Character and Personality in America
What has happened to the moral landscape of this country?
We read that after helping blow the world economy, bankers went on to “fix” arguably the most important interest rate in the world and laundered money to Iran; that the most heralded sports heroes took performance enhancing drugs; that the chairman of the National Association of Securities Dealers also created the largest Ponzi schemes of modern times; that drug companies modified and hid data so no one would figure out how many heart attacks their best seller caused; that presidential candidates cheated on their wives, fathered children out of wedlock, and used campaign funds to hush up the story.
And that list is hardly a sampler.
Empires come and go while moral landscapes ebb and flow. Yet something important has been happening in the last hundred years – the change of American society from a guilt society to a shame society to a shameless society. Today a major criterion of much public performance is not whether what you do is simply legal, but whether you’ll get caught and thrown in jail.
Personality has changed as well.
The Lonely Crowd
In 1949 sociologist-lawyer named David Riesman published “The Lonely Crowd.” The book argued that from the 19th to the 20th century Americans had changed from living in an “inner directed” to an “other directed” culture – and with it their personalities.
The documented shift was from a guilt culture to a shame culture.
Guilt was built on the individual understanding that what you was wrong because it violated an inner moral code. You did not do something because it made you feel guilty – you stopped because it was the wrong thing to do.
Riesman argued that society had shifted to a shame culture. Inner, moral guilt was no longer foremost in prescribing action. You did the right thing because you worried about what your neighbors, friends and community might think.
Shame, not guilt, now directed the bounds of behavior.
There was outcry when Riesman described what had happened in America. Yet changes in acceptable morality galloped forth from there.
From Shame to Shameless
It’s sometimes hard to track the moral landscape of whole societies; it’s easier to look at its leaders.
Richard Nixon won the election of 1960 but lost the presidency. The dead voters of Illinois, brought forth by Mayor Daley of Chicago, pushed John F. Kennedy into the winner’s column in Illinois – and the nation.
In 1960, Nixon accepted – for him graciously – the “will of the nation.” Yet as president, he was not going to allow legal niceties to deny him office.
The Watergate affair mushroomed out of the active planning of the White House’s “Dirty Tricks” Department. There were enemies’ lists, wiretaps, break-ins, spying on schoolteachers and dirty games galore. Fearing Edmund Muskie as a potential presidential opponent, this “unofficial” government department fabricated a letter about Muskie’s wife. When Muskie tearfully responded, his presidential campaign ended.
Watergate, with its multifarious attempts to suborn and defeat democratic processes, would have never become known except for dogged investigative journalism and a public highly skeptical of the conduct of the Vietnam War.
Did Nixon feel guilty about Watergate? David Frost might have managed to achieve a minor public apology, but Nixon considered what he had done part of the nature of politics.
The main problem was he get caught.
From Shamelessness to Legalism
The Monica Lewinsky hearings took tragedy and transformed it to riveting, historical farce.
The President had had an affair with a White House intern. The daughter and niece of gossip columnists, she had clearly sought the liaison – and kept an impregnated dress in her freezer as proof. For this Clinton was impeached.
What was the impeachable transgression? Lying. Somehow lying about sexual affairs became tantamount to treason. Lying about fornication became a reason to throw out a morally tarnished but democratically elected leader. That many of his accusers demanding impeachment had themselves had affairs – including with Congressional pages – seemed immaterial. Clinton clearly had lied. His famous response to being caught in the act – “It depends on what your definition of is is.”
In the time following impeachment, his popularity soared.
The New Face of Business
Jeffrey Skilling was so successful as corporate chief that for six years years in a row his Enron Corporation was listed as “most innovative company in America” by Fortune magazine. Yet when caught creating numerous “off the books” financial entities which proved the “success” to be a total sham, Skilling stonewalled. He had not done anything wrong.
It was just the way business was done.
And still is done. Goldman Sachs had a prominent short seller concoct tranches of the most toxic mortgage securities he could find. It then sold this mortgage “package” to some of its “favorite” large customers – while at the same time betting the mortgages would go belly-up.
Heads I win – tails I win.
The response of Goldman executives when the deed was discovered – we did not absolutely nothing wrong. Not only was the trade “legal”, but the buyers were “big boys” who knew what they were getting into. There was no guilt, no shame – just umbrage that anybody bothered to investigate.
And the rest of us? Did we know what we were getting into? Where is the outrage when a former governor and senator disappears a billion dollars from people’s accounts (Jon Corzine and MF Global)? When Russl Wassendorf loots Peregrine Financial?
No wonder Bernie Madoff railed against his investors. They were just greedy, he said. I game them what they wanted.
They should have been grateful for all his hard work.
Madoff at least went to jail. When Glaxo Smith Kline paid a $3 billion fine to the government for selling drugs illegally, the corporation was found to have committed “misdemeanors.”
Who was put in jail for violating the law? The corporate logo? The giant fine was a speedbump compared to corporate profits on the same drugs.
The Rise of the Gamesman
In 1973 the book “The Gamesman” was published through the Harvard Business Review. Written by Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Michael Maccoby, it analyzed thousands of interviews with junior executives, trying to describe the “coming” corporate leader who would transform American business.
The authors discovered the “Gamesman” – a quick witted, charismatic, natural leader. He (it was mostly males in those days) was also amoral, entirely out for himself, and unconcerned for his co-workers, colleagues or community. Guilt was not part of his lexicon – except as subterfuge.
The Gamesman certainly did rise. With the surge of media and the Internet Age, gamesmen took over as chiefs of many institutions of American life.
As Jay Leno has pointed out, “Politics is show business for ugly people.” Many high flying gamesmen however are not ugly but telegenic. They look good doing media – and really sound good.
And they make people feel good – for a little while. They are charismatic, fast talking“visionaries” excited about our collective future.
But today that future is already our past and present. Today many gamesmen operate as politicians, corporate chiefs, university presidents, and church leaders.
Lots of them are also getting really good at social media.
From Guiltlessness to Legalism
Societies operate on trust. We trust that the dots and numbers on our computer monitor’s banking and brokerage statements represents real wealth. We can buy things with that money, fund our kids’ education, perhaps at some far future day even retire. We trust that contracts will not be broken or can be remedied in the courts. We believe that our life partners and children are faithful to us.
That’s a lot harder when a society changes its moral basis from from guilt to shame to shamelessness to legalism – from doing the right thing because it’s right – to just trying to not get caught while obtaining personal benefits more “efficiently.”
Old folks shuddered when they watched the actor supposedly embodying Marc Zuckerberg in “The Social Contract” break deals and treat women and former partners with impersonal contempt. Twenty somethings saw a guy who became a billionaire in a few years and built an “awesome” company from nothing. They cheered.
Facebook’s IPO has left many people shirtless. Yet as the Goldman executives might say, “they had their eyes open. They knew what they were doing.”
When trust is denied or destroyed you no longer are sure what others are doing or why – and begin to distrust your own actions.
Personalities, like societies, change over decades. Yet the more successful changes embody trust in institutions – and loyalty and adherence to the basic morality of those institutions.
Corruption does not just kill economies. Corruption wrecks nations. If basic facts are denied or denigrated disaster often ensues.
Some recent examples – “we can go to war, cut taxes, and balance budgets.” Or “there is no such thing as global climate change – it’s just a hoax.”
As Gloria Steinem said, “the truth will set you free – but first it will really piss you off.”
It’s time to become pissed off. To save what you’ve got, you first have to recognize you have a problem.
A big problem.
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