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The Dark Side of the American Dream

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11/22/2019

[Editor's Note: This year, University of Virginia Professor of English Paul Cantor released his third book in a series of books on television and film. With Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream: Con Men, Gangsters, Drug Lords, and Zombies, Cantor continues the work begun with 2001's Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization and 2012's The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV. I recently interviewed Prof. Cantor about his new book.]

Ryan McMaken: As you note, one of the benefits of a United States that is so vast and disconnected is the fact it’s pretty easy to re-invent one’s self over and over again. The dark side of this, however, is this freedom to re-invent one’s self can also be used for purposes of cheating people and carrying out criminal acts. How does this affect our view of America?

Paul Cantor: As I like to put it, America is the fresh start nation, but for that very reason it is also the false start nation. That very much complicates our view of America. It is easy to celebrate a fresh start nation; that is the essence of the American dream. But what many people have a hard time accepting is that, if you give people the freedom to pursue their dreams and re-invent themselves, sometimes they are going to misuse that freedom. America is the great land of entrepreneurship; it is the home of venture capital and the start-up. But it is also the home of business fraud and con men. My point is that you can’t have the one without the other. That is why in my book I study the ways in which the American dream is shadowed by the American nightmare, and the entrepreneur easily shades over into the con man.

Freedom is not an unequivocal good because everything depends on what the freedom is used for. Yet in a deeper sense, freedom is a good unto itself because human beings cannot live fulfilling lives without experiencing freedom. In that sense, freedom is the pre-condition of all human good. People continually want to control the results of freedom to make sure that they are beneficial, but that is to misunderstand the nature of freedom. In my book, I analyze how American pop culture has come to terms with this issue in surprisingly sophisticated ways. To be sure, the majority of pop culture seeks “Hollywood endings”—stories in which good simply triumphs. But I deal with works like the Godfather films and Breaking Bad, which I discuss as genuinely tragic in Hegel’s sense of presenting irreconcilable conflicts between antithetical goods. These works reveal ethical trade-offs and above all the disturbing fact that we cannot have freedom without paying some kind of price for it.

RM: As an entertainer, W.C. Fields often portrayed con men and frauds. But in real life, Fields was a true success story. He worked very hard and he made a lot of money. But why do you think Fields was drawn to portraying shady characters, and why did the public respond so well?

PC: It’s a simple fact—illustrated throughout pop culture—that shady characters are more interesting than goody-goody characters. It’s the villain who adds spice to any story. Without a touch of larceny, there’s no conflict in a narrative and it quickly becomes boring. Fields was drawn to playing con men because he realized early in his career that show business itself is one big con game. He began as a juggler and he understood how much of his stage act depended on illusions. That’s why much of his comedy is what we call metatheatrical. Fields calls attention to the illusory nature of his performances. He often “breaks the fourth wall”—speaking directly to the audience and alerting them to the con game he is involved in. That gets the audience on his side—he lets them in on the con. Long before the Frankfurt school, Fields recognized that Hollywood is a dream factory. Pop culture is so meretricious that audiences welcome moments when an entertainer openly admits that he is deceiving them. Many scholars mistakenly think that audiences turn to pop culture for moral edification. But people get enough of that in their daily lives, and what they are seeking in movies and television is an alternative to the endless moralizing they normally get from society and its institutions.

Pop culture is cathartic. A good con man story gives the audience a momentary and well-earned respite from the need to behave themselves that is constantly drilled into them. As Fields would say, “You can’t cheat an honest man,” but it’s sure fun to watch it happening up there on the stage or the screen. The audience can admire the artful technique of the con man purely as an aesthetic spectacle, and as Fields understood, the audience enjoys seeing the petty moralists, busybodies, and do-gooders of society getting their comeuppance from a roguish con man. Fields made a career of speaking up for every ordinary person who has been scolded, brow-beaten, and preached at by the manners-and-morals police of society. No wonder the American public embraced him. Fields taught us a lesson that we’re only fully beginning to understand today. Comedy is the sworn enemy of political correctness of all kinds—from the prohibition of alcohol to the prohibition of gendered pronouns. W.C., where are you when we need you?

RM: In your chapter on the Godfather films, I was struck by the contrast you pointed out in Godfather II between life in Sicily and the United States. Life in Sicily, you noted, was much less free and open-ended. But that loss of freedom and flexibility came with the benefit of being fully ensconced within a community. In the US, on the other hand, freedom may come with a downside of isolation. Can you expand a little more on this?

PC: The Godfather films expose the tragic tension at the heart of the American dream, which means that its bright side is always shadowed by a dark side. In particular, immigration is fundamental to the American dream—the United States supposedly welcomes immigrants and offers them a fresh start in life. But it often forces them into a false start. Instead of welcoming them, America greets them with prejudice and treats them as second-class citizens. That can easily lead them into crime. More generally, the Godfather films challenge the American belief that we can have it all. We think that our basic values should not be in conflict. We can have both freedom and community. America thinks of itself as a community of free individuals. But community can be fully achieved only at the price of free individuality. A community is based on common beliefs and customs, which impose restrictions on the freedom of individuals. At the same time, the pursuit of freedom can leave the individual isolated, cut off from the sustaining support of the community.

Godfather II makes this dilemma concrete by contrasting the epitome of the Old World in the Sicilian village of Corleone with the epitome of the New World in Las Vegas. Immigrants left the restrictive Old World of Europe for the liberated world of the United States. But, as advantageous as this exchange seemed to be, some immigrants paid a price for it. As the film shows, their life in the Old World was extremely limited and unfulfilling. But as attractive as the Wild West existence of Las Vegas may be, it may rip a man up from his roots, destroy his family, and cut him off from the moral compass that his traditional community once provided him. In the Godfather films, Coppola presents America as a Faustian bargain for Italian immigrants. It grants them great power, but only at the expense of their souls. The Mafia involvement in Las Vegas was almost too perfect a symbol for what Coppola wanted to say about America. It allows him to present America as a great gamble for the Italian immigrant—one where it is all-too-easy to crap out.

RM: Just as the gangsters in the Godfather became criminals to escape the confines of being immigrants, Walter White from Breaking Bad was trying to escape some confines of his own. He became a vicious criminal, but it’s also easy to sympathize with his frustrations. Did the creators want us to see him as a good guy?

PC: In the case of Breaking Bad, the question of the intentions of the creators is very complicated. From interviews and commentaries, we know a great deal about what lay behind the creation of the show and I discuss the subject at length in my book. The creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan thought of Walter White as a bad guy, a sociopath and even a monster of evil. In fact, Gilligan thought his challenge was to find ways of making his audience sympathetic to White. As the show progressed, Gilligan began to think he’d gone too far in making White sympathetic. He was surprised that large portions of the audience were rooting for White. Actually, White is in many respects a sympathetic character. Only a diagnosis of terminal cancer sets him off on his criminal career, and he is motivated by a desire to provide financially for his family, especially his disabled son. And he suffers from a whole series of frustrations in his life—with which the audience can easily identify—that lead him to feel that he can achieve fulfillment only as a criminal. The really complicating factor in all this is the fact that Vince Gilligan was not solely responsible for creating the character of Walter White. There was, for example, someone named Bryan Cranston—the actor who played the part. Vince Gilligan wrote the part of Walter White but Bryan Cranston brought the character to life. Cranston’s brilliant acting was largely responsible for White emerging as a sympathetic figure. And Cranston had a conception of White that was very different from Gilligan’s. In interviews the two often differed diametrically about the character. Frankly I think Cranston understood Walter White better than Gilligan did. Above all, Cranston sympathized with White’s frustration as a failure in life in a way that Gilligan did not. As a result Cranston introduced much greater depth into White’s character and created a character for whom many audience members sympathized (I was one of them).

RM: Although a zombie apocalypse would be considered a nightmare scenario, the Walking Dead presents a world in which ordinary people have near total freedom. They’re free, within the confines of the new reality, to re-build a new society from the bottom up. Some people might find this appealing, yes?

PC: I began my study of The Walking Dead puzzled by its popularity and by the success in general of a wide range of “end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it” narratives in American pop culture. People are portrayed as having lost everything: their loved ones, their homes, their jobs. What’s to like about that? After much thought, I believe I came up with the answer. In all these apocalyptic scenarios, the world lies in ruins, life has become nasty, brutish, and short, and people are surrounded by death everywhere. But at least the federal government is gone. This is a feature common to all the narratives. It seems as if the first thing the zombies do is to take out Washington, DC. Occasionally the absence of federal authorities is lamented, or at least missed, but it is surprising how quickly the characters adapt to the changed circumstances and take back control of their own lives. I won’t say that they enjoy the new world without the federal government but they generally take satisfaction in governing themselves for a change. Initially many of them are shown to have become overly dependent on distant bureaucrats to run their lives, but under the pressure of the new necessities, they rise to the occasion and become self-reliant and independent. This is especially true of a number of the women. Having suffered various forms of abuse, they learn how to fight back and become the arbiters of their own destinies. This newfound autonomy often takes the form of their learning how to use weapons for self-defense and even aggression. Despite what one might expect out of Hollywood, The Walking Dead is a walking argument against gun control. The show has been a bellwether of political trends in the past ten years, and reflects the growing dissatisfaction with elites in America and the way they have marginalized blue collar workers, rural farmers, and other ordinary people. It is no accident that the main heroes of the show have been a local sheriff’s deputy (Rick Grimes) and a redneck (Daryl Dixon). The Walking Dead provides the revenge of flyover country on the coastal elites.

RM: You have noted several examples in the book of the dark side of the American dream. But are there any examples of programming that show, unironically, the good side of the American dream? Or has that largely gone extinct?

PC: The American dream has survived in many places in pop culture, but I want to point to one unlikely area of it: the Reality Show. I have in mind principally two shows: Shark Tank and The Profit. Both appear, somewhat implausibly, on CNBC, a channel not normally associated with sympathy for capitalism (one of its other shows is called American Greed). But these two shows display a genuine understanding and appreciation of free markets and entrepreneurship. Shark Tank in particular is a continuing celebration of the American dream; the term itself is used over and over again in the show, as one contestant after another is offered as a prime example of achieving the American dream.

Here is how the show operates: a panel of “sharks”—highly successful businessmen and businesswomen in a variety of industries—review and scrutinize business plans from budding entrepreneurs. These would-be business operators offer a percentage of their company’s equity in return for a specified amount of investment cash—say, $100,00 for 10% of their company. The sharks interrogate the contestants about their business plans, and make shrewd counteroffers, often bidding against each other. The contestants are seeking money to fund their enterprises, but also mentorship, expertise, advice, and connections from the already successful (and well-heeled) sharks. The show is, of course, somewhat contrived; the editing imparts greater drama to each episode. But basically Shark Tank is surprisingly realistic in financial matters. There is a reason the established business people are called “sharks.” They are not Good Samaritans; they are out to make money for themselves, and many of the deals made on the show have proven to be surprisingly profitable (Scrub Daddy, anyone?). Shark Tank repeatedly shows what most Americans have a hard time understanding: in a business deal, both sides profit. But despite the emphasis on the bottom line, the show can become warm-hearted and repeatedly dramatizes how the sharks have transformed the lives of the would-be entrepreneurs for the better, and allowed them to live out the American dream. Even the self-proclaimed curmudgeon among the sharks, Kevin O’Leary, has been known to shed a tear at what amounts to a financial sob story from a contestant (although he’s also famous for saying “you’re dead to me” to people who overvalue their businesses).

The Profit teaches similar lessons, although it has a different format. Marcus Lemonis, another very successful businessman, comes in to aid struggling businesses with his expertise and a substantial cash infusion. In the process, Marcus often has to straighten out family problems and other emotional roadblocks that hinder a company’s successful operations. Marcus typically takes the business people from near failure to success and thereby opens up the American dream for them. Again the show is carefully edited to emphasize the dramatic nature of the often tense negotiations and interactions between Marcus and the business people who seek his help. But the companies are real, and we can learn a great deal about how business operates in the real world from watching this show—about financing, marketing, franchising, manufacturing, and other key aspects of making money. If nothing else, Marcus is a master at teaching the wisdom of liquidating slow-moving merchandise—even at rock bottom prices—to restore positive cash flow to a floundering business.

Shark Tank is similarly educational, and in particular teaches a lot about how to value a company properly. Many of the lessons are, broadly speaking, “Austrian” in nature. Both shows emphasize the subjectivity of value and reveal how arriving at prices involves a discovery process. Above all, both shows share with Austrian economics an understanding of the central importance of entrepreneurial activity in economics. Like Austrian economics, both shows do not view economics from an abstract, theoretical perspective, but look at how real entrepreneurs operate in the real world. And both shows are tributes to the reality of the American dream.

Author:

Contact Paul A. Cantor

Paul A. Cantor is Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American film and TV. He is the co-editor, with Stephen Cox, of Literature and the Economics of Liberty. See his interview in the Austrian Economics Newsletter.

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