Sunday, May 23, 2010

Our culture war: is "earned success" the new paramount virtue?

President Obama’s commencement speech at Arizona State University on May 13, 2009 included a passage that sounds a bit like Rick Warren’s “It’s not about you.” That is to say:

“You're taught to chase after all the usual brass rings; you try to be on this "who's who" list or that Top 100 list; you chase after the big money and you figure out how big your corner office is; you worry about whether you have a fancy enough title or a fancy enough car. That's the message that's sent each and every day, or has been in our culture for far too long -- that through material possessions, through a ruthless competition pursued only on your own behalf -- that's how you will measure success." Such ambition "may lead you to compromise your values and your principles.”

That inspires a long Outlook section essay on p B1 of the Sunday May 23 Washington Post by Arthur C. Brooks. It’s titled “On one side, the forces of free enterprise. On the other, an expanding and paternalistic government. It’s time to choose.” The link is here. (That's right: the piece appeared in the Washington Post, when it sounds more like a fit for the Washington Times.)

Brooks winnows down his core virtue to “earned success.” That may be measured somewhat in money (particularly if you’re on of Donald Trump’s apprentices), but it is something broader: a sense that one has made an individually-crafted contribution to society. It has to something to do with self-concept and even “station in life”. The title of a music composition and recent CD by young composer Timothy Andres, “Shy and Mighty” (reviewed on my “drama” blog recently) would seem to express the concept.

Gains from inheritance (a particular evil from the viewpoint of the extreme Left) or from redistribution of wealth (anathema to the Right) do not benefit the sense of well-being as gains from one’s own work. Okay, that’s almost basic objectivism (not all the way to Ayn Rand).

But then we find ourselves looping back to Rick Warren and his religious warning that we are often not in control of things they way we think we are. Some of our hard-earned successes were enabled by sacrifices of predecessors that we may not even know about. So we get back to social pressures to identify with and belong to the group, sometimes in a statist manner (as often described by the Left), or familial, especially the “natural family” idea well known on the Right.

I am struck by the tone of Brooks’s article. It’s as if everything of value in life is the result of individualized productive effort, and family were almost a trivial afterthought, and certainly just a matter of choice (or maybe a corollary of the “axiom of choice”). Perhaps that is what the president is getting at. Life is a lot more complicated than that in the best of circumstances. So may we also need to think about the phrase “pay your dues.”

Many of my postings about this web of concern is on my main BillBoushka blog under the label “rules of engagement.”

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