Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Etymology of American Happiness

Dennis Prager today writes an exceptional essay in which he accounts for the astonishing success of the English-speaking world by noting the use in our language of the word "earn”; as in "earn a living." Other languages do not have an exact translation. For example, if you want to speak of getting your wages in Spanish, you employ the verb "ganar" which means "to win." German uses a variation on the theme with "verdient" which means "to deserve,” and Hebrew draws on a verb that means "to profit." One needn’t reflect long on the moral implications suggested by these various conceptualizations of work and wages in order to consider how these different orientations might play out—not only with respect to economics but also with respect to morality and politics.

The moral outlook for a person who considers that he must “earn” a living, “earn” respect, “earn” love, and “earn” forgiveness is going to be considerably different from that of a person who judges that money, respect, love and forgiveness are his by dint of pure good fortune. Similarly, the person who strives for earning things is going to comport himself in ways that are vastly different from those of the soul who imagines that life’s riches should be his as a matter of entitlement or will (that is, if he can but cleverly manage the accounting).

Prager notes that America is in danger of forgetting this verbiage as well as the habits of mind and of heart that accompany it. We now talk freely (nay, proudly) of “unconditional love,” for example, and we demand it along with instant forgiveness for all of our faults. In school (and, sadly, very often at home) our children “earn” very little these days and are given a great deal more as a result. Trophies, accolades, admiration, affection—all these things are theirs for the mere price of breathing. And love? Well, we claim it as a birthright but—not being intellectual as well as moral idiots—we are very often disappointed in its quality. Perhaps there is little wonder in this. We bought our love from the clearance table after all.

A good friend of mine recently noted that Obama’s demand of his cabinet that they seek to trim the federal budget by $100 million will work for him as a conspicuous demonstration of republican virtue working to do him the Machiavellian service of covering up his otherwise imperial lavishness. I suppose he has a point. But I cannot help but take some comfort, anyway, in Obama’s feeling the necessity to use this particular fan for his obscene little dance. It’s fair to note his cynicism in it and to call it a cheap kind of stunt, but it’s also true that it does denote a kind of nascent republican virtue in the American soul. We still think—though we’ve done a poor job of demonstrating it in many respects—that people ought to “earn” a living. We still think that there is a mean between extravagance and stinginess. We still hold fast to the notion that it is wrong for a people to live beyond their means. And Obama still feels like he needs to (or at least he seems to need to pretend to) “earn” our forgiveness.

Critics will say that’s a thin reed to hang my hopes on. But I don’t yet think America is a nation of suckers and tyrants.

Discussions - 11 Comments

An interesting post Julie, excepting that portion concerning the false messiah, whose actions are nothing but naked cynicism, without anything redemptive therein; such straining to glean something worth the while from Obama's actions simply won't do.

But I expected you by now to chime in on the whole Miss USA/Miss California "scandal." A desirable woman was asked her mind, responded by speaking her mind and "scandal" ensued. Unbelievable.

I'm no theologian nor expert on Christian doctrine, but unearned forgiveness brings to mind Christian teaching and perhaps its corruption.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

First of all this is something to be prayed for, not guaranteed. Next we must repent to be worthy of forgiveness. Are we only then able to begin to forgive? What about the other's utter unrepentance? Such as what I suspect was Timothy McVeigh's condition.

Here's Pope Benedict's thoughts on the Lord's Prayer. In forgiveness, "We encounter the limit of our power to heal and to overcome the power of evil." Is this the other's unrepentance? The giving of unearned forgivenness would be an example of the "trivialization of evil." Such forgivess is also cheap, the Pope says, because we remain "ensconced in ourselves."

Of course for Benedict all this points to the "mystery of the cross."

All in all--good essay and good post!

Dan . . . remember that I was speaking only of Obama's virtu, and of America's still persistent virtue. Big difference between the two. In other words, we don't disagree.

As for poor Miss California . . . it's difficult to find articulate words to defend such an inarticulate answer as she gave. What they are doing to her is more revealing than anything she could have said. But it is also useful instruction to pretty young women who do not prepare for intellectual battle. If you are going to speak up, be prepared to defend your ground. Yes, they are bullying her. What did she expect?

So Julie, you felt she misrepresented California? Not a bad post or article. In any case when it comes to selling I think folks should tune in the the MSNBC special As seen on TV. It will feature Billie Mays...Also to pick a bottom in the economy my new favorite indicator(from a Turtle perspective) will be when the counter cyclical infomercial starts having less airtime...this will mean that TV add time is more fewer ShamWow adds on TV means the economy is getting better or that more businesses are ready to advertise again, thinking that it is getting better.

Personally I think all the girls should just smile and say: "If I knew the answer to that I wouldn't be standing here in high heels."

The problem with posts like this is that you insist on using antiquated terms like 'earn'. With the complete de-materialization of labor, someone's earning X is increasingly no longer connected to effort or labor or anything tangible. Thus many americans work 50 hour work weeks and then turn on their tv's to find CEO's making 300 times their pay with little labor, as they understand it. These suits have just 'gamed' the system, since that is what earning means. There is no connection between global capital and character, as millions in the third world would testify. All labor and social practices and relations have been redefined. Did these CEO's 'earn' tens of millions of dollars in creative symbolic manipulation fields? Didn't the 2.4 million americans who lost their pensions 'earn' them? The goal of higher education is increasingly just the credentialing of people into symbolic manipulation networks and getting them to convince themselves and others that they have 'earned' something. The clever accounting of the abstract capitalist has been championed by the right for years, yet only now do you see fit to lecture us on the state of our souls for having followed your lead.

Joohn Lewis, that last is just the best.

John Lewis - I am sorry about extra o in your name. I blame hasty typing and and that I got an extra laugh over my captcha words, Bunk-lapses.

C'mon Kate . . . admit it . . . you're wearing high heels, aren't you?! And that was a great line, John Lewis. And yes, Perez Hilton and most others who disagree with Miss California's views (if views they be) will have a hard time denying that she is, at any rate, a pretty fair representation of the Californian mind (such as it is). Still, I can't deny that she is a lovely girl.

ren verges on the almost sensible above and offers the closest thing yet to a good challenge. He, at least, fairly summarizes a sizable chunk of American opinion and accounts for what amounts to a kind of class envy with what really is the best defense there is for it: the old argument that those who make it to the top don't really work hard enough to justify their high salaries. I can see why a guy who works in a coal mine or toils away in construction or hauls heavy things on a ship dock may think that. And I can see (do see) that many folks who spend their lives in middle-management doing what they consider to be "the real work" of a big company become disheartened when their immediate superior takes the credit (and the accolades and the money) for their efforts.

But I can also see why a clever self-starting entrepreneur who toils away weekends and nights in order to make a go of it in this world and not be beholden to the whims of a sub-par middle manager in a big company or another self-starting entrepreneur and maybe make an easier start for his own brood may resent the outrageous salaries that some professors draw for doing nothing but reading books, talking cleverly, writing a few sad articles, and telling that entrepreneur's children that their father (who pays the tuition that funds this joker) is a son-of-*itch capitalist pig. My point is that ren is a Platonist in a certain sense. He wants to institute a world where there is some kind of cosmic perfect justice (as he sees it, of course) dispensed by mere men; a world where people get exactly what they deserve.

I think ren, and any sensible human being who knows himself and his own just desserts in all naked honesty, ought to fear such a world. Moreover, he ought to fear those who would seek to implement that regime and shake his naivete in believing that any man could maintain pure motives and application in the effort. None of us is ever going to get everything we "earn" or even everything that we "deserve" on this earth. And we all ought to be very, very happy about that when we reflect beyond the things that we are denied and consider the blessings that we do have despite our massive imperfections. Life, thank God, is not really fair. Mercifully, and because of the efforts of our fathers and grandfathers (to say nothing of our mothers!) it is more fair and more conducive to human happiness in this country than it is anywhere else. When one feels oppressed here there are more options open to him for his relief here than there are anywhere else--including and especially those places where indignant sorts demand perfect justice. In those places, dupes like ren serve the interests of their betters like so many chattel and imagine themselves happy because their cud is occasionally sweetened by the herd watch.

In America (and any just human regime) there will always be a kind of tension between virtue of honest and back-breaking toil and the rewards afforded to clever manipulators. Somewhere in the middle between these two extreme types of human being is the ideal. Remember Tom Sawyer's fence painting scene? That fence got painted, didn't it?

Mrs. Ponzi states both that what it means to 'earn' one's way is being lost, and that none of us are going to get what we earn. She can empathize with the coal miner and the dock worker, but does not seem to realize that two-thirds of the world lives in dirt poor, starvation- poverty, beyond the reach of her self-help entrepreneur lectures. For me to even comment on the vast inequalities of the current system is to be 'envious' or to be a platonist wanting perfection. In response to my point about the de-materialization of labor that must accompany global capital, she responds with a puny, not to mention obsolete, intellectual response: thank goodness I happen to live where I do.

ren is, of course, welcome to go and live anywhere he chooses. I very much do realize that two-thirds of the world's population lives in a kind of poverty (primarily because of a lack of liberty and the habits required to maintain it) that no words I have can describe. I am quite happy to stay put where I am and and I feel no shame about suggesting that we ought to do what we can to maintain it. ren, on the other hand, seems to think that we ought to join the rest of the world in the cesspool so that we can feel proud of ourselves because of our equality of misery. I'd rather do what I can to encourage people in degraded places to follow our example and lift themselves up . . . but I'm also not deluded about the immediate prospects.

I don't want to earn anything in life. I just want Obama to take care of me and all my needs, and I would like all of you to fund it with your taxes. Keep sending the goodies folks so I can stay online all day reading pithy comments.

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