Saturday, November 04, 2006
The Uses And The Dangers Of Disrespect
Corporations are shafting the American people, but how can you attack the executives who run them? Is "attack" even the right thing we want to do? Maybe we can get somewhere with polite criticism of corporate mores, in the hope that CEOs and Congressmen will heed our suggestions and clean up their act accordingly. Do you think so? I don't. I think we still need to put every corporate malfeasance, legal or illegal, under the spotlight. If we do that effectively enough, it might shame the perpetrators - but shaming them is entirely secondary to changing how the public sees them. We want the public to lose confidence in these Business Week demi-gods. The best way to accomplish this may not be to either demonize their behavior in the abstract or to revile them as individuals, but simply to make them and their actions look ridiculous. To accomplish that, we may have to give them a human face of some sort, a rich identity whose foibles we can point to and laugh at. And therein lies the danger. The problem is that corporate criminals and other such villains have faces that resemble our own, and any attack against them might be construed as an attack on everyone who resembles them. Those who share their ethnic identity, their religion or even their personal traits and physical afflictions might rise up in arms and become their allies overnight.
This tactic of demonization has been used in the past, and it failed utterly. Some have said the Democratic party and the influence of the liberal intelligentsia began to wane as early as Richard Nixon's appeal to the "moral majority" in 1968, but that event - and everything followed in the years of Reagan and Bush - was more a reaction than an action. The liberals and their friends on the left had already started to push away Middle America when they began criticizing "The Establishment". The problem was that "The Establishment" was an abstraction. It needed a human face to become a proper target, so it soon became "The WASP Establishment" - but it did not stop there. An unrestrained social vindictiveness took over among both the liberals and the left, and the attack on "The WASP Establishment" was quickly broadened to include WASPs as a whole. WASP - or "White Anglo-Saxon Protestant" - became a prejorative term almost as soon as it was coined in 1965. Finally, here was a handy classification that could be stretched to encompass both the racist rednecks of Mississippi and the gentleman anti-Semites of Wall Street, and all the others in between - the bland, colorless, native-born American middle class that passively stood by as their ethnic compatriots at both ends of the social spectrum wrought their havoc on the nation.
Throughout the 70's and well into the 80's, a knowing disdain for all things White And Protestant became the ethnic prejudice du jour for all right-thinking people. WASPs were held responsible for racism and slavery, for poverty and bias, for the betrayal of Native Americans and the destruction of the environment, for sexual repression and sexism and Ivy League quotas - they became the scapegoats for all that was wrong in America and which the revolution of the 60's had tried to abolish. Some wrongs were righted, and many changes were made, but the blame persisted as a cultural commonplace for decades. Blond villains abounded in Hollywood movies and in popular novels. The almost offensively intensified WASPiness of American Psycho's Patrick Bateman only made him more despicable. A blond scion of the Astors, a downtown "artist" of questionable conviction, published an article in New York magazine outting his fellow WASPs as bigoted, bubble-headed and sexually inept. In Richard Ford's Independence Day, blue eyes, all by themselves, became a semiotic shorthand for anti-Semitism. Norman Mailer trained his own Hitlerian blue-eyed stare on us as well, and opined about the WASP character on The Dick Cavett Show as if they were a species of robot. Protestant Christianity was mocked as the refuge of either hypocrites or buffoons. A prominent Vietnam vet declared in an interview twenty years after the fact that "there were no WASPs in Vietnam". That would come as a surprise to the thousands of Scots-Irish Americans from the South, the Midwest and elsewhere who fought and died in Southeast Asia, who had been a mainstay of the American military since the Revolution, and who are overwhelmingly Protestant and British in origin. Here was an officer who should have been fragged. Political correctness took hold on American campuses and drove the hated WASP from their ivy-covered halls. Even high schools caught the bug. As a student in the 70's, I can recall a chemistry teacher dismissing WASPs as "obtuse conservatives", a biology teacher who belittled them as the agents of sexual ignorance, and a Quaker history teacher who reviled the British bombing of Dresden with more fervor than he denounced the Nazis. Even the blue-eyed sons of men who fought the Nazis were equated with Nazis now. It wasn't just name-calling either. Not by any means. Reverse discrimination was applied to WASPs both middle class and poor to strip them of their "advantages".
You're not likely to remember this arrow storm of slights unless it was directed against your people. If you do remember it, you remember it with a snicker of schadenfreude and mutter to yourself, "The bastards deserved it." Fine. As a kid growing up during that period, all I knew was that my grandparents had been working class immigrants - even if they were Protestants from the British Isles. Ours was a family of teachers, and we were raised to help and accept others regardless of how they worshipped God or where their ancestors came from. We had no connection to Chad and Buffy with their debutante balls in the Hamptons, or with the sinister anti-Semites of Park Avenue. We were punished nonetheless. Although I was naturally sympathetic to the goals of the Democrats, the liberals and even the left at large, I could never bring myself to trust them. Self-preservation prevented me from doing so. Demonization of the WASPs - all WASPs - may have been mere "collateral damage" in the struggle for Civil Rights, Women's Rights, Gay Rights, Multiculturalism and Diversity, but if you are the target of that "collateral damage", you have no choice but to stand aside or run and hide. It would be suicide for you to take part. You may assume that I am speaking out about this out of revenge. I am not. If I wanted revenge, I would have voted Republican.
But that's exactly what untold millions of other White Protestants all over the nation elected to do. Liberal intellectuals like Thomas Frank shake their heads at the stupidity of heartland Americans for voting for the Republicans - the party of the rich - when the Democrats truly support their interests. But how can they vote for a party whose supporters insulted for decades everything they stood for? Would you? If the Democrats and their supporters decry the tyranny of intolerant conservatives and greedy corporations, they have only themselves to blame. They made a strategic mistake of unparalleled stupidity. They allowed their opposition to an elite they wished to overthrow to explode into a wrathful crusade against the values of a vast plurality of the American people. What in God's name were they thinking? Protestant values have resurged stronger than ever - perhaps indeed with a "vengeance" in more ways than one.
The greatest irony is that Chad and Buffy in the Hamptons, and their Yankee uncles in Wall Street, never suffered - even if they may have been the original targets of the purge. The rich never suffer. They have too much money and too many connections. Chad and Buffy simply transformed their Hamptons estate into a multicultural zoo for their own amusement, while their Wall Street uncles hired more Jews and Asians but kept their grip on the gold nonetheless. The old rich have survived by chameleonizing themselves, but I doubt they have the same sense of noblesse oblige that they used to have. Their values have become more like those of the new rich.
The new rich set the tone for everyone else, and they are ruthless and without guilt. One of the unfortunate effects of blaming a specific ethnic group for the sins of a social class is that, once other ethnic groups join that class, they will not identify with it and will take no responsibility for its past. Today's billionaires and corporate elite are a more diverse bunch than ever - not quite as diverse as the rest of America, at least not yet, but much more so than they used to be. That is in itself a good thing. But their lack of identification with the old rich deludes them about the nature of their new status. Even as they acquire 100 room mansions, 500 foot yachts and fleets of private jets, they are constantly telling themselves, "I came up from nowhere. I'm no Old Money WASP. My dad, granddad, great-granddad was a barkeep, hod-carrier, rag-picker, bookkeeper, migrant worker... I had to fight tooth and nail for everything I got. Who are you to say I've gotta care about the other guy? I am the other guy! It's dog-eat-dog, and everyman for himself."
So there you have it then. The stage was set by the tactical mistakes of the 60's and the 70's. Let us hope that we do not make those mistakes again.
Whatever tactics we choose to shame the powerful and loosen their grip on the admiration of the powerless, we cannot afford to attack them on the basis of their ancestry, their religion, their genders or their afflictions. Even as we humanize them, we can strike at them only as abusers of power - and not as the representatives of a multitude of innocents.