Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Brueggemann's American Dream Isn't The Jillionaire Lifestyle As Seen On TV

Someone took exception to a sentence in what I typed out of Brueggemann's book,  The Bible Makes Sense, which, by the way, I would recommend as a real eye opener as to what it really says in those books and as a curriculum for studying them.  His is not the only point of view but it is one which he is able to defend better than most.

Anyway, the thing that set off an objection was his mention of "the American Dream" in this:

Our expected future, which God has promised in the Bible, has many points of commonality with the best of civil religion and with the substance of the American dream.

To start with, no, in no way does what he said violate the establishment clause of the Constitution.  People have the right to have religious motives in any of their civic actions or expressions, the establishment clause only applies to governments.  I wish you people would stop with that nonsense.  It also has nothing to do with "American exceptionalism" it is not a claim that "God is with us" it is a claim that we'd be better off worrying if we were with God - which we are far from.  I doubt any contemporary speaker on these issues is more aware of that than Brueggemann, he make just about all of the official radical rebel and lefties sound like moderates in their critique of the United States.  If the law of the United States dealing with economic justice was The Law as set down in Deuteronomy, it would be the most radical redistribution of wealth to the poor in the modern world.

Other than that atheist cannard, the only way to find that objectionable is if you define "American Dream" in a way that was clearly not intended.  The "American Dream" as ususally promoted by TV, the movies, radio, etc. is more of an American nightmare of stealing, swindling and destroying other people and the environment into being an obscene jillionaire, a pathologically vulgar practitioner of conspicuous consumption and egotistical display (Trump is a but not the only current model) or a ruthless manipulator who uses his wealth to seize power and exercise both an insatiable desire for ever more ownership and ever easier theft of other peoples' labor.

That's not really an American Dream, it is a psychopathic fantasy of the kind encouraged by the consumption and ignorance machine that American TV is.  When enacted, everyone's American nightmare.  As we're about to find under Republican-fascist rule.

What Brueggemann was talking about was well summed up by his fellow member of the United Church of Christ. Marilynne Robinson in a passage* from her great and suppressed book, Mother Country.

The most difficult struggle of our civilization has been to find the means to create autonomy for ordinary lives, so that they might not be plundered or disposed of according to the whims of more powerful people.  Ideas like civil rights and personal liberty come directly from this struggle, which is not terribly well advanced at best, and which is untried, failed or abandoned in most of the world.

Which is also revealed in the next sentences Brueggemann wrote.

But the texture of this future is expressed in the staggering inversions of a life which contains not only gifts, but also harsh judgments against those who resist the vision or seek to have a piece of it on their own terms. The future held for us by the Bible is not a blissful blur.  It is a promise of an historical future in which human dignity and human joy are valued and human worth is celebrated. This vision seriously challenges present arrangements for the sake of what is promised.

In so far as any country, the United States or any other, enacts those radically redistributive measures will be the extent to which they are exceptional (seewhat M.R. says about some such redistributive measures in the United States as compared to even Fabian Britain below).  But the exception isn't an expression of God's partiality, whatever status that would be gained would be through people choosing to adopt justice and equality.

I will speculate that the idea that God assigns to people the responsibility of being agents of God's justice is intimately tied in with the Genesis insight into the truly exceptional position that human beings have in the world.  Genesis says we are made in the "image of God" not as a compliment to us as favorites over the other animals and beings but as a responsibility to be agents in creation unlike that of any other species in the history of the planet. We have certainly been given exclusive power to destroy everything, a responsibility which, seventy years on, seems to not be taken especially seriously.  It is exactly that responsibility that the Republican-fascists and, yes, a large cohort of those who claim to be religious have given up and refused to even recognize.  Why God would have arranged things in that way is nothing I have any special insight into other than to say if it were going to be done, one species or another would have had to have been given it.   But that is, for now, a side issue.

Oh, instead of me going on about how that relates to the American Dream as adequate if not liberal physical security - not filthy wealth - in which everyone can have a secure, decent, life at peace with themselves and their community and a sense of their own decency, I'll give the wider context of the quote from Mother Country

I am haunted by the sense that a changeling has been put in the cradle of American culture.  Adam Smith, the supposed capitalist, whose influence among us is notorious, developed an economic system in which prison, the poorhouse, and starvation have no role and in which the flourishing of the people ( a term he prefers to "the poor") is the desired end.  Compare the Fabians, those most sedulous of strainers of mercy, Why are Smith's proposals for public projects to enhance the economy, taxes that weigh less heavily on the poor than the rich, and education to alleviate the effects of industrial work, called capitalist, while subsidies of the cost of labor and visits of inspection to the homes of the poor to assure that their destitution was perfect before they were relieved - that women had sold their wedding rings, for example - are called socialist?  Why do the Land Grant Act, the Homestead Act, and the G.I. Bill, three distributions of wealth to the public on a scale never contemplated in Britain, have no status among political events, when the dreary traffic in pittances institutionalized as the British Welfare State is hailed as an advance of socialism?...

The mainstream political tradition in America is represented insistently now as unrelievedly "capitalist" whatever Marx might have said about it, and as compromised  grubbing and mean-spirited because of the supposed relative prevalence of "private property" - whatever Marx might have said about that.  On both the right and the left, capitalism, not democracy is represented as the basis of our institutions.  If Sellafield is sometime sold to private owners, as the government has long intended that it should be, then overnight it will become a classic capitalist enterprise by Marx's definition. 

There is a third option, however, described by both Smith and Marx, and , as luck would have it, indigenous to America, of a society based upon individual autonomy, to be achieved through policies of government that by act or omission enhance the specific, tangible material well-being of individual people, by creating or protecting conditions of life that enhance vigor and morale.  These include education, fair wages, wholesome food and water, and reasonable hope for one's children.  These things correspond in a general way with what Americans consider to be "Western values," yet they have have never described, and do not now describe, the condition of life of ordinary British people.  To the inevitable reaction, that people do not miss what they have never had, that the austerity of their lives has spared them the corruptions of materialism, that legal protections are needed only where society is a war of each against all that there is the dole to assure them security from cradle to grave, however tedious the passage, or however swift, the reply must be that the history and present condition of ordinary British people make it clear enough how they have been used and in that spirit, by capitalists and by socialists, in tacit or declared collaboration.  The best American political impulses occur outside this sham opposition.  'they need to be rediscovered as valuable impulses.  Certainly we need to rediscover the complexity of our own political history, which deserves vastly better than to be seized upon by capitalists or dismissed by socialists. 

When Abraham Lincoln said of a hypothetical black woman that "in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands ... she is my equal, and the equal of all others,"  he expresses an economic proposition which is by no means the commonplace or inevitable.  Lincoln based the woman's rights on what she earned, not what she needed, a departure from "subsistence theory" and an implicit acknowledgement that labor creates value - that is, a margin between the cost of the worker's subsistence and the amount of wealth she creates - and that she has a right to share in this overplus.  One learns from Adam Smith, Thomas Carlyle, E.G. Wakefield, and others that subsistence was assured to slaves as it was not to free workers.  In Britain before the Second World War, employers still felt day laborers' arms before they hired them, so that men who were frail or malnourished could be turned away.  Under ordinary circumstances slaves would have had as much as economic theory, up to the time of Beveridge, promised or allowed fully employed working people in Britain - enough to maintain them in a condition of physical efficiency.  Lincoln made the case, successfully, that in justice more was due anyone.  If he had used Marx's language, he would have declared the right to "self-earned private property."    Against a history in which vulnerability triggered the crudest abuse - the history of the British poor, into which Africans were swept up fairly late - so modest a statement as Lincoln's sounds like beatitude. 

The most difficult struggle of our civilization has been to find the means to create autonomy for ordinary lives, so that they might not be plundered or disposed of according to the whims of more powerful people.  Ideas like civil rights and personal liberty come directly from this struggle, which is not terribly well advanced at best, and which is untried, failed or abandoned in most of the world. 


  1. Gotta say, you've got some stupid readers. Trump-level stupid, as Keith Olbermann points out.

    Anybody who can so misread Brueggemann; I mean: wow.

    1. I don't think the really count as readers, they skim for buzzwords mostly.

      There's a lot of Trump-level stupid, more than I used to think. Devin Nunes not knowing who Carter and Stone are, for example. I'm pretty disinclined to think well of Republicans but that did shock me.