Thursday, August 15, 2013

Guilt-Free Pleasures Of The Money Culture

The Human Condition

“Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” 
Voltaire

The rich shall always be with us. There have always been individuals of privilege; there have always been men of wealth; there have always been rapacious individuals who view the rest of humanity with contempt by dint of being good at commerce. And, yet, today’s lot of the rich and super-wealthy— made up of Internet billionaires, high-tech dilettantes, Wall Street gamblers and real-estate speculators—differ in at least one respect from their upper-class peers of generations ago.

Today’s wealthy generally, with a few notable exceptions, suffer no guilt from being rich. No need to help others achieve a small level of success; no need to give an extended helping hand. Quite the contrary, they indulge in it and think and view themselves as entitled to wealth, and the more the better. They believe they have earned the money without any outside help—believing in the myth of the “self-made man”—and thus have the right to do with it as they wish. Legally, they do, if the money was earned legally.

Even so, there are conventions that go beyond the letter of the law; there are implicit societal, moral and ethical laws that focus on doing good. On bettering humanity. This idea escapes many; they flaunt their wealth and flout laws. No guilty pleasures in this cohort. No feelings of insecurity. No, none at all. It’s one big game; one contest of winners and losers; one big party of self-indulgence. It’s pleasure, period.

Guilt, says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain, is a good thing, although it has become out of fashion. Here’s what he writes on the subject, notably on the difference between guilt and shame:
Today’s secular environment is a shame culture. It involves trial by the media, or public opinion, or the courts, or economic necessity, all of which are unforgiving. When shame is involved, it’s us, not just our actions, that are found wanting. That’s why in a shame culture you don’t hear people saying, “I was wrong. It was my fault. I’m sorry. Forgive me.” Instead, people try to brazen it out. The only way to survive in a shame culture is to be shameless. Some people manage this quite well, but deep down we know that there’s something rotten in a system where no one is willing to accept responsibility.

Ultimately, guilt cultures produce strong individuals precisely because they force us to accept responsibility. When things go wrong we don’t waste time blaming others. We don’t luxuriate in the most addictive, destructive drug known to humankind, namely victimhood. We say, honestly and seriously, “I’m sorry. Forgive me. Now let me do what I can to put it right.” That way we and the people we offend can move on. Through our mistakes we discover the strength to heal, learn and grow. Shame cultures produce people who conform. Guilt cultures produces people with the courage to be free.
This is an important distinction and it requires reflection to understand its significance. People understand the importance of individual liberty, to some degree in the west, but it’s not well understood in light of communal and corporate responsibility. For example, amassing a great fortune and being written about in the business press hardly makes you a great individual; it makes you an individual who knows how to make money and pump the PR Machine of self-importance. Does that make someone feel as a worthy individual, making the best use of his time?

For some, the answer is a hearty “yes,” knowing and accepting that they have become a slave to their desires to become a money-making automaton devoid of human emotions. Such are the rules of the money culture, which Peter C. Newman writes about in a Maclean’s article “The rich really are different”; June 17, 2013):
Making increasingly more money becomes more important than eating. You must submerge every other ambition to the infinite multiplication of wealth. It becomes not only an obsession, but a game you feel compelled to win. Implicit to that contest is to earn more than your rivals.
And in this contest, the choices are clear. Sometimes, when such individuals face some personal tragedy or hardship, as is the lot of most humans, thus becoming aware of their human limitations, they re-assess what is important. This is a good thing. It often takes some measure of understanding and, yes, guilt to move such individuals along the path to enlightened self-interest from pure selfish-interest.

Great men give; little boys take. The gulf between the two views is apparent today.