9 November 2011: Paradise for hard workers and hucksters

Paradise for hard workers, hucksters

A few weeks ago, I wrote Americans are not revolutionaries by nature; let me add cynics to the list of what we’re not. The can-do spirit is part of our DNA, an article of faith in our secular religion like salvation to Christians.

A recent poll shows 57 percent agreeing we can fix any problem, which seems incongruent to the current political clime.

The prevailing economic pessimism belies our DNA, but that ought not to be surprising. Optimists possess a flaw: gullibility—careless individuals, blinded by visions of striking it rich vis-à-vis the lottery, Vegas or market, are more prone to fall for get-rich-quick schemes. P.T. Barnum counted on them saying, “There’s one born every minute,” which means that demographic has increased six-fold since his day given population growth.

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written at the same time as Barnum’s circus, Mark Twain skewers the naïve through the tale of the Duke and the King who make their living by preying on them.

When pioneers headed west in search of land to homestead, railroad magnates portrayed the Great Plains as lush green pastures. As we know, only water transported under the Continental Divide makes eastern Colorado sustainable for farming and ranching.

While that affirms my first point—American ingenuity—it also demonstrates the gullibility of the first pioneers who fell for lies of the corporate world of that era. For every pioneer who made it, many others failed to eke a living from the hardened sod.

Having evolved from a producer into a consumer society, a cannot-live-without-the-latest people that falls for slick ads targeting kids watching cartoons, young males watching football, and old folks watching the news, nothing has changed on that front in 150 years

Lately though, marketers are increasingly targeting individuals. Corporate America has the technology to build a file, a dossier on every credit card user. Safeway, through use of its discount card, knows more about my food-buying habits than do dinnertime guests or the government.

The check on optimism is skepticism, which is very different than cynicism, a negative attribute that develops within an individual after having been lied to, led down the primrose path time and time again only to be disappointed.

Skepticism is the buffer for that as it challenges the veracity of everything and everyone up front. Skepticism is essential for scientists, honest journalists, and Missourians. Our motto: “Show me!” We simply don’t take someone’s word; we demand evidence.

The opposite of skepticism is faith, which more than a leap in logic, is abandonment of reason. People of faith, whether religious or secular, are willing to hold to what they believe without evidence and oftentimes in spite of evidence to the contrary.

One can understand that when it comes to matters beyond the grave, but aspects of our worldly existence, including our economic system, are readily observable, which leads to this question: How much of what we believe about our political, social, and economic systems is taken on faith?

One friend says she’s a natural-born cynic. I envy her. Being raised Catholic, including 12 years of Catholic education, instilled in me the virtue of blind faith. Life experiences since have shown much of what is considered gospel, religious and secular, is at best nonsense and at worst fallacious.

America remains the richest country on earth despite our economic woes. How did we become that? Was it due to the pluck, hard work, and problem-solving, can-do spirit of our ancestors? Or was that merely the final element in a game plan played out on turf with a great home field advantage?

In the beginning—not biblical but American—settlers arrived to a land occupied by indigenous people fierce but hardly militarily powerful. The European invaders became armed with weapons—guns and killer germs—that decimated natives relatively easily.

The land was—is?—a veritable paradise given the overall temperate climate and abundant resources.

Northern Europeans were different from their southern neighbors in terms of their religious practice, and consequently Protestantism dominates in North America while Roman Catholicism rules in Central and South America. That Protestantism translates into a different work ethic because of essential theological differences. It also places emphasis on the individual compared to Catholic notion of community.

While those factors combine to make America a land of opportunity, so does its economic system make it opportunistic not only for farmers, small business owners, and general laborers but also for hucksters, charlatans, diviners, and snake oil merchants who need not operate from broken-down rigs and live in shaky tenements, but from and in glorious skyscrapers on upscale urban corridors and on estates in exclusive sub- and exurban areas.

To be continued.

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