Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Blessed or Just Lucky?

Election Day in America is more than a year away, but in our era of never-ending campaigns for political office it seems as if it might be next week. By the time the election takes place, hundreds of millions - perhaps billions - of dollars will have been spent, to what purpose is just another unholy American mystery.

Since the beginning of summer, when someone decided that all the campaigning should commence, we have been introduced, or re-introduced, to a few dozen candidates - most of them Republican. Since the Democrats don't seem to believe that Hillary Clinton is beatable, only a few others have had the chutzpah to stand against her. 

In the few opportunities they've had to express themselves above the din of the front runner, these candidates have let us know, whether we needed to know it or not, what they believe in. Since a reliably entertaining television personality - Donald Trump - is in the race for the Republican ticket, voters of every persuasion have watched the Republican debates. This has given the more innocent Liberals among them something of a fright at some of the more extreme views expressed by people who mistakenly thought they were preaching exclusively to the choir, which accounts for most of the "blowback" in the press. 

One of the biggest differences between the candidates that I've noticed goes to the heart of the difference between the two sides. When it comes to success in life, at whatever pursuit, it seems that there are two kinds of people: the ones who react to their success by believing that they are blessed and those who think they are simply lucky. (1) The former inspires, one can easily appreciate, an overabundance of confidence and egoism. Kanye West is the poster child for this interpretation of success. He apparently believes that the riches he has accrued merely by "rapping" into a microphone are proof of some sort of divine approval. 

The trouble with this interpretation of success is: the opposite of "blessed" is "cursed." The same divinity that dispenses a blessing can as easily (and as inexplicably) dole out a curse. Some people have no apparent problem believing in a divine power that can reward the labors of some while rejecting the labors of an overwhelming majority of others.(2) I am often surprised at how some of the unlikeliest people, whom one would have thought were immune to such a view, were, in fact, subject to it. Mark Twain, George Orwell pointed out, could never "wean himself from the notion, which is perhaps especially an American notion, that success and virtue are the same thing." (3)

The other interpretation of great personal success, however, inspires an overweening humility in the recipient, who sees it as the one in a million accident that fell on him rather than someone else, like winning a lottery or being struck by lightning - and living to tell the tale. He knows that he wasn't singled out because of any particular talent or achievement (because he knows there are colleagues who are at least as worthy as he is), but that a mindless and indifferent force focused randomly on him.

Last summer I watched Patrick Stewart in an interview with the BBC. He had become the spokesman for a charity organization, and the interviewer asked him why celebrities always seem to be attracted by such activities. While he disparaged celebrity sponsorship that is nothing more than self-promotion, Stewart said that most celebrities understand how incredibly lucky they are. They do something that they love and they get paid a fortune for it and they want to give something back.

Stewart's words are also a handy explanation for why so many celebrities are politically leftist (Stewart is a socialist). It's rare to find one who isn't. The ones who stand out, who embrace right-wing politics, probably don't think they are lucky - they probably believe that they are blessed, that, for whatever reason, their good fortune is the result of some divine payback, that they deserve it. Like football players who point to heaven when they score a touchdown, they believe that a divinity is actively involved in the performance of - and reward for - their work.

Of the two explanations for the absurd salaries that A-listers and athletes routinely draw for their "work," it's easy to see how preposterous the belief in blessedness is - an egoistic belief in divine intervention in the lives of completely unimportant people. They make the big mistake of thinking that the amount of money they make is also an estimation of moral value. Like Kanye West, their only explanation for their enormous fame and fortune is that they deserve it. 

On another BBC program I watched called "Hard Talk," the American composer Phillip Glass defended his work against its unanimously dim critical appraisal by saying how wealthy it has made him and how his concerts play to packed houses. This is the worst possible defense of anyone's work, since there is no connection whatsoever between financial and critical success. Glass should've defended himself against critics' attacks with Liberace's famous line, "I cried all the way to the bank."

(1) By "success" I don't necessarily mean financial reward, which is a dubious measure of success.
(2) Here is Charles Darwin's assessment: "I hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine." 
(3) George Orwell, "Mark Twain - The Licensed Jester" (1943). 

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