposing party members declining to applaud overmuch, which, since most of the people attending were members of the opposing party, would have rendered “audience reaction” less than robust. I think it worked out a bit differently. There was a bit of Democratic and Republican solo cheering — but generally, the cheering occurred at genuinely bipartisan notes. Americans witnessed their elected officials being generally gracious toward one another — and that is a net positive concerning the American people’s perception of government.
  • The president appeared more conservative than expected — certainly more conservative than his administration has been conducted for the last two years. It’s very effective triangulation politics — the president rising above partisan divisions and repeatedly calling upon “Republicans and Democrats” to do the right thing — and typically with kind words to say about the agendas of both parties. That is the generous face of governance for the next year, and it may well get the president reelected in 2012.
  • “The debates have been contentious; we have fought fiercely for our beliefs. And that’s a good thing. That’s what a robust democracy demands. That’s what helps set us apart as a nation.” No, that’s not what sets us apart as a nation — and it trivializes the very greatness you, Mr. President, successfully celebrate later in your speech. The debates in every other Western nation, and most non-Western nations, are equally robust. Nothing about our robust debate in the 21st century “sets us apart” except the skepticism about government power. The only instance in which we might claim uniqueness in the global argument is sustained discomfort with government trying to solve too much.
  • On display, with Reagan’s ghost hovering conspicuously, was the theme of American exceptionalism. It was fascinating political theater. There seems to be no man prouder of our country, no man more convinced of its greatness, no man more confident that none of us would trade places with the citizens of any other country, than the president of the United States. “What we can do – what America does better than anyone – is spark the creativity and imagination of our people. We are the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It’s how we make a living.” And this: “Remember — for all the hits we’ve taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We are home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any other place on Earth.”
  • Wow. And it’s the same man from whom we experienced that historic kick in the gut during his worldwide “apology tour” — the same man who began his administration as a juggernaut against the notion of “American exceptionalism.” It is interesting to query whether the citizens of all those other countries feel ever so slightly betrayed. Or perhaps they are simply muttering, he is saying what he must say to those Americans.
  • The president wants to tackle immigration reform. Good, it assuredly should be tackled, with emphasis on securing the borders and punishing employers who exploit illegal labor. But the president’s rhetorical bait was a bit disingenuous. Conspicuously, without actually naming the act, he lauded the Development, Education, and Relief for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which purports to legalize innocent children of illegal immigrants who are accomplished students or engaged in public service. If the subset were that small, the DREAM Act would and should pass Congress overwhelmingly. But it is not. The bill purports to begin with a small subset of very sympathetic illegal aliens — “kids,” the PR purpose  — and expands outward enormously to embrace literally millions of illegal immigrants, none of whom is a “kid,” potentially eligible for citizenship — and it halts any otherwise legitimate deportation simply based upon applying for DREAM eligibility. If Democrats would surrender the overreach of the bill and focus honestly upon the subset applauded by the president, then this side-note of immigration policy could and should become law. Meanwhile, there are massive illegal immigration issues to tackle. And given the president’s frankly disingenuous focus on this issue in his speech, I doubt we’ll see genuine bipartisanship coming from the White House. His administration’s mishandling of Arizona may be the textbook instance of how not to be post-racial and constructive on immigration policy.
  • On health care, the president tip-toed, with a shrewd nod toward President Clinton’s “mend it, don’t end it” approach to affirmative action. Here’s what I don’t get: “What I’m not willing to do is go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a pre-existing condition.” Really? Popular line — but how do we pay for it without premiums skyrocketing? More importantly, how do you keep people from gaming the system and applying for insurance only when they have a pre-existing condition? Well, the universal mandate. Everyone must purchase health insurance. On this issue of current constitutional significance, the president could have been a bit less glib.
  • But here’s something I never thought I’d hear from a Democrat: “medical malpractice reform.” Wow. If the president is serious about controlling health care costs, then tort reform is indeed essential — but it means willingness to take on one of the richest components of his base, the trial lawyers, right behind the unions. I guess I’ll believe it when I see it. But his willingness to put himself out there and say it at least puts the issue in play — even if his true intention is to ensure that any meaningful tort reform gets defeated or stalled in the Senate. Let’s see.
  • Another wow. “I will veto it,” this time referring to any bill with earmarks — the president’s slam against “special interests” inserting their pet projects into legislation. God bless President Obama. Sounds a bit like Bush senior’s “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge. Let’s see.
  • Yes, Mr. President, “American Muslims are a part of our American family.” Did you really need to say that as though the rest of us didn’t quite get it yet? Just so you know, we do.
  • “And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.” Really? Like how we supported the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people? Do we support the democratic aspirations “of all people” only when they win by themselves? What’s the policy?
  • On the issue of the “Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell” policy imposed upon the military by Congress during the Clinton administration, the president appropriately applauded its repeal, and then equally appropriately called “on all of our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC. It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation.” That is sound on both scores and the president deserved the applause.

Our president spoke generally well. He was inclusive and at times quite generous. I applaud the speech, with only the reservations he would expect.

The Less Interesting Baby Boomers and American Exceptionalism

 

Michael Kinsley’s latest modest proposal in Atlantic magazine — that the Baby Boomer generation give something back to America because of all its profligate lifestyle and debt — is well-argued, and being a Boomer (1959), I’m susceptible to the guilt-tripping.  But I have some quibbles.

The first is definitional.  Kinsley blithely equates Baby-Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) with a “peace and love” agenda.  That confuses “Baby Boomers” with “the Sixties,” which Kinsley calls “the Boomers’ heydey.”  Baby Boomers, as a demographic, are vastly more diverse than “the Sixties” — a media artifice for what was exciting rather than what most people were actually doing.

The great majority of young people coming of age in the Sixties were conservative.  They didn’t do drugs.  They didn’t engage in the Sexual Revolution.  They didn’t protest — they supported —  the war in Vietnam.  They didn’t burn American flags or draft cards.  Indeed, some of them were activists.  Leftist Tom Hayden wrote in 1961, “what is new about the new conservatives is their militant mood, their appearance on picket lines.”

This great conservative majority of young Americans were uninteresting to the monolithic media in the Sixties and thereafter.  The media seized instead upon the margin, the few we now associate with “the Sixties,” who protested, burned, screamed, slacked, toked, swilled, screwed, sang, and slept.   And forevermore, we associate “the Sixties” with this unseemly loud, slouching minority.

Okay, if you wish, call that “the Sixties.”  But don’t confuse it with “the Baby Boomers.”  That’s a demographic category with very real modern-day consequences.  Most Baby Boomers were not emblems of “the Sixties.”  They believed in their country, they sought jobs, and they desired most urgently to care for their own.

If we’re really talking about “the Baby Boomers,” then we’re talking about a demographic group that Kinsley doesn’t want to acknowledge.  Either they’re glamorous because of their faux-Sixties “heyday,” and therefore guilty, or they’re the ordinary folks who actually lived through the 1960s — and less interesting, and less guilty.  A dicey metaphor is a poor basis for generational indictment.

And then Kinsley inexplicably writes: “American exceptionalism–the belief that the rules of nature and humanity don’t apply to us–and American hubris about promoting our values in the world got us into Vietnam.”

What? And what?  Kinsley heard about American exceptionalism from somebody who heard about it from somebody who saw something…

American exceptionalism has nothing whatever to do with “the rules of nature and humanity.”  American exceptionalism is about the oldest surviving overthrow of monarchy and tyranny.  American exceptionalism is about the power of a uniquely diverse people to rally around the idea of liberty.  American exceptionalism is about that liberty’s capacity to unleash unprecedented wealth.  American exceptionalism is about the belief that global power can be exercised for the good of the globe.

What we sought, in Vietnam, as we sought in multiple other venues for better and worse, was simply to check the march of a hostile ideology’s tyranny.  American exceptionalism was apparent not because we believed we were exempted from nature’s rules (whatever that might possibly mean), but because no one else on the planet was equipped to challenge the expansionist Communist menace.  And for this venture in a distant land, we learned how not to fight a war.  Baby Boomers made that profound sacrifice.

The lessons of Vietnam enabled us to dispatch, efficiently, the murderous Taliban in Afghanistan and the butcher of Baghdad in Iraq.  Both regimes had been killing and torturing with impunity, and were eager to do more.  Because they could.  God bless “American exceptionalism,” if that’s the label for the narrow will to put an end to these monstrous blights on our community of nations.