I just finished watching Inside Job, a documentary about the 2008 financial meltdown and the greed and corruption that it was built on. I am left with a feeling that has become all too familiar to me in the past two years – a frightened, besieged sense of existing in a dystopia; of living in a society where distinctly shameless people do distinctly shameless things, and are rewarded with wealth and power.
I’m not going to go into any of the details the movie covers, or the various ways in which various people lacked courage or decency. Excellent summaries of the film can be found elsewhere, I am sure. But to me, one question does stand out above all other questions that can be raised by such a film, and it is a question as timeless as greed and corruption itself. It is, simply, how do these people sleep at night?
This question has, of course, been asked. But by now, it is usually asked as a form of accusation – we all know the answer, which is that these people are shameless, hallow, and selfish. And that all appears to be true. But knowing this much is not enough for me – I still want to know, why are these people shameless, hallow and selfish or, more accurately, how do they function while being so shameless, hallow and selfish, and how does one end up there in the first place? Most of us are, after all, still raised in communities that at least give lip service to the idea that being a craven, callous bastard is bad. We are told by our parents not to be craven, callous bastards. Our school teachers tell us not to be craven, callous bastards. To some extent the media advises us not to be craven, callous bastards. Save for a time during the 1980s, films do not typically glorify craven, callous bastards. Our religions tell us not to be craven, callous bastards. But yet, there are so many craven, callous bastards around. And a lot of them seem to be running the country.
The socio-economic reasons for this could be either quite complex, or disturbingly simple; but that is not the question that I am addressing here. Perhaps more than anything else, it is the psychological ability of these people to be the wretched people they are that fascinates me so; that people could be so corrupt, and so lacking in basic human empathy, that they continue functioning and flourishing in any way at all is actually quite amazing.
This conundrum is illustrated most powerfully in the film when people are presented with their own misconduct, or simply conflict of interest, and seem to insist on not facing the truth honestly or, becoming belligerent and requesting the interview to be over. What do those people think when they go home at night? Do they proceed to go on rants in the privacy of their own homes and minds about how the world should be ordered according to an oligarchy, and yes it is fine that (see video bellow) my academic economic work is corrupted by the large banks that pay me to consult for them, because I am better and smarter than most people and if we really let “the little people” run things we would end up with anarchy within months? Do they acknowledge their corruption but embrace it?, or do they suffer from an acute case of self-delusion and believe, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, that they are simply victims of an elaborate witch hunt?
My guess is that it is a bit of both. But I think there is something else perhaps even more disturbing at play – which is that a lot of people, I believe, simply do not think about it. By which I mean, they do not examine their own actions, their reasons or motivations for their own actions, and what beliefs lay behind the causes and opinions they support. They think they know what these reasons are, of course, but were they ever to stop to really examine their own behavior – to square it with reality, honestly – they would discover just how craven they’ve really become. I believe a lot of these people, perhaps even most of them, continue on with their lives with an assumed self-satisfaction that actually enables them to avoid examining almost every aspect of their lives and their behavior.
If this seems unlikely, let’s take a look at different set of people – the everyday people who, mistakenly, think they fight for the little guy when really they provide free propaganda to the guy on Wall Street that wants to fuck them over. I am referring, of course, to Tea Partiers – although really, you can think of anyone you know who, when you try to engage them in a political conversation about why they believe what they believe, quickly wants to abort the conversation or begin to have that glazed over look that says, “you’ve lost me.” Those who aren’t in the habit of justifying the assumptions their beliefs rest on do not really know how to do so; and in fact, the Tea Partiers, as politically engaged citizens, aren’t probably the best example of this habit. This is perhaps more typified by lay people with some interest in politics or philosophy, who nonetheless fail to really want to dig any deeper than, “well that’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.” (As though sticking to an opinion without reason or evidence is somehow virtuous.)
But whether a Tea Partier or a casual voter for something like Prop 8, the remarkable truth, I have increasingly come to believe, is simply that people do not feel compelled to justify their own beliefs, to critically examine their own attitudes towards society, others, and themselves. They run on autopilot. Now, what fills the thoughts of these people day in, and day out, I do not know – I feel like contemplating politics and philosophy is, if nothing else, necessary out of sheer curiosity and a desire to understand what the fuck is going on in my life from day to day. But more and more, I am coming to see it is not this way for everyone. Indeed there is very little about our culture, or our society, which requires people to do this deep thinking at any level beyond basic niceties such as “the Christmas spirit should last all year,” or “an eye for an eye makes sense.” (Which it doesn’t.)
And interestingly, this connects very disparate phenomena together – the Tea Partier angry about the Wall Street bailouts to the Wall Street CEOs that were bailed out. Both feel injured and persecuted, and quite sorry for themselves – neither seems capable of stepping outside their ego trap and honestly examining the reality that lies in waste around them. I, personally, have much more sympathy for the Tea Partier, who actually is the victim, often enough, of the Wall Street bastards. But nonetheless, they are both contributing to a national travesty: an American culture that makes it possible for people to never be challenged, and to never feel obliged by the communities of human beings around them to challenge themselves. At this point, I haven’t decided if this is a common flaw of human nature aggravated by an intellectually stunted culture, or a certain brand of dystopia in and of itself.*
* I am gravitating, however, to the former explanation.