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When 'Everybody Has a Price' Who Will Stand Up to Injustice?

“Seems that everybody’s got a price, I wonder how they sleep at night”.   

With this line from her catchy tune, “Price Tag”, the precocious British pop singer Jessie J.  touches on a cultural issue that very few of the elite opinion-makers in this country seldom ever dare to address frontally. 

Are we economic beings above all else? Does each really of us, as we often hear, really have “a price” that, if identified and met, will effectively turn us into the moral plaything of another person or a social institution?

Looking around, there are a lot of reasons for believing that the smug “human price theorists” among us might be on to something.

My most powerful experience in this regard came, not in these United States of Consumption, but on a misty midnight street in Havana ten years ago.

On the way home to my hotel, I was approached by a scrawny teenage girl who was eager to engage me in conversation. We talked for a bit until she politely offered me her sexual services. I politely said no and made a move to join my friend who had continued walking ahead. 

As I started to depart, she looked at me with a look that can only be described as one of alarmed perplexity, the type one sees on the face of someone who feels they have miscalculated badly in a social interaction. She grabbed me by the arm and asked me what was wrong. She then inquired if there was some act that I was particularly fond of that she had forgotten to include in the set of services she had mentioned. And shortly thereafter, she wondered out loud whether I thought her prices were out of line. 

I tried to explain that that I just wasn’t interested. As she listened, the perplexed look returned to her face.

It was then that I finally understood her confusion.  I was a European-looking male and she was a Cuban woman offering sexual services at what she knew were discount prices on the world scale.  In her world, the only discordant matters in such encounters were ones of price or consumer choice. That the dominant economic partner in the equation (me) might simply declare his indifference to the “price game”, which she had come to use as the proxy for value in her young life, was simply unfathomable to her. Clearly she had internalized the idea that everything had a price and that the only real drama or mystery in human interactions lay in finding it.

I suspect that for most Americans, my late-night dialogues with jineteras in Havana probably seem quite far away.  But are they?

While most of us, thankfully, do not have much occasion to be engaged by desperate young prostitutes, can we really say that the assumptions organizing that poor young girl’s view of the world are absent from our lives?   Can we really say that in our workplaces, for example, we have not been encouraged to view “price”, or its first cousin “productivity” as a substitute for the staggeringly large and beautiful spectrum of human values? Can we really say, as we look around us, that we don’t see lots of people, egged on by a constant stream of decrees issued from on high, straining to shimmy their rich and varied personalities into the ever more narrow confines the “price game”?

I certainly cannot.   And this distresses me.

But what distresses me even more is the fact that most people I know who are suffering in this way seem to be wholly resigned to their fates.  In one verbal form or another they tell me, “The game is the game… and the best anyone can hope for is to cut a good deal within it”.

There is an historical explanation for the widespread adoption of this posture among Americans. Our society was, for many years and decades a place where the systems of social mobility and justice more or less “worked” for a sizable plurality (which obviously has never included African Americans) of its citizens.

Am I saying it was a paradise? Of course not.  But I am saying that it offered, in the years between 1880 and 1970 (especially during the last four decades of that period) a level of opportunity, justice, and institutional transparency that was simply unimaginable at that time in rural Ireland, the Ukrainian shtetl or the ducal estates of Sicily.

When parents perceive the social system they live in as being largely functional in regard to justice and social advancement, they rightly raise their children to be “players”, rather than rebels, that is, they rightly direct their children’s intellectual energies toward taking advantage (in the best sense of that term) of the system rather than questioning the integrity of its architecture.

That’s fine while the system continues to work.

But what happens when, as increasingly appears to be the case in today’s US, people raised to be “players” find themselves living and working in a social system that no longer offers the promises of advancement and justice that it once did, living and working in a system that almost seems to mock the large doses of good will they bring to it each day?

One obvious solution is to look to history.

Sadly, however, there is little available in today’s popular renderings of the American past--with their constant emphasis on material success, individual ingenuity and self-interested intrigue—to guide us in a time of brutal plutocratic and militaristic intransigence.

This highly selective account of things, which conveniently leaves out the many advances in the quality of life brought on by “shrill” or “annoying” non-conformists (note: shrill and annoying can be ok, but only if employed in business matters. Outside of this “sacred” realm, they are big no-nos), leads most people to believe that the individual has always been more or less adrift in a cold and heartless world, and that, in light of this fact, the best course is to keep your head down and do what you are told to do.

If, however, we look beyond our own artificially truncated historical narratives to places and traditions where systemic failure has been the rule rather than the exception, there is much available to guide us. Of particular interest to me, is what I’ll call the “Great Tradition of Saying No”.  

The GTSN is rooted in the idea that many who wield social authority do not necessarily do so legitimately. Why? Because their hold on power is anchored in values and practices that are clearly antithetical to human dignity and the long-term interests of the collective they claim to lead.

To pretend in the face of clear evidence that this is not the case, or to pretend the broad social problem is not real as long as I can continue to cut a deal favorable to one’s personal interests is, according to this line of reasoning, to imbue the tyrant’s business or regime with a moral   legitimacy it cannot,  and should not, ever have. 

The answer under GTSN? Refuse to play along, and perhaps more importantly, accept with the highest degree of equanimity possible, the slander, abuse, and diminutions of personal power and wealth that will inevitably follow.

A couple of examples:  

Pau (also known by the Castilian first name of Pablo) Casals was the greatest and best-known cellist in the world during the first third of the 20th century, the Yo-Yo Ma of his time. He was also a Catalan and a believer in the democratic ideals of the Second Spanish Republic (1931-39). When, in 1939, General Francisco Franco completed the violent coup d’etat against the Republic that he and others had begun in the summer of 1936, Casals went into exile.

In the 34 year years between the end of the war and his death in 1973, he refused, with a few well-documented exceptions (exceptions which he sought to explain in morally coherent terms), to perform publicly in any country that had recognized the Franco regime, a list that by the early fifties included most of the developed world.

Long before the Portuguese author José Saramago astonished the world with his singular brand of morally provocative story-telling, there was Miguel Torga, the greatest of an extremely rich, if still internationally unrecognized, cohort of mid twentieth century Portuguese writers.  I have not yet found a collection of short stories in any language that can compare to his Tales of the Mountain or an autobiographical novel that comes anywhere close to the beauty and force of his Creation of the World

Torga came of age as a writer in the midst of his country’s long and brutal Salazar dictatorship, a regime whose ideology and practice he abhorred. Not wanting to grant the dictatorship or any of it many cronies the ability to mediate between himself and his readers, he decided to self-publish everything he wrote.

It was a decision that might very well have cost him the Nobel Prize for which he perennially nominated over the last 30 years of his life. He could have cut a deal with the Portuguese establishment and gained countless perks and far greater international recognition.  But he felt it was more important to make clear, as a man, and as a Portuguese citizen, that there was no way to spin or fudge what Salazar and his regime were really all about.

In choosing not to be players, but rather unrelenting members of the opposition, these men of talent and relative privilege sent an extraordinary message of dignity and hope to their less fortunate fellow citizens. They said, in effect, in the midst of our troubled lives there are still certain core convictions that have no price, and certain “games” or “negotiations” that, owing to their fundamentally rigged nature of the rules that govern them, are not worth entering into.

Call me cynical, but I find it hard to imagine that any American artist possessing the stature and status of a Casals or a Torga would ever choose to do such a thing today.

It will, of course, be argued that while Casals and Torga were looking squarely into the pitiless face of dictatorships, we still living in a democracy, and that is therefore far too early to be talking about boycotting, or perhaps more accurately, finding ways to actively highlight the moral bankruptcy of  those entrusted with leading our social institutions.

Maybe these people are right. Maybe I am pushing the panic button a little early.

But if there is anything that the contemporary histories of the Iberian and Latin America countries tell us, it is that a) dictatorships seldom go around labeling themselves as what they are, and b) they usually go to great lengths to maintain a sense  of normality in the daily rhythms of the citizenry. Argentina partied hardy during the World Cup in 1978, a time when some of the worse of crimes of the Dirty War were being committed. And when the horrible facts came out years later, many citizens were truly and honestly mystified as to how this could have happened during what was, for them, just another day, month, or year in the life.

Our endlessly looped cinematic and documentary   treatments of World War II have, I think, given many most Americans the belief that they’ll easily recognize authoritarianism when and if it comes to  our shores.

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