Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Plus ça Change, Plus...

With some trepidation, I attended a high school reunion recently at the urging of a couple of old school chums with whom I remain good friends. They are good fun and we had much to talk about despite their marked drift rightward in the political continuum, despite the night ending with one of them not speaking to me after a debate on immigration during which I highlighted the amusing paradox between his extremely nationalistic view and the details of his own central american spouse's naturalisation. I won't bore you with the other trite details certainly repeated at nearly every occasion across America. It was all polite, almost-acceptable food, perhaps insufficient drink, punctuated with a few unexpected surprises of interesting lives at their half-way points.

Sharing some such moments with an ivy-law educated black female classmate who against the odds scaled the heights of a Wall Street M&A practice of a top Wall St law firm, we were interrupted by the tall formerly good-looking alumni who'd lost most of his hair, being as disingenuous as he was twenty-five years before, almost pathological in his lack of awareness in his own behaviour. He was dishonest back then, always choosing the short-cut, irrespective of the morality or consequence. The pinnacle of such behaviour was during our AP History exam in a class taught by my favorite teacher - a Jesuit, and confidant of Bishop Abel Muzarewa. The boy in question sat behind me, and rather than study, copied my multiple-choice answer-sheet verbatim. Only his plan went awry when he transposed a letter from my sheet early-on, causing him it must be said, much embarrassment, and causing me to be called to account the next day by the Prof accusing me of complicity. Of course I explained that despite my rather tepid friendship with the guilty, I wholly disapproved and had nothing to do with it - which was the truth, and fortunately came across as such. Of course his ethical lapse didn't matter for he'd already been accepted to an Ivy undergrad whereafter he went on to, and graduated from the same Ivy Law School and ultimately, local mayor. Oh dear!! And here he was again, still affable, but still laughably disingenuous, interrupting some civilized conversation to talk about.....yes....himself!! Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Once a narcissist...

And so when I look across the landscape today and I see health "insurers" (HMOs) organized (as much as possible) to restrict payments; property-cat insurance companies - even mutuals - hiring Mckinsey to find ways to avoid paying claims, corporate rent-seeking run amok, be it cash-for-clunkers, oil-co's penning environmental legislation and pharma co's routinely filing lawsuits to challenge generics after patent expiry, little of which raises eyebrows or arouses a renewed sense of public interest. One would have thought this paradox between the sub-moral public greed and the warm and fuzzy private life of my cheating former classmate, seen through the prism of his little-league coaching exploits, or one's high-profile faux-philanthropy vs. the more genuine and low-key tzedakah.

Despite my acerbic tone of disbelief, I should know better. For when I was sixteen, I was shown (in no uncertain terms), the way of the world. I was working as a "salesman" at a national chain of music & hi-fi shops - a plum-job for a long-haired high-school student when unemployment was high for adults. It was xmas. Taiwan and Korea, were not renown for quality, and the company sold a range of instruments from the expensive to the asian-sourced so-cheap many of which were wholly unplayable. I recall a post-xmas morning, a single-mother returning an instrument which was a xmas present - a bass guitar, just out of the box. The neck of this unplayed instrument was so warped, it was impossible to tune, even after attempting to straighten the internal bar. I returned to the store-room with another box of the same. Pulled it out. Worse than the first. The mother and child smiled waiting patiently and expectantly as I returned with a third, which was the same as the first two. I went to my manager, and asked him what to do? It was pretty upsetting to me as a budding musician, I empathized with the disappointed customer. He said "issue them a store credit" a lame response if ever there were one under the circumstances. I looked at him, quizzically and doe-eyed, and said: "Jimmy, why do we even sell such crap...we know it's lame and it causes nothing but problems and unhappy customers..Isn't this rather dishonest ummm errrr....??!?" Jimmy, a head taller, but more than three-quarters-of-a-decade older than me, didn't hesitate, broke into a huge shit-eating grin, slapped my back and chimed: "Welcome to the world of business...."

6 comments:

RCJ said...

Good writeup - Thanks
I've avoided all my reunions (and more of my high school compatriots were ensconced in correctional facilities than yours). But I think your point is spot on.

The question is can we as a society survive the adoption of this behavior by everyone in the society. Maybe it's a very strange prisoners dilemma model, if everyone cheats we all go to prison (or the equivalent).

Debendevan said...

Amen on your observations about character. The sad thing - besides the reality that the narcissist hadn't changed - is that characters such as these (and I have a few HS and college colleagues in mind here) often go on to have temporal success as well as a public persona that obscures their true nature. The only positive is that when one bumps into someone who truly crosses their 't's and dots their 'i's is the inspiration they leave in their wake, in part by stark contrast. Keep up the great posts!

martin said...

As Americans we have wallowed in the quantity over quality paradigm for the last 20 plus years, perhaps more. People want their bass guitars and they want them now. Doesn't matter that the thing is crap so long as they can have it. A better one would be unaffordable and your poor store manager unable to sell many. Not his fault - he is only being responsive to market demand. World o' crap but a whole hell of a lot of it. That's us.

Shairon the Parliamentarion said...

I have always found it strange (and sad) that capitalism has evolved (or perhaps devolved) with the notion that financial success equates to moral "goodness". Bill Gates MUST be good because he has made a ton of money. Buffet "couldn't (or wouldn't) do those things, because he is successful"

On the other hand, perhaps it is not only good, but necessary that society organizes its thoughts this way. After all, imitation in this respect is a win for society, even if it is misguided.

"Cassandra" said...

Shairon - I share your lament, but think it wasn't always this way, and will not be this way in the more distant future (post on the subject forthcoming). For in a Hegelian world, we either return to some less-than-idyllic ruralism, or like Star Trek, having cracked the energy nut and the transmutation thing, the hairless beings of the future will look at quizically and say: "Money....?!?!?...What's THAT...???!?!?

Of course there are other potential paths. I quite fancy the odds of Ridley Scott's version, but think that some of the tongue-in-cheekism of Demolition Man is distinctly possible (ex the ludicrous stunts).

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