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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Art of the Hustle: the American Value

I just ordered Why America Failed by Morris Berman.  I read lots of reviews and interviews with Berman so I think I will probably want to argue that his description is insightful, but oversimplified.  And I will choose to disagree with his prescription.

As I search to understand the American Civil Religion and the key values driving its institutions through the presidential campaign, the communitarian voluntary association that Tocqueville revealed in Democracy in America and the Individualism that Bellah revealed in Habits of the Heart will both be a target for understanding.  But here is Berman who cites other major historians articulating as the underlying and prominent American value as the "hustle."

It's Michael Douglas in Wall Street proclaiming greed as the prime motivator of human economy and society.  Berman writes how it has corrupted all the American Institutions and is driving the Decline of America economically, politically, culturally.  But it is not simple self-interest or even just greed, it is the art of the hustle.  Donald Trump, Richard Fuld (Lehman), Ken Lay (Enron) are personifications and indeed models of this value.

Some quotes:
  • America has had one value system, and it is finally showing itself to be extremely lopsided and self-destructive.  
  • The ‘hustling’ way of life says that virtue consists of personal success in an opportunistic environment, and that if you can screw the other guy on your way to the top, more power to you. 
  • “Looking Out for No. 1” is what really needs to be on the American dollar. Appearances to the contrary, this is what “democracy” always meant in America—the freedom to become rich. This ideology is so powerful that we don’t even recognize it as such.
  • As Jerry Seinfeld’s lawyer in the final episode of the series tells him: “You don’t have to help anybody; that’s what this country’s all about!” 
  • David Ehrenfeld, Professor of Biology at Rutgers University, recently wrote: “A society driven mainly by selfish individualism has all the potential for sustainability of a collection of angry scorpions in a bottle.”
I think Berman is right in naming this as a, maybe the, central American value that fuels our corporations, churches, governments, political parties, schools and corrupts all our economic, political and cultural institutions.  Indeed both presidential campaigns are measuring success for the nation in terms of wealth--cost of homes, value of stocks, compensation, ability to consume, dominance of corporations defended by a strong military.

However, there are also movements and institutions of resistance and rebellion.  I know many people in North America, families, congregations, businesses, communities that do not live by this dominant principle and in fact offer, or at least search for, a counter-cultural approach where value and success is not measured in terms of the art and product of the "hustle."  I also have participated in wonderful acts of resistance in drama, novels, political commentary, comedy.  I serve on two boards of citizens volunteering to develop affordable housing and build community.  I participate in a congregation where social justice is its reason for being.  Most of my family and friends are NOT living by this value to get more.

And I reject Berman's solution of withdrawal.  I understand his flirtation with monasticism and his own settlement in Mexico. Hermits withdrew from the institutions of the ancient Church when the "Fathers" prescribed orthodoxy in order to become the established religion of the declining Roman Empire. But they also formed religious orders to be an alternative to the established Church and its princely bishops.

My former city of Fresno, pressured by a vigorous enlightened citizen action, just adopted a progressive new-urbanist General Plan that was opposed by the developers of sprawl looking out for growth of their portfolios.  People have said this was a miracle. And indeed it was because it broke the traditional and predictable order of "hustling" by developers that was projecting a urban form that destroyed community.

Although I reject religion in all its denominational forms, I do not reject my faith in redemption, forgiveness, reform, and even resurrection.  Resistance and rebellion is always an option.  Coming together to act is the "miracle" that breaks the natural trends that Berman describes so well that have led to the decline and failure of America.

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