If there is something special about America – not just to Americans but people all over the world – it may be that America is not just a place but an idea, a concept of equal opportunity and fairness, of due process, of respect for the individual and his or her dignity, regardless of wealth, social status or background.
That concept has taken quite a beating in the last couple of decades. People who expected more from us now see America as just another country ruled by greed and the desire of people with power to keep that power to themselves.
But ideas – as the Czars, commisars, Weimar functionaries and King George V could tell you – are tough things to kill. A functioning, living idea sprouts up all over the place – and makes the weirdest connections in your head.
Follow my elliptical reasoning if you can:
Let me state my bias up front: I’m a PC guy. Not because I don’t like Mac’s; simply because they cost too much. I’ve never been able to afford as much Mac as I could get PC and I’m enough of a geek to make the less elegant platform behave.
Nonetheless, I was really stung by Steve Jobs’ death because he was the focal point of the most creative American industry of my lifetime, the one product we still design and produce better than anyone else, the way we used to do lots of things not very long ago.
His death sparked a few Facebook messages to the effect of: ‘See? He was a capitalist!’ And certainly that’s true. He was an icon of capitalism – I wish there were more like him.
But let me define my terms.
The defenders of capitalism generally take the same tack over and over: It’s the best system because it’s Darwinian. Companies improve relentlessly – offer the best products and services at the lowest price possible – or die. The fear of dying makes them endlessly creative and efficient.
And certainly Jobs’ Apple would seem the epitome of this.
Jobs was a real entrepreneur, a guy who invested in his company when it was failing, brought it back from the dead by ignoring focus groups and accountancy wisdom (is that an oxymoron or does it just seem that way to me?) and following his gut to a really superior product, one that didn’t necessarily have better specs but simply worked better.
He introduced products so good they became their own market. Who wants a tablet other than an iPad? You might buy your music player from someone else but you think of it as an iPod all the same.
Apple did all this just after a near-death experience. Where others would have gone cautious, Apple got bold. Which is the essence of entrepreneurship and capitalism, yup yup yup.
So where are the other examples? Other than Facebook and Google, who might disappear tomorrow like MySpace, what are the other examples of this all-American ideal?
Hard to find, aren’t they?
The problem is, most business these days is Big Business and Big Business isn’t entrepreneurial, it’s monopolistic. You have to buy their products, they really don’t compete with anyone, except other guys who offer the same product for roughly the same price and treat you as though you’re lucky they’re willing to sell to you.
They use their money and political power (read: more money) to crush any legitimate competition that arises or any idea that might threaten their cushy way of doing business. The whole international economy has become a rigged game.
If they make a little mistake – like killing millions of people with their products (tobacco) or dumping millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico (energy) or bringing down the world financial system (banking), they not only don’t go out of business, they earn record profits while everyone else gets the express bus to the poor house paying off their mistakes.
Which brings me to the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ rallies.
Fairness – that’s what they ’re all about.
If the idea of America is of a meritocracy – a place where people thrive on their abilities, their talents, their willingness to work hard and sacrifice and build something different – then the playing field has to be open.
And there has to be a way to have a decent life without giving it all up for money.
There’s a radical thought, isn’t it? Who ever mentions this anywhere? Nobody but me. I’m the champion of the indolent, folks. Just remember you read it here first.
Most people have no interest in being entrepreneurs. They want to keep their heads above water, focus on their families and friends and lives. They actually have lives. They may have some pride in themselves and their work, they may do their jobs the best they can but they don’t expect to be rich or famous or in the history books. They want a decent life for themselves and maybe to leave a little something behind when they’re through.
When did those people start becoming losers?
That’s how they’re treated in this country. In Europe, there’s a shared acceptance that life is worth living for itself, that it isn’t simply measured by your pocketbook, that anyone with a full-time job is entitled to a vacation and health care and a chance to pursue their own personal happiness. The dignity of the common man.
When did we start looking at Europe for that? Up until a few years ago, we were far better at the pursuit of happiness over here.
And that, to some extent, is what I think is fueling the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ crowds – not a desire for vengeance, though I could understand that too, but a desire for a life with dignity for all, instead of a society that encourages us to fight over scraps while the wealthy stockpile excess as though they’ve earned it.
It’s that American idea again. It just keeps popping up, making the oddest connections. Because it’s persuasive and powerful. And why should it be less powerful here than it was in Cairo or Tripoli this year – or Manila, Moscow or Pretoria in the recent past?
America persists. Woe be unto those who thought she was just some shell to be looted. Woe be unto them soon.