Monday, November 14, 2011

America — A Swindler's Paradise

America has always been a strange place. We are famous for our sense of entitlement, of believing we are special, even blessed. In fact, Americans feel they are so deserving of a life of ease and wealth that they will trample over others, using any means necessary, ethical or not, to get achieve it. This might be considered the cultural shadow-side of our immature, flawed character. As Morris Berman says in Why America Failed: An Overview, "More" is not a real goal; it has no actual content.

I got the idea for the book from a number of sources, but one of the most important was a book published in 2004 called Freedom Just Around the Corner, by Walter McDougall at the University of Pennsylvania, a Pulitzer-prize winning historian. I want to stress that McDougall is a very centrist historian; there is nothing left-wing or radical about him.

But in the opening pages of his book he says that what most characterizes America, going back to the late sixteenth century, is hustling. American English, he writes, has more than 200 synonyms or related expressions for the word ‘swindle’, and when two Americans get together, they pretty much understand that the other person has an angle or agenda and is trying to promote it. We are a people relentlessly on the make, we are all encouraged to develop “The Brand Called You” and market it. It reminds me of the comment made by the comedian Chris Rock, that in the United States, when you are talking to someone, you are actually talking to that person’s agent.

We Americans don’t realize what a strange, and indeed perverse, way that is to live, because if everyone is doing it, it just becomes normal... more