Sunday, May 20, 2012

"Making money" is the deepest, most broadly shared religious value in America

I have been thinking a lot about why it has come to this. Why are Americans as a people in particular so weak and vulnerable, so thoroughly misled.
A theory:
In American culture, a deep respect for the right of each individual to "make a living" runs very deep. In a sense, it is the original drive that brought Europeans to America. In its day, it was actually quite progressive. After all, what it replaced (in the late 1500s and early 1600s) was the notion that the "nobility" had the right to live full lives and everyone else just competed to be the least mistreated of their stage props. "Making money" is the deepest, most broadly shared religious value in America.
Once "everyone can prove God loves them by being rich" became the dominant mode, then its internal contradiction became visible: What if my "making a living" involved depriving someone else of their ability to have a full life? Historically, various distinctions have been used to make it OK for some people to not count. The elect versus the non-elect. Racial and national boundaries. Sheer physical and communicational distances. Those are all breaking down now.
In the 1800s, the recognition gradually won out that "making a living" by enslaving people was wrong. What we need now is to broaden that much further to make it clear that making a living, even becoming ridiculously wealthy by contributing to society, by providing something people want is Good. Making a living by taking from others in any way is Bad. 
The "something for nothing" mentality may be most intense, obvious, and destructive when the financial sector does it on a grand scale, but it is pervasive. For example, it is the core of most visualize-your-way-to-fortune programs of the New Age.
When the Abolitionists first proposed the notion that slavery needed to be eliminated (1840 or so IIRC), they were vilified, even in non-slaveholding areas. The reason people came around was the recognition that anyone who had to compete with slaves would themselves be reduced to slavery.
So too, we need people to recognize that anyone who has to compete with the exploited will themselves be exploited. That the only solution is to make a sharp distinction between those who flourish by contributing and those who flourish by only taking.
I see this as foundational. If we can accomplish this, forward motion will become possible. Without this, I think we will remain trapped between the choice of being the abused girlfriend of the Democratic Party (oh, but he promised me he would leave her and marry me) or the isolated spinster, our greatest possible triumph to someday rise to 10% or 15% of the vote (NDP in Canada). Maybe on some very lucky day, one of the legacy parties will need our support and really come courting. You know, flowers, date on the town, the whole thing. "Just sign the papers sweetie, please." See Liberal-Democrats in the UK after the 20122 election there.
The only way out that I can see is to attain the society-wide understanding that something for nothing is always, always based on someone else's nothing for something. That something for nothing creates a cultural black hole that sucks light in, gives nothing out, and results in a lot more nothing and very little something.

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