At some point we are likely to go back to looking at the world as we did a few generations back – the virtues of the 1950’s or the renunciatory sense of duty of the nineteenth century. If the Romantics & the French Revolution saw a response in the stiff upper lip, perhaps the disasters of today will bring back that same resolute look – perhaps instead of Sean Penn we will admire laconic heroes like Gary Cooper and self-deprecating ones like Jimmy Stewart. And if we do, perhaps we will value Benjamin Franklin’s advice and have little longing for Franklin Raines’ raincoat – value more what’s in our chests than covers our backs.
Perhaps the current economic crisis will force a re-examination of the assumptions Shannon describes so well. Each semester I ask my students to briefly discuss a variety of passages from early writers. One of my favorites is Benjamin Franklin’s argument against debt, that it tempts man to lie, that it undermines his freedom. Indeed, as he says, it is hard for an empty bag to stand upright. I like it because it counters D. H. Lawrence’s attack in an understated way. Franklin’s is not a romantic sense of self but a belief that protecting our essence, who we are, is important. His sense that the practical, the worldly & mundane, is an important factor seems much more interesting than the sex & melodrama of Lawrence’s dark passions.
Many students, of course, interpret Franklin’s statement as a description of poverty – they would make the pauper victim, centerless without money. Franklin would have none of that – we don’t fill ourselves with money. He meant we were compromised by improvidence and debt – our own personal irresponsibility. Debt affects . . . . well some of my students might use the word “soul”; to Franklin reputation was not tarred nor considered merely superficial – how others saw us had a truth of its own, a reality outside our own definition. In class, I say “integrity.” To many today the idea of an essence that we should cherish and protect seems obscure. Still, it is not poverty that risks our independent selves but dependence upon others, how we feel when we are in debt to others. And, in a broad sense, our past affects our present – adding dimension & depth. However, if our current positions can be strengthened by past ones, they are also weakened. Others may not take us so seriously, for instance. And we may have developed habits of weakness. That’s why the Victorians encouraged habits of duty – the little things build us for the big ones.
I came of age in the late sixties. We felt “free” – we rejected “pieces of paper” and “duty.” Well, we learned (some of us painfully and some of us long years later) that freedom was “just another word for nothing left to lose.” We began to value solidity, integrity – because we knew what it cost to create and protect it and what it cost to lose it. And some of us suspected that Geithner’s personal choices developed habits of blinking at the truth, looking aside rather than right on what stood before him – these were habits we knew too well and knew they didn’t bode well. (We understand the slippery slope argument because we’ve slid a time or two ourselves.)
We understood – not that Timothy Geithner made too little at the IMF but that he spent too much, that he got used to income not his but under his protection. How often do we see this news story: a business goes south, it becomes easier and easier not to pay payroll taxes nor sales ones. The sense of the responsibility for other people’s money – the greater the responsibility because it is others’ – is the sign of a grown up. Opposed by, say, Huck’s Pap, who assumes all is his – Huck’s money, a person with skin of a different color, a chicken in someone else’s coop. This may seem characteristic of a socio-economic class but is really merely adolescent – a man in whom the integrity of maturity has not been formed.
When we assume that we can’t make sense of our lives, that that is in itself a hopeless project, then we are more likely to not see the tough times through. What’s the point, we ask. Well, now we are seeing the point and we are seeing the virtues of those who stick it out. Surely, those who clean up the mess, who take little compensation, can look themselves in the mirror as those who sit above them cannot. But, perhaps the concept of looking in the mirror is lost if you believe the self of yesterday has no relation to that of today. Then, well, then, you speak with the smug assurance of Jamie Gorlick or of Barney Frank or of Charlie Rangel – high on a dais, interrogating.