By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
May you live in interesting times — Chinese curse
Like most people who are following the election, I read the entire transcript of the secret Mitt Romney tape. While many in the press have focused on the fact that he insulted roughly half of the country, few have focused on the fact that his statements, as well as many of those in the conservative mainstream, are incredibly reminiscent of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
This dawned on me the other day as I was drinking a beer in an old Lower East Side haunt of mine, Marshall Stack (66 Rivington Street, Lower East Side), which is a good place to sit and think or read during happy hour, as it has one of the more unique tap lists in the city and doesn’t fall into one of the two categories of bars that dominate the neighborhood: overcrowded hipster bars with music far too loud for conversation, let alone meditation, and posh gastropubs that are too focused on ambiance and fad ingredients to offer anything to drink for under eight bucks. For once I wasn’t thinking about the changing face of the Lower East Side, which is typical whenever I venture into the area for a visit. This perhaps speaks to just how relaxed the atmosphere is in Marshall Stack. True, the bathroom does feature wallpaper made to look like the screening over the iconic amplifier from which the bar gets its name (the same amplifier which Pete Townshend destroyed on a few occasions), but isn’t the type of place one has to dodge flying bottles from shitfaced rockers or suffer through myriad references to the number eleven (as in, “this goes up to”). Like many bars in New York, it’s more Bowie than Zeppelin.
I wasn’t focused on the irony of the bar’s name when I was there, however. Instead, I was focused on the Romney tape and how he seemed to imply that, as Weber said of one who believes that it is a duty to increase his or her capital, “It is not mere business astuteness...it is an ethos.” In other words, making money, especially through some kind of business enterprise, is not simply a means to get by so that one can raise a family; it is, in-itself, the ethical thing that one ought to do.
Marshall Stack (Lower East Side)
What bothers me about this Mammonism is that it seems to imply that the rest of us who don’t want to own a business, who want more out of life than just money and power, who have some kind of propensity for art or music or writing, who simply want to have a good job so that we sit down and have a beer at a place like Marshall Stack, and perhaps one day start a family and buy a piece of property, are lazy or somehow morally beneath them. It’s not the typical right-wing idol worship of Randian titans, like David Brook’s recent hagiography of Elon Musk, but, instead, a worldview that is, to me, absolutely repulsive. I don’t find it offensive because Romney believes that accumulating wealth is an ethical end in-itself; rather, it’s because he believes that refusal to behave as he does is unethical. True, sloth is commonly believed to be unethical. It’s something that most people would say is, without question, unethical. However, this isn’t sloth; it has nothing to do with one’s work ethic. It is the choice between working incredibly hard in order to make a lot of money and working incredibly hard for a non-profit or as a teacher, cop, firefighter, etc. The former is selfish and certainly common in any capitalist economy. In fact, these individuals are necessary in a capitalist economy, even if such people are, as Brooks was quick to point out in the same article, not particularly pleasant to be around. Those who work hard, but for less money, are also necessary fixtures within a capitalist economy, even if their work does not allow them to amass private fortunes, and those in the radical branch of the Republican party, who refuse to admit this, not only alienate themselves from the majority of the people whom they are supposed to represent, but also reveal that they have far more in common with Gordon Gekko than with George Babbitt.
We live in interesting times, and it is indeed daunting to try to follow everything that is going on in the world. There’s the continued turmoil in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the reckless posturing of Iran and Israel, the war in Syria, the war in Iraq, the other one in Afghanistan, the strife throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the austerity measures that have eviscerated the economies of multiple countries along the Mediterranean, the resurgence of extreme nationalism and fascism throughout Europe, Global Warming, the collapse of Mexico on account of the drug cartels, and perhaps another fifty or one hundred severe calamities that are currently occurring around the globe. It’s common to ignore them. However, what I think is becoming far more common is yet another problem I found with the Romney tape.
As I’ve said, I don’t understand his ethics. Ethics, however, have always resided within the realm of subjectivity. What I currently see going on is the subjectification of fact. It’s happening so often that many journalists who cover politics are now frequently using the word “prevaricate”, which was once confined to SAT tests and primers, because the word “lie” appears far too often in each article they write. Even though these politicians are under the increasingly omnipresent eye of iReporters, bloggers and cell phone cameras, they still have no problem sticking to statements that aren’t true. It’s as if they don’t know that they are not telling the truth, even though humanity has access to more information than ever before. The problem, of course, is that many of these sources contradict one another, so people lacking background knowledge simply go with their gut on issues that do not exist in the realm of intuition or opinion. If it’s your belief that Julius Caesar was killed in 476 C.E., as a former coworker of mine contended, then you are wrong. This is not a matter of debate.
For this reason, our era has come to remind me of Babel. While numerous theologians, scholars and writers have used this Biblical story to decry humanity’s pride in its own faculties or to provide a warning about what happens to those who challenge God’s authority, I’m not presently interested in these interpretations. The first reason is because God doesn’t destroy the Tower of Babel. He makes it impossible for humans to communicate with one another, which means they can no longer work together. They then abandon the tower and the surrounding city. The tower, consequently, is simply left to stand as a reminder of the feats that humanity can achieve when they cooperate.
This reading of the story of Babel is not meant to say that a society must have a single culture if it is to thrive. Furthermore, I don’t believe that there should be, or even can be, a single source for truth. History is subjective. It has been, as Eric Foner once noted, since the time of Thucydides. However, when a society cannot agree on the most elementary of facts, dialectical arguments cannot exist. One cannot compromise. One can only hope to yell louder than their opponent.
This, of course, brings me back to the Marshall Stack. It’s a refuge, in a way, from all of the Lower East Side’s terrible bars that, like political discourse, are full of sound and fury. In this interesting city, which some would call Babel, others Babylon, there is no shortage of cacophony. Sometimes it is fun to indulge in it, to embrace the madness and carouse with the drunks, to listen to the tales told by fools. I’m no stranger to it. However, sometimes it’s better to go to a place like Marshall Stack, to have a pint of good beer, to not have to scream above the din of music that is more commodity than art, and to actually listen to the person with whom you’re talking. Sometimes you feel like Pete Townshend, not because you want to destroy anything, whether it be in the name of rebellion, music, or anything, really, but because you just want a moment of peace.