A Question of Character

This post is certain to do short shrift to the topic of individual character and cultural values. As you’ll see in due course, a long-standing friend, Professor Amar Bhide, sent me an encomium for a mentor of his, John McArthur, who among other things, was the Dean of Harvard Business School from 1980 to 1995.

What is striking about Amar’s description isn’t simply how rare it is for America to produce someone who was deeply engaged with the people around him, yet was also a first-class mind with wide-ranging interest, but that we no longer seem to aspire to produce people (outside immediate families) whose attentiveness and concern can and often does have a fundamental, positive impact on those around them. Amar points out that McArthur knew the names of all of the service staff in every restaurant and club he frequented. Now that I am in the South, one thing that really is different is that most people are courteous almost out of habit. Some of it can be a bit tricky, like men who seem overly eager to behave chivalrously, particularly in public spots like restaurants. But the behavior isn’t a regional variant to the grating “Have a nice day” that too many hotel and restaurant managers require employees to say (and it shows). Even if the attention is fleeting, the desire to make contact is genuine.

Admittedly, few are in the sort of career or societal role to have the impact that McArthur did. But there doesn’t seem to be much societal interest in producing elder statesmen or rabbis or pastors or skilled counselors, or individuals who could sometimes play pieces of those roles in narrower circumstances. Instead, too many people simply want to get theirs and devil take the hindmost.

And the costs when this posture become acceptable, as opposed to marginal, are significant. As David put it in our latest post on Brexit:

I hate to say this, as a lifelong Socialist from a very modest background, but the British system worked in the past because it was pretty homogeneous. I don’t mean literally everyone came from the same background (they let me in, after all) but rather there was a cultural homogeneity in the civil service, in politics, and even partly in the media, which had its origin in a certain upper middle class sense of duty, honesty and competence, inherited from the serious professional classes of the nineteenth century. (It had its analogue in the ethos of the honest tradesman, which we’ve lost as well). This culture was never universal , of course, but it was very powerful, and it coped quite well with the social changes after 1945, as more women and people from much more diverse backgrounds entered the public sphere.

It changed not because the origin of its members was different (May and Johnson both came from Oxford, as did Blair, and for that matter Thatcher) but because their ethos came from elsewhere. It came from the City, from Management Consultancy, and from that part of the British Establishment which was always more interested in Making Money than in Doing Things. It’s almost as though the disreputable younger sons of the Establishment, sent off to make money in Hong Kong after some scandal, had all returned to run the country. You can mock the old High Seriousness of the public sphere if you like (too white! too male!) but the fact is that it wouldn’t have got us in the mess we are in today, because it had both the scruples and the competence to avoid it. Now, it’s open season. I remember thinking how bitterly ironic it was that the government which got the country into the worst peacetime crisis in modern history was also the most inclusive, and led by a woman at that.

I’m not sure the end of homogeneity was the driver of diminished respect for what was once called character. In the US, I hazard that a bigger factor was the widespread acceptance of libertarian/neoliberal values. As we’ve documented, that world view was marketed aggressively and very successfully by a loosely coordinated but well funded right wing campaign, whose seminal document was the Powell Memo of 1971 which laid out the vision and many of the tactics for their war on the New Deal and the community values that supported it. For instance, it would have been well-nigh impossible for a Mike Milken, who’d gone to prison for securities law violations (and was widely believed to have engaged in considerably more questionable conduct) to have rehabilitated himself to the degree he did.

From Amar:

John McArthur, in memoriam

He was one of a kind — and his kindness and empathy (a much used word I know) was unbounded. It touched all from dining and custodial staff to taxi drivers. My parents apart, few other people have had such an influence on me. (And he did me the honor of reading everything I read: every book every article, every draft, the pages a sea of yellow highlight)

He was also astute, ruthless and got things done. His mind was extraordinary and his reading voracious and eclectic — although you would never guess it from his aw shucks manner and country bumpkin style.

I first actually talked to him in my second year as assistant professor. We had a long long lunch at his corner table in the faculty club. We talked about everything — except why we were having lunch. At the end he said, “Perhaps you’d like to know why i asked you to lunch. Well I’ve been reading your stuff and I wanted to put a face to the writing, to know who this person was who was writing this stuff.”

A few days later a copy of Knight’s Risk Uncertainty and Profit arrived in interoffice mail with one of John’s classic handwritten notes, which went something along the following lines. “I think this will suit the way you think of the world.”

I had never encountered the book in my doctoral studies, and it was revelatory.

We had lunches, lasting 2-3 hours nearly every year for the last 20 years after I left HBS. Always at the Charles (“If we ate at HBS there would be someone stopping by every minute” he said. At the Charles it was only every 10 minutes. And of course he knew every single waiter and waitress by name).

The stories he told at the lunches.. Such a pity he did not put his wisdom into a memoir. But that was not his way.

John, RIP.

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  1. ambrit

    The benefits of a “classical” education.
    One of the main supports of the ‘civilized’ social interactions that you observe here ‘Down South’ is a stubborn refusal to put a price on everything. It is not universal, but it lingers in pockets of calm salted among the storms of modern living.
    Welcome to the South.

    1. Carolinian

      I have some neighbors who are the opposite of me politically (in fact most of my neighbors) but are wonderfully nice people on a personal level. Some of us who grew up here have had the opposite experience of Yves and lived for awhile in the North where all that politeness is dismissed as a false front.

      Which in many cases it is, but the usefulness of all that unthinking social glue should not be dismissed out of hand. After decades of elites in thrall to Ayn Rand the country may be in need a few of those social norms that beatnik rebels in the 1950s found so stultifying. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Epstein was how all those rich people around him thought that his three teenager a day habit was perfectly acceptable.

      1. bassmule

        I don’t know anything about anything, but after living in the Northeast for my whole life I spent 10 years in North Carolina. After a decade, I realized that I was never going to stop being a Yankee, and that I detested “Southern courtesy” which mostly involved people telling me to “Have a Blessed Day!”

        I take part of this back: My favorite item of Southern Courtesy is that you can slander anyone as long as you end the sentence with “…bless his heart!”

        Seriously, it’s a different culture, and not one that I was ever comfortable with.

        1. Carolinian

          The “blessed day” kick seems to have faded–haven’t heard it in awhile.

          But you are certainly right about the different cultures, although lots of people from up north are moving down here so it’s not as separated as it once was. Given that–per this blog–Wall Street culture is driving the country into the ground all that polite Southern conservatism may begin to seem less bad by comparison. There is certainly a religious context and a xenophobic context given Southerners’ general support for the military.

        2. Jonathan Holland Becnel

          Ugh glad no one ever says that anymore round my deep southern pocket.

          Ill get ‘Im praying for you’ every now and then.

          1. beth

            I decided to take the “I’m praying for you” just as a kind gesture. I even find myself wanting to say it.

          2. Yves Smith Post author

            Never heard “blessed day” or “blessed” or “I’m praying for you,” but Birmingham is where pretty much any Jewish retailer of significance in the South chose to live.

  2. Fazal Majid

    The “greed is good” ethos took hold in the 1980s. I don’t think Reagan was so much a cause as a symptom, but it’s clearly visible in how US healthcare costs diverge from the rest of the world, as shown by Hans Rösling’s famous chart.

  3. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

    Mohammed Ali wrote a poem about this that Guiness says is the world’s shortest: “I; we”. That civicness is what we’ve lost. To me the downward trajectory steepened with Reagan/ Gordon Gecko/Greed is good. Then was amplified and cemented by Bush: you’re with us or against us; and the policy to fling bombs at any nation or actor “anytime we feel like it” with absolutely no regard for any notion of common (global, societal, collective) good. And thats the opposite of “civilization”. Toss in a little post-meta-narcissism and the cocktail is for the law of the jungle. When JFK was killed Hunter Thompson wrote that “the scum have murdered the myth of American decency”. Writ large now, across the world

  4. Jessica

    Our elites became historically obsolete around the 1960s. The counter-attack on the attempted cultural revolution that was The Sixties had no moral basis. It had and has nothing to fight for. It only had There Is No Alternative and I’m Sorry, You Must Have Mistaken Me for Someone Who Gives a Sh_t. The moral decay of such elites is unavoidable. The only solution is for them to no longer be the elites.
    Further, we have reached a point in human development where no new elite of the previous type can fully unleash the capacities that we have developed. This is part of why the wannabe replacements in the top 10% themselves are so easily corrupted.
    The good news is that we don’t need any of them. Convincing each other of that will be quite helpful.


      i remember reading a computer guy’s victory article over the hippies. Ken Burns story of Woodstock shed some interesting perspectives on those days. It was a real crack in the American veneer of “dirty hippies”.
      The elders of the time had bought into the military industrial complex idea that Ike had warned.

      1. beth

        Wops. I can’t let that Eisenhower quote pass uncommented on. In reading lots of history in my retirement, I have read several books on the CIA. It seems that Ike didn’t like wars, so he gave Allen Dulles full rein. Iran remembers.

    1. inode_buddha

      “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when we seek at the first ourselves to deceive”

      …. “For when thou hast been false to thine own self, thou canst not be true to any man”

      Principles can be valuable in that I will still do business and have a discussion with a man that I strongly disagree with, but I will have nothing to do with the unprincipled. My experience is that the unprincipled are simply animals and nothing good but aggravation can come of it.

  5. john ashley

    “The good news is that we don’t need any of them. Convincing each other of that will be quite helpful.”

    This sums up the decay of any pretense of “common” decency in my opinion.

    Sadly , you have it to a science.

  6. dk

    Certainly some sense of pretense of discipline has been lost. But I grew up around some of these people, they were pretty cronyistic and dismissive behind closed doors.

    You can mock the old High Seriousness of the public sphere if you like (too white! too male!) but the fact is that it wouldn’t have got us in the mess we are in today, because it had both the scruples and the competence to avoid it.

    They did get us into this mess. I think blame is a pointless paradigm, but that’s not excuse for dishonest application. They promoted their favorites who were less competent than they (afraid of being eclipsed?) and their favorites promoted their own favorites. Competence eroded to gesture, then collapsed behind the posturing decades ago. The High Seriousness morphed into more and more perverted pretense over generations. Now, it’s open season. Well yeah, whole chunks of pretense have been dropped, it’s just terrible that it’s exposed to the light of day tsk tsk we don’t do that… in a twisted way, there’s greater honesty in not pretending.

    Yves writes: I’m not sure the end of homogeneity was the driver of diminished respect for what was once called character. In the US, I hazard that a bigger factor was the widespread acceptance of libertarian/neoliberal values. Agreed, but the acceptance of those values without serious and honorable evaluation has a prerequisite in a gradual decline of rigor. And I don’t think it’s safe to let homogeneity completely off the hook, it’s an early sign of stratification. Heterogeneity is no magical cure in itself, it’s even a challenging, but the challenge produces beneficial (and yes, “extra”) effort, not something to be avoided.

    It’s good to talk about honor, to remember benevolence, these tings are sneered at now in many circles. They work if one makes the effort, and the reward is a kind of fragile but substantial mutuality that allows us, or allowed us, real dignity. And by us I mean all of us, the us that has no them.

  7. flora

    Thanks for this post.

    But there doesn’t seem to be much societal interest in producing elder statesmen or rabbis or pastors or skilled counselors, or individuals who could ….

    per Margaret Thatcher and the neoliberal ascendancy: “There is no society…”

    There’s active discouragement of recognizing the essential equality of people no matter what their station in life; this absolute discounting of “less important” people is a new thing in the last 20 – 30 years or so, imo. At first I though it was simple snobbery, but it’s too wide spread for that to be the explanation, imo.

          1. ambrit

            Ah, you think that Milton should be at the bottom, eh? Then, I hope that he knows how to ice skate. (He was the worst kind of ‘class traitor.’ [His parents were small store owner/managers.])
            Ring 8 of the Inferno is for ‘frauds’ of all sorts, sub-rings 7-10 are reserved for Thieves, Deceivers, Schismatics, and Falsifiers. Maggie should feel right at home there.

      1. New Wafer Army

        “They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.” – in an interview in Women’s Own in 1987

        1. flora

          And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.

          Oh, the subtle slyness of that formulation; it suggests first that democratic govt is the servant of the will of the whole of the people, or society, and in the next breath suggests there is no whole of the will of the people or unity or society. It suggests what is truly important are atomized individuals and ‘greed is good’ and ‘look out for number one’ – the antithesis of society and unity and democratic govt.

        2. Hamnet

          Thanks for this quotation. It appears to me to be classic case of pretzel logic. ” It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.” And who are “our neighbours”? They are society – of which there is, according to Thatcher, “no such thing”.

          Once again, form totally swamps substance and leaves us treading water in a sea of nonsense. Have we always allowed our leaders this much leeway with logic? Of course next to the statements of the current US President, this statement appears perfectly logical.

      2. ewmayer

        Have you considered that perhaps the simplified “There is no society” rendering of what Ms. Thatcher said has become the de facto standard because it captures the toxic antisocial policies she actually practiced?

  8. inode_buddha

    If someone would lie to themselves in order to be able to lie to others, then why should I respect them? There is a large difference between respect and fear, just like there is a difference between jealousy and anger. You know I have observed all of this among my C-level acquaintances ( 50 to 150 million…..)

  9. Bob

    Perhaps there is something to be said for leaving the Big Apple. And yes folks can seem to be more polite in the fly over country.

    I’d guess that the real divider is that the politeness is driven in part by the realization that we need each other to a greater degree more in smaller communities.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      I disagree about small communities. Plenty are subservient to a powerful interest with no scruples. It’s always been about accountability. Scale and speed have reduced the ability to hold bad actors accountableif they are elite. The homogenized British civil service would naturally hold bad actors accountable if not through legal means then exclusion.

      1. EoH

        Ostracism and other forms of social control were ruthlessly used by the in-group to keep its members’ behavior within a narrow range. Is it the methods of social control that have changed or the range of behavior deemed acceptable to the dominant group?

        As Lord Boothby’s life illustrates, if certain behavior was deemed helpful to the state or otherwise within bounds, then all sorts of behavior offensive to a common dustman’s definition of “middle class morality” would be tolerated. That suggests a parallel with the arc of Jeffrey Epstein’s career.

        1. ambrit

          Compare Epstein and his associate’s behaviour with that of the English aristocracy during the Edwardian era. I’ll posit that this range of behaviours is class mediated, not era or milieu mediated.
          With this as the ‘face’ of the ‘ruling class,’ is it any wonder that movements such as Calvinism and Puritanism gained such popular support?

          1. EoH

            One suspects that Wilde’s Dorian Gray struck a chord among the upper classes, the scions of which must have remembered more than bad food and cold showers at their elite boarding schools. Indoctrination always begins with the young.

  10. KLG

    I got my first full-time job in science in 1975. I was 19 and had to make a living while going to school. The head of my lab, which was a leader in our field, and his colleagues in the department were very serious about their work, but not about themselves. Most, but certainly not all, of them took their roles as exemplars of how science should be very seriously, and it showed. Their mentorship has extended into the future, which is now, but more on that later. My boss at the time is 93 and not in particularly good health. Earlier this month I sent him a video of a talk in which our work was mentioned, as the close brush with a later Nobel Prize that it was. None of that particular group is still in the field, but he was happy to see, again, how far reaching our work has been. In a subsequent email I listed the 15 or so people I overlapped with in my 15 years in that smallish lab, and the list is replete with very successful men and women. We were taught well.

    My time there didn’t end particularly well, though. There is one fundamental reason for that: The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. By the late-1980’s our research had been completely co-opted by the desire to build a “start-up” using our science as the foundation. This quite naturally attracted a gaggle of half-assed “entrepreneurs” whose only thought was “how fast…how much money?” The science suffered, those who knew how to make it work as an important technology were ignored, and the whole apparatus collapsed in a heap of squandered money taken from people who couldn’t afford to lose it and recriminations that have still not abated, much. My boss retired in the aftermath. He was a good scientist and a good person, but he was unable to see where he was headed. I got axed, basically for not “liking” the lead half-assed entrepreneur, to which I responded, “I like him just fine, but I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him, and you shouldn’t either.” Q.E.D.

    Now, 40+ years later the molecular and biomedical sciences are in crisis. Discoveries that will make a difference are left undiscovered while “entrepreneurs” collect multiple research grants from NIH and NSF but never, really, seem to get anywhere. Data from NIH show that the law of diminishing returns sets in as soon as an academic scientist gets his or her second grant. There is no room for the next generation to begin, while they have energy and vision (though older scientists have as much of both, if there were a future in it, and the experience to get something done while mentoring the next generations).

    Anyway, there is an important book to be written by someone who reads naked capitalism about the deleterious effects of the neoliberal infestation of basic biomedical research that began with the Bayh-Dole Act; hmm…what else happened in 1980? I cannot see any prospect of recovery of the good will, good science, and ethos of discovery that existed before, but until biomedical scientists understand what has happened to their world, there is really no hope. They will continue to scrape for scraps, act in ways that should be foreign to them, and soon forget why they became scientists in the first place. It has been my experience that “scientists” as a group pay little attention to politics, and view that as a mark of distinction. Pity. It is said that Trotsky IIRC wrote (paraphrase), “You may not be interested in politics, but politics is certainly interested in you.” Yes, indeed.

    Wikipedia search term: “Bayh-Dole Act”

    1. kiwi

      Yes, everything now is about greed and speed.

      And I think the speed part of the equation may have a lot to do with the way we no longer value integrity in people or in processes.

      Yves cites the Powell memo as a cause, but I have to wonder if speed is the major cause of overall decline. After all, humans were largely agrarian. One must be patient to grow things and get your reward from that process on a regular yearly basis. In your field, painstaking research was the norm.

      Now, so much is instant, and I think speed has caused much breakdown in human relations.

    2. New Wafer Army

      That is an amazing anecdote. Thank you very much for taking the time to post. Would you consider writing an article on the topic? I am sure that Naked Capitalism would publish it. It is very important to get this stuff documented for the record. Hope to hear more from you.

  11. Wukchumni

    Anytime i’m hit with the “have a nice day” comment, I always tell them with a cheerful smile, “thanks, but I had other plans”.

    1. ambrit

      I will occasionally tell a cashier or greeter/security person who gives me the canned “have a blessed day” spiel that; “I’m not from around here. You can tell me to have a rotten day. I won’t complain.” Sadly, only about one in ten gets the joke and responds accordingly.
      My best response to this gambit was from an older, “Traditionalist Evangelical” style woman at the gates of the local WalMart. “That’s okay. You are leaving this store. Your bad luck for the day is now over.”

  12. The Rev Kev

    I have mentioned before how Stephen Covey – author of the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” – did a study of American self-help books for his doctoral dissertation. He found that until about the 1920s, most American self-help books were about developing your character and Ben Franklin’s books were typical of these. However, about the 1920s on, there was a very noticeable shift in the emphasis of these books. Now it was all about image and putting on a front. Books like “How To Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie and “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill are typical here. So if you wanted to identify an inflexion point for the importance of character in our culture, you would have to say that it started about a century ago.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      Or Bruce Barton’s “The Man Nobody Knows,” which in the late 20’s comforted the comfortable by explaining that Jesus was the first Big Businessman.

      Always be Closing, baby, Always Be Closing…

    2. Fiery Hunt

      “About a century ago”.

      A time we are desperately re-creating to the benefit of none but a few.

    3. Anarcissie

      This seems like the contrasts noted in David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd between the ‘tradition-directed’, ‘inner-directed’, and ‘other-directed’ character types. But are these fashions, or a reflection of cultural needs driven by the movement from a largely agricultural society to an industrial one? Can the poor afford good character? The yeoman on his plot can perhaps defy his society for a long time, whereas the industrial worker or manager needs his job every day and must get along to keep it.

    4. EoH

      The rise of Madison Avenue, during and post-First World War, thanks much to Sigmund Freud’s son-in-law, Edward Bernays.

    5. Jonathan Holland Becnel

      Showtimes new show, On becoming a God in Central Florida, skewers the Self Help genre.

      Kirsten Dunst is terrific!

  13. DJG

    Thank you, Yves Smith. David’s comment about his own rise caught my eye the other day, and I have been thinking about it, too. I don’t know David’s exact circumstances in the U.K, but I was as scholarship boy in high school and college in the U S of A. So here I am, with an “influential” job in publishing, which still can be very Waspy. (And that includes the women.)

    The current issue in some respects is not that the homogeneity produced such perfect results (for instance, we should not forget longstanding problems like discrimination against Jews in academia and the CIA as a kind of Waspy adventure-fantasyland). Our current moral dilemma is that no one talks about character. In that “homogeneous” time, one could get rid of a troublesome man by noting that he wasn’t a serious man. Not being a “serious man” was a major impediment. Now, we think that everyone is serious, with serious opinions, which we may not judge. Marianne Moore reputedly “did not suffer fools gladly.” Now she would be considered an uptight collaborator with patriarchy.

    The language for assessing character is no longer used: Probity. Thrift. Reliability. Consistency. Taking the long view. Equanimity. Justice (without qualifiers like “social”). Discernment. Good judgment. Think about how little one sees these words used these days in discussing chararcter. Instead, we get hagiographies of John McCain, a spoiled child, blowhard veteran, and lousy politician. We get Madeleine Albright discoursing on special places in hell where any woman with her own point of view can be consigned.

    Many of the agreements that held U.S. society together had to be dismantled: That is part of what the New Deal was for. FDR knew that the discrimination against its own citizens wasn’t going to last and that the economic collapse made it all worse. And yet even he couldn’t eliminate racial discrimation.

    Nevertheless, we are a long way from FDR, a man of character, and Eleanor Roosevelt, a woman revered for her character, when we now pretend that celebrities like McCain and Hillary Clinton are worthy of leading us, let alone respect.

    1. Lambert Strether

      > FDR knew that the discrimination against its own citizens wasn’t going to last and that the economic collapse made it all worse. And yet even he couldn’t eliminate racial discrimation.

      I have read that FDR tried to break with the Southern Democrats in 1937, but I need to hunt down the reference. If so, good for him.

  14. Joe Well

    Didn’t that wonderfully collegial bunch include the Best and Brightest who killed over 3 million Southeast Asians and some 10000s of Americans in the 1960s-1970s? Or is this a later age cohort? New Deal/Great Society liberalism’s strategic interventions killed more people than neoliberalism’s endless wars, lest we forget.

    1. ambrit

      Overseas, in the countries affected by both series of conflicts, the millions of dead would disagree with you.

    2. Anon

      Not certain the purpose of the comparison, but the Colonists, the Revolutionaries, and Blue and Grey federalist armies, the MIC, etc. have been eliminating “others” since forever.

  15. Cat Burglar

    The dictionary definition of character is “the mental and moral qualities distinctive of an individual.”

    I associate the term with a kind of neo-Victorian anglophile section of the US political right who put it around starting in the 1980s as a kind of synonym for social conformity and obedience to authority. I hate to admit it, but I have never really been able to figure out what it means, and have regarded it as hot air.

    The dictionary definition suggests it could just be equal to the word individual, since the qualities of an individual are equal to an individual. In this case, as Mark Twain put it, “Why write ‘metropolis’ when you get the same pay for ‘city?”

    If the word is meant to draw attention to the qualities of a person as separate from their individuality, then it gets a little more interesting. Then you get to identify and name the qualities and what they mean, and you get to find out who has the power to do that. I remember our neo-Victorians were big on using very conventional abstract universals to corral social behavior. One of my current favorites is “personal responsibility,” which is often employed by congress persons as a rationale for policies in support of debt peonage and medical bankruptcy, but not applied to their own role in mass murders.

    The colloquial meaning of character seems to be the only one that carries a meaning that goes beyond any synonym. There are plenty of real characters out there, still. (One of my favorites was the subject of the film Dirtbag.)

    This article takes the word in a direction I haven’t seen before: that full engagement with others is a quality necessary to full individuality. That seems like a much less dubious use of the word.

    1. ewmayer

      “I associate the term with a kind of neo-Victorian anglophile section of the US political right who put it around starting in the 1980s as a kind of synonym for social conformity and obedience to authority.”

      Were he still around, the late Martin Luther King Jr. might take issue with that, pardon the pun, characterization. Which is not to say that, as with any other word, it is not subject to misuse by those of ill intent.

      1. rob

        I often think that the quote of MLK about the “content of their character” is such a good example of how we are living in a bizarro world when people talk about Obama….
        Talk about a person whose only good quality is the color of his skin.
        A “black” man became president. Which is a good thing… that broke one tradition….. but that “man” was in no way possessing of any “good” character.
        Like a carnival trick…. a major schmuck was promoted in the cultural ethos as having been good, merely because he is black…. but without any thought as to the POOR quality of his character.
        In a reasonable world, no one would allow obama to be proclaimed in any way , as an example of MLK’s vision of a man being judged by “the content of his character, and not the color of his skin.”

  16. MichaelSF

    (And he did me the honor of reading everything I read: every book every article, every draft, the pages a sea of yellow highlight)

    Shouldn’t that be “reading everything I wrote:”?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      No, because Amar is an academic, so unless one said otherwise, “read everything I wrote” would mean published work only. Reading every draft is extraordinary.

  17. EoH

    Some years ago, the president of a small liberal arts college began to get to know his new home. His predecessors normally did this at faculty teas, president’s dinners for donors, the odd picnic with students, and informal gatherings among staff. In a world before deanlets, assistant assistants, and chiefs of staff, that was a small world.

    But this new president inverted the pyramid. His first gathering was with the custodial and kitchen staffs, groundskeepers, and the like, whom he eventually got to know on a first name basis. They took note, as did the faculty, who still ran the place.

    Fast forward a few decades. Another new president’s first task – backed by a like-minded board – was to outsource all those jobs. In a small college town, losing its other large employers to shutdowns and consolidations, scores more people were thrown out of work, adding to town-and-gown tensions.

    An alternative for staff tossed out of work and with few options was to become a local hire for the out-of-town outsourced employer. That meant doing the same job for less pay, without benefits, with no union or worker protections, and without a relationship with their absentee employer. Profits left the local economy as fast as those employer-employee relations at the college. But the new president checked a box on his CEO-like resume.

    A modest example, it captures several of neoliberalism’s core objectives: imposing business priorities and methods on cultural institutions, outsourcing, union busting, and aggregating revenue and profits in a handful of distant locations.

    The same work got done, often by the same people, but the culture was irrevocably weakened. All for a few dollars more, fewer than were paid to the plethora of new staff and their myriad of business plans, intended to make faculty and students responsible for nothing but themselves.

    1. ambrit

      And, sadly, the only people utilizing “direct action” remedies for these systemic maladies are lone nutter types.
      Imagine America with a well organized and militant underground movement.
      The present day ‘Masters of the Universe’ are building up their organs of opression to combat such an eventuality. This will end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      1. Anarcissie

        There is a sort of world underground, as noted in this very publication (‘Add Oil’, a few days ago). It seems to be ‘open source’ as ‘Add Oil’ says, and constantly evolving. Random other examples: Gilets Jaunes, Occupy Wall Street, Tahrir. As the system of the Ruling Class weakens and casts more people off, they become available for this sort of activity.

        1. ambrit

          Agreed. As my dear old Dad was wont to say after a few beers, “The Fourth International finds work for idle hands.”

  18. Barry Fay

    What character is, is wanting and trying to have character – we all know what that means and know it is a tough row to hoe! So it was gotten rid of by those unwilling to make the effort – sort of like “memorising” was gotten rid of with clever attacks on its “efficacy”. Katy, bar the door!

  19. orange cats

    Civility and character are often aligned but when civility is chiefly a cultural pose it says next to nothing about how repressed, angry, selfish or incompetent someone is. The following is a synopsis of Marilynne Robinson’s remarkable book “Mother Country” published in the 1999 (Britain has a minimum wage now).

    ‘So asks a book-within-the-book where Robinson looks to the past, even unto Poor Law of the 14th Century, for the secrets of national character. What does she find? That beneath the famous civility the British have always wasted lives and credited the idea of human surplus; that there have in the past been policies of depopulation. That there is a lack “of positive, substantive personal and political rights.” That industrial illness and accident are common and customary. That there has never been a minimum wage. That many factors, including the Official Secrets Act, restrict the flow of information. That the (non-elected) Permanent Civil Service is professional and very powerful. That bumbling amateurism is still respectable, with chilling ramifications–an inability to gather meaningful statistics, for instance, or to keep track of such crucial documents as half the mortality data on workers at Windscale. That the citizenry is passive. That it is hard to locate responsibility, and that profit is motive and justification enough for almost anything.’

  20. JEHR

    So I am here wondering where I obtained my sense of “morality” and “ethical” behaviour. My mother emphasized that truthfulness and honesty were imperative. I rarely lied to her or stole from her. My primary teachers emphasized working hard and finishing work to the point that it was the best I could do (one teacher especially said that I should work to my best abilities and I tried to do that). My secondary teachers taught me how to study for tests, how to memorize poetry and what was worth learning (via the curriculum). My university professors talked about analyzing works of literature and how such analysis helped us understand life as lived by all of us. My marriage taught me how to put others’ physical and emotional needs ahead of my own. My old age revealed to me that knowing oneself was a most frightful thing to engage in.

    I never thought that I would have to learn about how greed works in the banking system; how false prophets are everywhere; how great wealth pollutes the character as well as the environment; that pornography is considered entertainment; that politics has its very own pollutants that taint our shared world; and so on. I think it is well past time to leave.

    1. ambrit

      I’d love to join you in exploring that ‘Great Void’ but I have too many responsibilities left here in the ‘Realm of Maya.’
      That’s the lesson I did not expect to learn in my middle age; that there is always going to be some responsibility needing one’s attention and effort.
      I am relearning with a vengeance the marriage lesson you mention.
      As for knowing myself, well, the older I get, the more I realize that I know nothing.
      Keep the faith!

  21. Susan the other`

    Very nice eulogy. It makes me remember people with that inner strength in my life. There have been quite a few. The difference between an ordinary good character and a great one is energy, imo. People who have the energy to share their good thinking and the patience to listen are the best. They just operate on a slightly higher frequency. McArthur may have been one in a million, but he influenced millions. So it consoles me to think that there are enough people of good character in this world to turn things around. Just because I wasn’t personally acquainted with them, doesn’t mean I wasn’t influenced by them. The very function of society.

  22. lyman alpha blob

    When I was hired for a non-management position several years ago, the CEO of my company came up to me on my first day and addressed me by name to welcome me to the job. I was rather shocked that she even knew I’d been hired. She was a 30+ year employee of the company who had worked her way up from being a freelance writer. Many of my coworkers then had been with the company for decades too.

    She retired a few years into my tenure and the place really hasn’t been the same since she left – the kind of neoliberal MBA mentality well known to NC readers has come to the forefront. Pretty sure I’m not the only one who misses her leadership and character.

  23. chuckw

    I’m all in favor of gentlemanly manners and am trying to teach them to my son. On the other hand, there have been a lot of people who could be flawed in their personal dealings but dedicated to the greatest good. And many slave owners who were courtly and thoughtful, especially regarding the opposite sex.
    I’m sure that Mr. McArthur was a great guy. But what was the HBS up to while he was dean and what did that say about his deeper values? This is from a Newsweek story from a couple years ago about the evolution of shareholder primacy:

    “… the new belief that the shareholder was supreme, absolving managers of responsibility to any “stakeholder”—employees, communities, society itself—except shareholders. The bottom line was all that mattered.
    John McArthur, then dean of HBS, liked Jensen’s message and invited him to HBS as a visiting professor in 1984. In a 1999 vanity project about McArthur’s tenure, The Intellectual Venture Capitalist, HBS trotted out a rationale for hiring him: “Jensen had been interested in testing his unorthodox ideas against the experiences of practitioners and had agreed to come to HBS on a temporary basis to get increased access to high-level decision makers in business.” Hogwash. “Theory of the Firm” was testable only in the sense that Keynesian economics is testable, or a theory of whether a hurricane might sweep beachfront houses out to sea is testable—you can debate the issues until you’re blue in the face, but at some point, you just have to see what happens.A course grounded in agency theory that Jensen developed at HBS—The Coordination and Control of Markets and Organizations—was designed to make students more “tough-minded” and shift them from the “stakeholder model” of organizational purpose. It became one of the most popular electives at the school. Agency theory wasn’t new, but Jensen’s resurrected form of it provided academic justification for the takeover movement, and HBS provided its revolutionary soldiers.”

  24. David in Santa Cruz

    Yves, this post and Jerri-Lynn’s companion post of Bill Black on corruption, are important discussions of our dishonorable libertarian zeitgeist.

    Ironically, I think that the origins of modern neoliberal libertarianism can be traced back to Woodstock and its evil double Altamont. It can be no coincidence that Trump was played off the convention stage by a recording of the Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

    I think that George Monbiot describes it well:

    It is a pitiless, one-sided, mechanical view of the world, which elevates the rights of property over everything else, meaning that those who possess the most property end up with great power over others. Dressed up as freedom, it is a formula for oppression and bondage. It does nothing to address inequality, hardship or social exclusion. A transparently self-serving vision, it seeks to justify the greedy and selfish behaviour of those with wealth and power.

    George Monbiot,
    Why Libertarians Must Deny Climate Change
    The Guardian, January 6, 2012

    1. barry fay

      Just because something is counterintuitive does not mean it´s insightful – mostly it means that it is just plain wrong! In this case, trotting out Woodstock as the root of neoliberal anything is absurd. The anti-corporation, anti-war, anti-empire feelings were palpable (I was there – you can hear them paging my twin brother “Alan Fay” on the album). The sense of community and brotherly love was REAL – as was the incipient reactionary response. Can´t have those kinds of ideas gaining traction in a capitalist society!

  25. Bazarov

    I travel to Georgia frequently. I’ve seen that state’s rural and urban and in between. While I did encounter some of the “southern hospitality” people so often cite, it was usually present in an upper-class milieu and did not leave much of an impression on me, as it felt “church-smile” inflected.

    What did leave an impression on me was the homelessness and vagrancy, especially in Atlanta, where on my way back to the airport, I had a man practically beg me to let him carry my luggage so as to have a reason to give him alms. I had, on that same trip and on subsequent trips to the state, many similar encounters. These people were rather pushy–it was disturbing to me in that their hustle was driven by obvious desperation.

    I currently live in Indiana, in a relatively affluent town, though I’m working class and reside in a modest apartment. Until recently, I did not own a car. I would walk to the grocery store a couple times a week. On one such walk, a homeless man asked if I had a light for his cigarette. I didn’t, but we walked together for about twenty minutes. During our walk, I asked him about his life.

    According to this man, the homeless in our town live in a tent settlement in the woods, which is the only place the police will tolerate such a gathering because it’s out of sight (and therefore out of mind for the people that matter). He explained to me that, whatever the hardships for the homeless in our town, it was nothing compared to Atlanta, where he lived prior. He described the city as having the “hardest” streets he’d ever experienced. I should probably mention that this man was likely in his late 40s or early 50s, meaning he’d experienced a lot! It was so terrifying, he had to flee north.

    That’s what comes vividly to mind when I think of the “South”. The politeness stuff hardly rates in comparison.

    1. anon y'mouse

      as a total outsider, i feel that the veneer of the “southern hospitality” is intentionally to paper over and ignore the continuation of unjust systems.

      this kind of “treating people with basic human decency” can and does very easily morph into “be quiet and say nothing while your social betters ride roughshod over everyone because you have no standing yourself to oppose them and it is considered impolite for YOU to point out these discrepancies”.

      i am torn between enjoying the image of sociability and detesting it. i know for a fact that most of it is a front, and that many people are talked badly about behind closed doors and over back fences, and that many people are shut out through these “kindnesses” (you can’t complain as long as they didn’t spit in your face). a lot of it is about maintaining pecking order. is -that- character? i think not.
      but what do i know?

    2. Mattski

      Look into the great reverse migration. There’s a reason why Black people have been returning to the South. I live in Tallahassee, which is a mess in many ways. But I have many more Black friends and acquaintances than any of my friends in NYC, SF, or Ann Arbor, places in the U.S. where I lived before. My neighborhood, half a mile from downtown and a mile from the city’s two universities is completely integrated. . .

      When northern liberals preach to me these days about the South I find it self-serving. And it’s worth pointing out that the deepening misery of the poor in our insanely segregated cities (see Manhattan, see SF) can’t be laid at the door of the Republicans or obvious racism. Liberals and Democrats, in the capture of neoliberal hoohoo, have overseen most or all of it. It’s economic, first and foremost, and the historically disinherited tend to suffer from it in increasing degree.

      You’re ascribing people’s supposed civility or politesse to cultural and geographic mores that you barely bother to identify. . . Rural Indiana is terrifying in its poverty; it isn’t polite.

      I spent the weekend with my teenaged daughter in New Orleans. We were knocked out by how sweet people were to us everywhere we went. When my wife and I first met we drove Southern backroads in the Blackbelt, Mississippi Valley and N. Florida for two years–people were unfailingly kind.

      This geographical ‘holier-than-thou’ stuff. . . sad feature of liberal life. See The Last Black Man in San Francisco and then get back to us!

  26. Hayek's Heelbiter

    As a Southern exile of Faulkner’s second type, now living in the UK, I respectfully disagree slightly with the statement:

    ….cultural homogeneity in the civil service, in politics, and even partly in the media, which had its origin in a certain upper middle class sense of duty, honesty and competence, inherited from the serious professional classes of the nineteenth century.

    I think it goes much deeper than that back to a perhaps medieval sense of noblesse oblige.

    You see this most starkly in the difference between Kate Middleton, who appears all over the place at the most mundane functions, allowing herself to be photographed with all and sundry, and Meghan Markle, who jets about in private planes on vacations and demands an entire section for herself at Wimbledon, asking guards to stop people photographing her.

    Like so many of the 1%, I think her attitude could best be summed up as noblesse oublier.

  27. inode_buddha

    I’ve been under the impression that character was quite valuable to those who assume to be my superiors, particularly at work. “Builds character” they’d say. After about 30 years of that bullshit, I finally had the gall to ask the CEO about why he doesn’t he build his *own* character, as opposed to building everyone elses.

    They love building character, as long as it’s someone elses.
    Nope, don’t work there anymore.

  28. David

    I have always wondered why there are so many shootings today. The AR-15 came out in the 60s and I felt no fear going through a public high school in the late 70s. Now, it’s “gun control/do something” vs improving the character of our country’s citizens. Yeah, I know – trying to improve the character of our citizens is not very hash tag-able/ would be extremely difficult to do. But gun control is made for hashtags. We are doomed.

    1. Ubietz

      “Personal weapons are what raised mankind out of the mud, and the rifle is the queen of personal weapons.

      The rifle is a weapon. Let there be no mistake about that. It is a tool of power, and thus dependent completely upon the moral stature of its user. It is equally useful in securing meat for the table, destroying group enemies on the battlefield, and resisting tyranny. In fact, it is the only means of resisting tyranny, since citizenry armed with rifles simply cannot be tyrannised.

      The rifle itself has no moral stature, since it has no will of its own. Naturally, it may be used by evil men for evil purposes, but there are more good men than evil, and while the latter cannot be persuaded to the path of righteousness by propaganda, they can certainly be correct by good men with rifles.

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