Friday, August 12, 2016

Reflections on Steinbeck's critique of American culture

It has always seemed strange to me…The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second. (John Steinbeck in Cannery Row)

In short, according to Steinbeck, Americans value achievements of human “doings” above relationships between and among human “beings”….evidence-based success trumps the abstractions of kindness, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling. What one accomplishes, as illustrated by what one has, irrespective of how it was achieved really matters. And this is a by-product of a culture born of the musket, reared on the battlefield, and sustained by the most elaborate military-industrial-intelligence complex in human history. It is not that individual acts of generosity are absent from the American culture. It is that they are not embedded in the cornerstone of the culture along with the symbols of achievement that are the jewels worthy of their place in that stone.

Admiration of human compassion and gentleness and generosity is never going to compete with a love of the produce of hurtful attitudes and actions. And Steinbeck is one of America’s most respected writers, so it is not that the American people are unwilling to reflect on their inherent imbalance of ideals and things.

And, the ironic truth of Steinbeck’s pithy observation has also moved some to attempt to change the system by making it more kind, generous, open, honest, understanding and empathic. By the same token, others, like the movie writers, producers and directors have also generated sizeable audiences and revenue from movies that celebrate the “success” of greed, egotism and self-interest. (Wall Street being top of mind.)

How does the American “system” fail in a cumulative sense to offer, support, encourage, foster and even incarnate the best of human traits? As a nation, the country’s premise of the pursuit of life, liberty, happiness and freedom, at its core, is a nexus of competition, unleashed individualism, and competition in the rough and tumble of business, politics, athletic and academic competition, and the achievement of significant and stereotypical symbols of status. Beginning with wins in primary school competitive ventures, science fairs, even pre-school-age beauty pageants, and even artistic competitions in dance, piano, instrumental and band competitions. The psychological premise underpinning all of these experiments in parenting is that my ‘child’ will have to compete to climb the economic/political/social/intellectual ladder and my legacy will have been to inculcate those attitudes, habits, disciplines and expectations that will lead to a successful live. Although there is, to be sure, growing evidence that humanitarian initiatives, like volunteering for a social justice project in elementary and secondary school, as an integral and requisite component of the resume and the application for university, there is still a very high premium placed by admission offices on the academic score on standardized testing instruments. Admittedly, there are rules and officials providing a “fair” context in which many of these high-end competitive encounters, and most of them expect and even require participants to comply with their fundamental rules and expectations.

Nevertheless, it is also true that a large socioeconomic slice of the population is excluded from many of these “opportunities” given their lack of or even total absence of the resources needed to purchase the equipment, eat the meals, get the sleep, find a suitable place to do homework, and even the pay for the transportation to participate. These road-blocks serve to increase the gap between those who participate and those who can’t, as well as to enhance the divisions and the concomitant resentments, jealousies, bitterness and hopelessness within communities. Pour into this disparity the differences in colour of the skin of the children in most towns and cities. Injustice abounds. And yet, as the street talk puts it, ‘tell me something I did not know.”
It is, in part, the failure of the political class and the community leadership to elevate the numbers of students who graduate, who serve and who volunteer and the enrolment figures in art classes, music classes, dance classes, in the public dialogue, over the numbers that are attached to the employed/unemployed, to the tax burden, to the consumer price index. It is also the failure of the schools, the churches, and the corporations to elevate and to respect and to reward the individuals in their circles who demonstrate compassion, understanding, respect, service and honesty that supports the tilt of the playing field in favour of the efforts to cut costs, to dodge legitimate safety and environmental testing, to schmooze those in power, as one of the many pathways to successfully climbing the various hierarchical ladders of power, status and responsibility in order to demonstrate their personal “success”.

No one would argue that egotism trumps collaboration, collegialism, and the development of sensitivity, as workplace cultural goals, and as primary traits for success. Of course, there is some evidence of exceptions to this pattern, highlighted for public relations and marketing purposes, in an effort to enhance profits, investment values and business growth. Yet even mainline churches have succumbed to the growth in numbers and dollars as evidence of their success, padding the resumes of their executives, at the expense of both individual spiritual growth and supportive community building.

And, from a macro-perspective, unless and until we admire humans more than success, humans will continue to serve a subservient role to the pursuit of the glory and the fame and the notoriety of success. And meanness, self-interest, and ego like a dangerous weed will continue to proliferate among the masses, empty as a life-goal and strategy, yet more than capable of infecting millions. Steinbeck addresses this dynamic in another pithy observation to the effect that if you are in trouble, need or hurt, only the poor people will help you. We all have experience to corroborate his cynical truth in that regard. The world is full of stories about people in some kind of need, calling on someone with whom they grew up, and upon whom they believed they could rely for help, only to hear, on the other end of the line, “There is nothing I can do for you” when they, and specifically they, were in a position to offer very specific help for a very specific need. And their cover, (if that is the right word) was something like, “I don’t want to interfere in your life, and I believe you got yourself into this position, so get yourself out!” And, since they have not been in a position similar to that of the person in need, they have no comprehension of the dimensions, nor the pain of the need.

One of the defining traits of successful people is that they value their success, and the methods by which they achieved it: and whatever it took, including hardness, acquisitiveness, aggression, self-interest, meanness, those were the values that helped them conquer the obstacles to their success and having deployed those values, they now owe considerable respect to them, and whether incidentally or overtly, they present as representatives of those values, to the people they meet.

The writing of cheques to charities, while it may be a frequent discipline of those who have succeeded is fundamentally detached from those persons “in need” unless a specific tragedy like a fire that demolishes a home, or a speeding driver who kills a very pregnant mother, or a headline depicting an obvious injustice. And then the “crowd-funding”  available on social  media is accessed, and the person/family in such desperate need is singled out for support. Yet, although I do not have the sociological data to prove this, there is reason to believe that even in those special circumstances, most of those hypothetical cheques are being written by those who have much less than those society considers “successful”.

The American cultural dominance of the importance of the individual, as a functioning component in the larger culture (including how the individual serves the larger process of how success is measured, defined and tabulated in all phases of the life of the individual) has so overwhelmed the value placed on the nation as a whole, the society, and the things required to build a culture of compassion, generosity, gentleness, honesty, openness and feeling has left the individual defined as his career, his accomplishments, his trophy case of awards.

And one of the qualities that drives a culture steeped in the need to “show me” your value, is a lack of trust, a lack of inherent value as the starting place of how one perceives the other, and, by inference, how one perceives and conceives one’s self. If we are repeatedly taught that “X” is good because of what “X” has accomplished, while the evidence of how “X” extended support, kindness, compassion, to another is considered merely an afterthought, then the world is “showing” and “telling” its children what really matters in their life. And children imitate what they see their parents and their teachers and their coaches do, at least as well or perhaps even better than they emulate what their mentors “say”.

Supporting this “productive” culture is a significant entertainment industry, in and through which many learn, rehearse and offer their talents and skills that are encased in dramas that illustrate the productive achievements of history, in all fields where accomplishment can be seen and measured.

It is the difficulty to measure the subjective and the abstract in empirical terms that leaves them lagging as mysteries in most conversations in America. The intimacy, gentleness, generosity, compassion of which Steinbeck writes seem to be confined to the private lives of marriage, intimate relationships, as if they do not belong in the public arena. I once heard a female executive tell her spouse that she put on her armour every morning to go out into the world, in order to survive in that world, and only when she returned home could she remove that armour. Unfortunately, even in her relationship, she persisted in directing and in dominating that same spouse in highly condescending ways…..“once a general, always a general.”

Another way in which this cultural anatomy functions is to put a price, a dollar price, on each and every encounter, reducing all encounters and exchanges to consumer/supplier for-profit meetings. “Time is money,” is a chant that echoes throughout the culture, demonstrating that unless it produces value (a relevant and appropriate compensation) it will not be taken. So humans learn very quickly that how they are to be compensated is at the core of each activity. Of course, there are volunteer opportunities, much vaulted in the culture, for which individuals are not paid; these are regarded as “pro bono” engagements, making them excellent entries on one’s resume, demonstrating the capacity to ‘give back’ as another way to ‘show’ one’s value in the culture. Ascribing 75% of the nation's economic health on consumer spending also illustrates the dependence on the acquisition of these consumables, and their cultural importance.

Naturally, at some point in such a wealthy culture, it is embarrassing not to demonstrate some generosity, especially when epidemics like AIDS, or ebola threaten thousands of lives. And from the public purse, there is evidence in President Bush’s (43) millions offered to Africa to combat the AIDs epidemic. There is also considerable evidence of philanthropy from billionaires like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates whose wealth has been generated from their investment portfolios and their ingenuity in their private for profit businesses. However, the society’s refusal to make access to quality health care universally available to all, regardless of pre-existing conditions or size of earnings or level of education is a critical example of the failure of the society to look after its own. Dubbing such a proposal “communism” is an overt attempt by the power brokers to ridicule it as demonic, evil and thereby easily dismissed. Underlying that charge, however, is merely the overt effort to protect, enshrine and perpetuate the capitalist system, for profit, which depends on the compliance of millions with a culture of “the end (profit) justifies the means” and the means includes whatever it takes to keep the corporation profitable.

It is, at its heart, the dominance of the for-profit corporation and the example of its modus operandi (originating in the military model) that has built and continues to sustain a culture in which Steinbeck’s prescience persists. Admiring the gentleness of individuals, while loving the things purchased by the other side of human nature’s traits is a kind of trap that has a deeply embedded support system, only occasionally and temporarily cracked by a “good news” story that shows the “light” of what might be possible.

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