Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Pilgrims of Hope

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine (February 2005)

The Propaganda of The Faith is quite the largest, oldest, most magnificent, most unabashed, and most lucrative enterprise in sales-publicity in all Christendom ... By contrast, the many secular adventures in salesmanship are no better than upstarts, raw recruits, late and slender capitalisations out of the ample fund of human credulity.
- Thorstein Veblen, Absentee Ownership, Note to Chapter XI

During the weeks immediately subsequent to last year's presidential election the media crowd in New York promoted to the authority of holy writ the color-coded message on the nation's electoral map, and by the time the star of Bethlehem had been hoisted atop the Fifth Avenue Christmas tree it was next to impossible to find a newspaper sage or television talking head who doubted the wisdom of the three sublime power points.

I. America's precious store of moral value is for the most part located on church property in small towns west of the Allegheny Mountains and south of the Delaware River. Trace elements of Christian virtue still can be found in the seaboard settlements, but not in sufficient quantity to wash out the sins of envy and lust implicit in the success of the Hollywood entertainment industry, or the sins of pride and sloth embodied in the ruin of the Democratic Party.

II. The congregations of the faithful singing hymns in Gopher Prairie unfortunately lack the blessing of intelligence. Their stupidity doesn't detract from the perfection of their belief in Jesus, but it sets them up as easy marks for slick-tongued salesmen who come among them jingling with beads and trinkets and Republican campaign buttons.

III. It is the work of we happy and enlightened few here at the buffet table at the Metropolitan Club to negotiate a peace with honor between the country's spiritual and intellectual powers, to bind up the wounds of sectional bitterness and strife that separate the rival companies of the elect in the red states and the blue.

The story was as hard to swallow as the one about the Rapture, and well before Santa's elves completed the window decorations for the Disney company, I was beginning to make jokes I knew I'd be bound to regret. The notion of two Americas, one damned and the other saved, seems to me as nonsensical as most of the discussion of the country's "moral values"; nor do I choose to believe that everybody resident in Idaho and Nebraska is as dumb as Donald Rumsfeld. The supposition runs counter to my own observation over the last fifty-odd years as well as to my reading of the national character in the library of American history and biography and a fairly extensive acquaintance with the novels of Melville, Twain, Howells, James, Wharton, Dreiser, Faulkner, Gather, Anderson, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, O'Hara, and Roth. But to enter into arguments with media officialdom in Manhattan is a solemn undertaking. The manufacturers of the nation's seasonal truths are as self-regarding as the gentlemen of the White House bedchamber who applaud the comings and goings of the president's dog; they demand to see credentials bearing the stamp of executive authority, and it's never wise to arouse in them a suspicion of undue levity. Fortunately it so happened that in early December I had attended a symposium at New School University addressed to the writings of Thorstein Veblen, and in his remarks on "The Country Town" I found a purgative for the pompous additives being served with the Christmas cheer.

The discovery was as welcome as it was unexpected. In my own writing I've often cited Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class, and I'd been asked to place in a postmodern context some of the bedrock principles of American business enterprise ("pecuniary decency", "the physiognomy of goods", "conspicuous consumption", "invidious comparison", et cetera) that Veblen first set forth in 1899. The clarity of his thought doesn't date; we continue to live in a society that regards the possession of wealth as a meritorious act. Veblen points to a good many of the absurdities that follow from that superstition, and I was prepared to explain why and how the war in Iraq and the morass of our network television programming adheres to his "canon of honorific waste". But before being called upon to draw the parallel between the keeping of decorative parrots in nineteenth-century Newport and the building of useless weapons systems for the adornment of our twenty-first-century military deer parks, I had a chance to listen to Professor Sidney Plotkin, a political scientist on the faculty of Vassar College, who began his presentation with reference to Veblen's Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times:

The country town of the great American farming region is the perfect flower of self-help and cupidity standardized on the American plan ... The country town is one of the great American in stitutions; perhaps the greatest, in the sense that it has had and continues to have a greater part than any other in shaping public sentiment and giving character to American culture.

Over the course of the next twenty minutes Plotkin summarized the chapter in the book in which Veblen arranges "the perfect flower" in the vase of his appreciative irony. The synopsis led me to the unabridged text, which confirmed Plotkin's assessment of Veblen as the earliest and most perceptive theorist of the cultural and socio-economic presuppositions that light the paths of righteousness in what have come to be identified as the red states. Veblen attributes the location of any country town to a "collusion between 'interested parties' with a view to speculation in real estate". The community's civic pride and municipal affairs thus converge on "booming" and "boosting" the worth of the nearby land to values as far "out of touch with the material facts" as the traffic can be made to bear. In a word, and not to put too fine a point on it, a communal scam, a plucking of pigeons and a shearing of sheep, the humble antecedent of the Internet bubble, an early form of the Enron and WorldCom swindles, "an enterprise in 'futures', designed to get something for nothing from the unwary, of whom it is believed by experienced persons that 'there is one born every minute'".

Because it was the business of the country town to turn a profit on the sale of "divinely beneficial intangibles", the most adroit publicity agents became its leading and most admired citizens. What was wanted was not a man too heavily burdened with moral or intellectual integrity but a salesman and a booster, a cockeyed optimist loud with the promises of a fresh start and a second chance, a good fellow along the lines of George F Babbitt, Colonel Beriah Sellers, or Ronald Reagan, the kind of man who inspired confidence in tomorrow's rainfall or the price of next year's corn, who knew how to get folks up and doing in return for a percentage of the gate, rekindling the candles of their avarice with fanciful reports of the fortune in highway construction lying just below the surface of the Centralia Swamp.

Veblen understood the country town as a "retail trading-station", getting what could be got out of the underlying "usufruct" of the local farm population, and in the habits of mind fundamental to the retail trade ("suppressio veri, suggestio falsi") he located both the animating spirit of America's popular sentiment and the standards of conduct tailored to the true form of its moral code. The arts of American business were the arts of "effrontery, salesmanship, make-believe", all of them directed to the great and noble project of spinning gold from straw, and the man who would make a success of the enterprise did well to remember that "the beginning of wisdom in salesmanship is equivocation", which means that "when there is easy money in sight and no one is looking", he must be prepared to ignore the overly fine distinctions between run-of-the-mill "prevarication", "outright duplicity", and utter "absence of scruple". Self-preservation knows no moral law, and "solvency is always a meritorious work", not only because it "puts a man in the way of acquiring merit" but because it transforms him into a pillar of the community whose "opinions and preferences have weight" and therefore enable him "to do much good for his fellow citizens". The exact amount of good, of course, depends on the boomer's ability to strike a profitable balance between the outward and inward facets of his character, between the man in public (jovial, warm-hearted, relentlessly cheerful, forever innocent and pure of heart) and the man in private - cautious, opportunistic, cynical, predatory, at home and at ease in "the frame of mind of a toad who has reached years of discretion and has found his appointed place along some frequented run where many flies and spiders pass and repass on their way to complete that destiny to which it has pleased an all-seeing and merciful Providence to call them ..."

When Veblen published his reflections on absentee ownership in 1923, he was well aware that the country town had become "tributary" to the centers of credit in the corporate east, and he could foresee the changes of venue and method certain to accompany improved means of transport and communication, more efficient uses of advertising, increased resort to national brands and trademarks. But he had faith in the power of the American people to consume an ever-expanding abundance of goods, most of them as superfluous as they were overpriced. In a society that regarded an aptitude for acquisition as the chief measure of public approbation and private self-esteem, he knew that its most admired figures would come to be those who exhibited their prowess by inflicting injury, either by force or by fraud, both on their competitors and on the vast throng of their customers, "pilgrims of hope", with which an all-merciful Providence had replaced the guileless buffalo recently departed from the country's fruited plains.

Because Veblen accurately gauged the social and economic imperatives that endow the tasks of conspicuous consumption with the fervor of a patriotic duty, he knew that no matter what the shifts in circumstance, "the soul of the country town" would go triumphantly "marching on", ever "upward and onward" toward wider horizons and bulkier margins of net gain. As he foretold, so it has come to pass, not only in the American spheres of economic activity but also in the country's political arenas, where public men must pass the "test of fitness according to retail-trade standards" - that is, replicate the qualities admired in real estate speculators who achieve a satisfactory division of labor between the outer child and the inner toad. The fitness test is bipartisan and all-American, passed with exemplary ease not only by George W Bush in last year's election but also by nearly every other sitting member of the United States Congress as well as by Presidents Truman, Nixon, Johnson, Reagan, and Clinton.

To interpret a vote for President Bush as a sign of stupidity is therefore as wrongheaded as counting such a vote as a proof of devotion to the teachings of the New Testament or the writings of Edmund Burke. Whether set up as storekeepers on the banks of the Wabash or as symbolist poets in Brooklyn Heights, the American people appreciate, perhaps better than any other people on the face of the earth, the art of the con game, and they take for granted the slippages (carried on the books as a tax-deductible business expense) between the face and the mask. Fully conscious of the fact that the promises are false, the deals rigged, and the judge safely in the bag, they're conservative in the sense that they wish to protect and preserve the time-honored mores of the country town, and with them their own access to the ways and means by which it remains possible to screw the system. Reformist and left-leaning politicians they tend to see as officious inspectors intent upon closing the loopholes and removing from the grocer's scale the local thumbs heavy with the weight and fragrant with the soil of the sacred American heartland. So what if the vested interests in Washington reserve to themselves the larger portions of the apple pie? Such has been the practice of the vested interests since the heyday of Alexander Hamilton, entirely in keeping with the American spirit of things and not to be unduly frowned upon as long as the vested interests remember to leave enough crumbs on or under the table for the chambers of commerce in Sioux Falls and Medicine Bow.

A similarly conservative bias informs the country town's approach to religion, which Veblen describes both as a matter of "salesmanlike" cowardice and "expedient make-believe". Because the rural system of knowledge and belief can admit nothing that might "annoy the prejudices of any appreciable number of the respectable townsfolk", the would-be pillar of the community learns to sing along with any psalm or bouncing ball likely to purchase, at a reasonable cost, a large holding of community goodwill. Where is the percentage in the expression of a new idea, or the "harm done" (from a business point of view) "in assenting to, and so in time coming to believe in, any or all of the commonplaces of the day before yesterday".

Not only is there no harm done, but there is also the chance of a condo in paradise. Long odds, of course, may be no better than those available to the ticket holders in the New York or California lottery, but hey, "You gotta be in it to win it".

Understand the true American as a pilgrim of hope wherever he happens to be placed on the nation's electoral map, and it's no surprise that the dealers in the true religion package their "scheme of deliverance" in the manner of real estate speculations, or that the 5 steps to personal salvation lie along the same yellow brick road as the 12 steps to sobriety and the 237 steps to financial well-being. The dealers in "spiritual amenities" rely on the same natural resource of "credulous infatuation" as do the merchants of material comfort, and Veblen was especially admiring of "the publicity-agents of the Faith", who habitually promise much but deliver "substantially none" of the material advertised:

"All that has been delivered hitherto has - perhaps all for the better - been in the nature of further publicity, often with a use of more pointedly menacing language; but it has always been more language, with a moratorium on the liquidation of the promises to pay, and a penalty on any expressed doubt of the solvency of the concern".

The observation stands as a fair and fitting tribute to the blessed miracle of the Bush Administration.

Bill Totten


  • Great! Thank you for downloading the article. My explorations of the Harpers site failed to discover the text.

    Veblen's words apply to the current political economic milieu as well as (or better than) they did at the turn of the last century. And Lapham does a great job of presenting the issue incisively and humorously. Thanks to you and to Lapham.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:18 AM, February 19, 2005  

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