From The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/27/opinion/sunday/nasty-like-us.html
By EDWARD TENNER
Published: May 26, 2012
EDITORS and pundits seem to agree that the 2012 presidential election will be one of the hardest fought in memory. Even the international press has jumped in; an Economist cover predicts “Hardball,” and in April The Guardian called the campaign “ruthless in its backstabbing,” warning, “you have seen nothing yet.”
What should be explained instead is how civil our recent contests have been, for as a society America has always been attracted to ruthlessness. It might be defined not just as hard competition but as the deployment of unfair, unethical and distasteful (if often technically legal) methods. American culture blended a Protestant sense of mission and virtue with a pragmatism that could countenance slavery and Indian removal.
America hardly invented ruthlessness — think of that all-American hero, Napoleon Bonaparte — but it extended it to the common people. Moralists from Benjamin Franklin to Horatio Alger and beyond might celebrate character as the path to success, but the man in the street knew differently. Adventurers like the notorious filibusterer William Walker became folk heroes. After a New Orleans jury acquitted Walker of violating the Neutrality Act of 1818, he began a fund-raising tour for a new adventure. The early 20th century rags-to-riches baseball star Ty Cobb “came in hard and with spikes high,” as his biographer Charles C. Alexander put it, and kept alive the false rumor that he sharpened them.
Secession sought to protect not just the plantation owners’ way of life but also the aspirations of Southern yeomen to slaveowning wealth, following the career of the populist military hero and president Andrew Jackson. And after the war, the robber barons were as much admired as condemned for their tactics. As the muckraking historian Matthew Josephson wrote during the Depression in his book “The Robber Barons,” objections to the ethics of post-Civil War entrepreneurs like Jim Fisk and Jay Gould were countered by the observation that they were “smart men.”
Americans had mixed feelings about their 20th-century technological and financial heroes, too. Thomas A. Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company hired thugs to enforce his patent claims; independent filmmakers moved to Hollywood partly to avoid them. Steve Jobs paid little attention to conditions in his Chinese contractors’ factories. After his death protests grew too large for Apple to ignore; but even then, not only was “bad Steve” praised, but many of the demonstrators in the early Occupy Wall Street movement still revered him.
Attacks on the ruthless may actually increase their allure. In the 1930s, The New Yorker reported that a young man applying for a brokerage job declared that he had read “The Robber Barons” and wanted to become one of them. Fifty years later, the Oliver Stone film “Wall Street,” intended as an exposé of greed, inspired a generation of fans of the fictional Gordon Gekko, as portrayed by Michael Douglas. Perhaps it was this dark glamour that helped persuade President Bill Clinton, supported by his deputy attorney general (and current attorney general), Eric H. Holder Jr., to pardon a refugee from justice, Marc Rich.
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