By Demir Barlas
July 12, 2006
The reason many of us who grew up outside America found this country
charming and worthy of emulation was its principles, at least as projected
on the movie screen. You can argue about their politics, but the
characters portrayed by John Wayne, for instance, operated according to a
fixed code of ethics. They stood for what they considered right; they
never cheapened or sold themselves; and they lived (and died) with
I encountered this America before I actually came here.
Perhaps this is why it is so easy for me to see what native-born Americans
cannot understand about that their own country: that it is rapidly falling
into decadence. When I say this, I'm not referring to some declining
standard of collective religious morality, but rather to personal
morality. All too many Americans stand ready to pimp themselves, and the
system is now designed to reward rather than discourage them. This is an
arrangement that the rest of the world rightly considers hypocritical and,
despite all talk of globalism, will never emulate.
Let me give an example. I recently got an e-mail from Avaya, one of whose
employees, Tom Porter, was leading a security team at the World Cup. The
e-mail proudly advertises Porter as a "a former hacker [who] got into the
U.S. government database on Roswell in the early 90s." Now he has been
able to have a highly visible and well-paying job as chief of Internet
security for FIFA and Avaya.
As soon as I got this e-mail, I recalled the case of Frank Abagnale, Jr.,
the fraudster whose life was made into the movie Catch Me If You Can.
And, I admit, I got angry. I want to tell you why.
Some of my friends in the ninth grade were aspiring computer hackers. I
suppose it was a natural impulse for a bunch of intelligent boys cooped up
in an otherwise boring programming class. We tried a few exploits but, in
the end, got caught. We were never that good in the first place, not
because we lacked intelligence but because, I am convinced, of the ethos
that had survived into Denver even into the 1980s. The ethos told us that
hacking was bad. We couldn't shrug this off our conscience, and so
conducted our exploits rather half-heartedly.
I've kept up with many of my classmates over the years. There is, in the
group with which I am familiar, no one who has committed a felony, gone to
jail, or refused to pay taxes. Everyone has walked the line. And our
reward? Most of us struggle along at meaningless occupations, trying to
make ends meet -- punished, I maintain, by our consciences.
For America no longer rewards conscience. If you kill someone, you will be
offered a book deal. If you impersonate a doctor and nearly cause the
death of a baby [like Abagnale], someone will make a comedic movie about
you. If you become a hacker and endanger our government, you will become a
consultant. If you sink a company, you will find a high position in that
very government. Only competence at criminality and self-promotion are
rewarded. The more vicious, heartless, and inept you are, the further
If you want to talk about anti-Americanism, you can't find a better
example. The culture of merit, sincerity, and principle that once animated
this country is gone, and that impacts everyone from left to right.
Have you seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? John Wayne's character
refuses to take the credit for an act that would, in that day and age,
have made him famous. His principles dictate that he cannot engage in
self-promotion, which he leaves to Jimmy Stewart's character. Stewart
becomes a senator and marries a woman with whom Wayne was in love; Wayne
retires from public life and dies alone.
Oh, but today! After shooting Valance, Wayne would have gotten a publicity
agent, launched a blog, and gone on talk shows. He would have done the
lecture circuit, opened a consultancy on how to shoot outlaws, and sold
his "life rights" to a Hollywood studio.
I'm sorry to say it, but I hate what you might call the post-Wayne America
(and I say this despite having radically different politics from Wayne
himself). It's an upside-down country in which criminals become
celebrities while good, hard-working people struggle along on dollars a
day. There is no longer any act divorced from its promotion. The only
principle is to gather as much money and fame as possible, prostituting
yourself all the way, until you die.
I do not feel that a country can long endure such principles or such acts
of decadence. They constitute a kind of rot that will, some day, turn
America into the equivalent of the moribund, cynical countries of Western
Europe. Moreover, they are a gleeful betrayal of every principle on which
this country stood for the first two centuries of its existence.
I suppose this article will be met by incomprehension from people who have
absorbed their values from the post-Wayne moment in American history. As a
historian, I am a professional pessimist, but I can't help but feel that
these very people are only the tip of the iceberg; that, as in the movie
15 Minutes (or, more apocalyptically, Death Race 2000), crime will pay
even more than it does today.
It is worth concluding with a passage from Henry Miller's The
Air-Conditioned Nightmare, which captures the spirit of the changed
America to which I allude:
As to whether I have been deceived, disillusioned...The answer is yes, I
suppose. I had the misfortune to be nourished by the dreams and visions of
great Americans. Some other breed of man has won out. The world which is
in the making fills me with dread....It is a world cluttered with useless
objects which men and women, in order to be exploited and degraded, are
taught to regard as useful....Whatever does not lend itself to being
bought and sold...is debarred. In this world the poet is anathema, the
thinker a fool, and the man of vision a criminal.
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