Much has been written about the divisiveness of American society today and its rancorous, hostile political debate. Whatever happened to moderation, temperance, and tolerance? Why can’t we stop shouting, and get down to the business of governance. Marx was right – thesis and antithesis produce synthesis. There should always be room for rational debate because such colloquy should always result in resolution.
There is no such thing as the truth, juridical scholars remind us – only what can be proven. Contentious courtroom arguments will never unearth what ‘actually’ happened, but which version of reality is the most believable to a jury. As the Denzel Washington character in Training Day says, “It’s not what you know. It’s what you can prove.”
Every aspect of American society is governed by ‘The Principle of Contention’ and everything from divorce, child custody, property rights, speech, privacy, and sexual behavior is based on contending views of what is and what happened.
Browning’s The Ring and the Book, Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, and Kurosawa’s Rashomon are only a few literary examples of which deal with the subject of metaphysical truth. What actually happened, the authors ask, if four different people saw four different things?
In a society in which truth is considered relative, why is contentiousness so surprising? The goal of politics, marketing, and lovemaking is not to claim truth as a platform or promise, but to convince consumers to buy.
America is still considered the Wild West by the French who, steeped in the intellectuality and disciplined logic of Descartes, Rousseau, Foucault, and Barthes; and who believe that even if truth is subjective, rational analysis can trim personal bias and bring us closer to actuality, cannot begin to understand the free-for-all which claims democratic legitimacy.
For Americans, however, The Gunfight at OK Corral is not simply mythic but essential. Claims to gold, land, cattle, horses, and water rights have never been considered absolute but relative – to be fought over, contended, and won. Snake-oil salesmen and their evangelical and political descendants have every right to claim salvation, health, wealth, and continuing prosperity. ‘Let the buyer beware’ is not only the rule of the American marketplace but the ethos of the country.
America, Europeans forget, is a very big country; and its social, economic, and legal systems have been derived out of this spaciousness. While Europeans have always lived cheek-by-jowl and necessarily evolved a modus vivendi which accommodated such propinquity and valued communal cooperation over individual expression,
American history is just the opposite. We have begrudgingly agreed to a system of laws which moderates individual behavior; but did so because we saw how we could benefit from it. Risking only one’s money, reputation, or future investment potential was chicken feed compared to the settlement at the end of a six-gun.
Americans embraced lawyering as quickly and enthusiastically as they did everything else; and in the early days attorneys’ antics in the courtroom were little different from those of carny barkers and itinerant preachers at the pulpit. Our state legislatures were sideshows of bombast, acrobatics, and fireworks. Barnum & Bailey had nothing on them.
The Wild West was everywhere. Circuses, revival tents, barroom brawls, shoot-‘em-ups, debates on the Senate floor, Bible-thumping on the pulpit and histrionics on the stump were the currency of the 19th and early 20th century. By the end of the Robber Baron era, individualism, gunfights, political brawls, and unregulated commerce was in our blood.
Why, then, is anyone surprised at the political antics of the 2016 Presidential campaign? Why indeed when political campaigns have been circus sideshows ever since 1776? America is the country of exaggeration and electoral opera, the inventor of the revival tent, the father of Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel.
Why, then, are so many people crying for a return to the middle of the road as if there ever had been one? Where has there ever been a value in quite cooperation and civil negotiation? Even the most casual observer of foreign affairs knows that Vladimir Putin, the Grand Ayatollah of Iran, and Kim Jong Un of North Korea respond only to the same intimidation, no-holds-barred threats, and intemperate political pressure that Americans used to practice in Nevada and Arizona. Anyone who follows Wall Street shenanigans and the attempts of the Justice Department to ferret out the worst abusers; or the dogfight between corporations and labor unions; or the nasty street fights between blacks and whites knows that we are not a country of easy, complaisant compromise.
All well and good, conclude many progressive critics, but where does such individualism, bare-knuckle political brawls, and corporate warfare get us? How is a culture of amoral contention and dispute better than one of cooperation and mutual respect?
“Show me a good loser, and I will show you a loser”, said Super Bowl 50 runner-up, Carolina Panther quarterback Cam Newton. His post-game comments were sullen, bitter, angry, and hostile. Although the press hammered him for his bad, black attitude; his dismissal of propriety and NFL rules of etiquette, he was being a true American. Fuck this nice shit, he was saying. America is all about winning.
In a rare one-on-one interview with BBC 4, Bill Gates was asked to answer those critics who thought him ‘ruthless’. Nothing of the sort, he replied. If taking advantage of a competitor’s weakness was ruthless, then he would accept the criticism with pride. That’s what the American capitalist marketplace is all about, he went on. The survival of the fittest. The bloody combat among rivals results in the clearing of dead wood, the rise of the capable, and the dominance of the willful and talented.
Nothing has changed since we came down from the trees. Human settlements have been necessary both a means of internal efficiency and strength in numbers. Cooperation was never seen as a good per se but a useful configuration to improve productivity and military victory. Individual competition was the organizing principle of human society as it was for the animals. Pecking order, mating rights, dominance, and territorial mastery were the benefits for both.
Not only is America a country of individualists who tamed the frontier, expanded Westward, and built the strongest militarily and economically powerful country on earth; but we did it not only because of enterprise, religious belief, and the promise of economic rewards; but because we exploited our natural, God-given, ineluctable human nature to the extreme.
Genius without the desire to succeed and dominate will wither on the vine. Gates in the BBC interview admitted that his ambitions to succeed were boundless, even as a young teenager. While we may now think of him as an aging philanthropist, he was the most American of entrepreneurs –brilliant, driven, and absolutely confident of success.
Which brings us to the current controversy about a divided America, land of the haves and the have-nots, the oppressed and the oppressor. So much has been made of ‘The One Percent’ , the elite, and the concentration of wealth and power, that it is easy to forget that such privilege was earned. Although many well-off Americans have inherited their money, many more have made it through personal initiative and enterprise. Gates, Steve Jobs, and hundreds more Americans have relished the gloves-off combat of the marketplace in pursuit of their vision. They wanted nothing to do with moderation, compromise, or accommodation. They understood that only after winning battles on the field of combat would they be able to realize their ambitions.
We should have no qualms whatsoever about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Chris Christie, or even Bernie Sanders, the inheritors of the snake-oil, Barnum & Bailey, revivalist, OK Corral legacy, who promise the moon on the stump, bloody themselves in the fight, and spatter blood to anyone in the arena.
Cam Newton was right. Winning is all that matters; and victory belongs only to the strongest. Sound familiar? Darwin was the most insightful genius of them all, Einstein notwithstanding. Darwin deciphered the code of animal nature and understood that competition was the primal force underlying all enterprise. Cooperation might follow; but the rules of engagement would always be ‘No Holds Barred’.