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Decadence and Decency

[NOTE: Please read the two articles to which this article links. They are a vivid contrast between the hippie attitude, that the world is just not fair, and the individualist attitude, that life is what you make it.]

For some independent thinking individuals there is a kind of perverse fascination with the decadent, the criminal, and even the insane. That fascination is easy to understand; such people are, in their own way, exceptional and interesting, just because they are not commonplace.

The independent individualist is himself a kind of misfit. As Ayn Rand describes him, he is the one that does not go along, the one who thinks and travels in directions opposite to the rest of society.

There is, however, a profound and important difference between the exceptionalism of the decadent and that of the independent individualist. The exceptionalism of the decadent is the result of psychological flaws, a weakness of character, or a profound mistake in reasoning. The exceptionalism of the independent individualist is the manifestation of a fully integrated psychology, strength of character and ruthlessly sound reasoning. This article is about the inability to distinguish between these two kinds of exceptionalism.


I did not know the man, and I do not mean to denigrate anyone I do not know personally. In fact, all I know about Joe Bageant is what Fred Reed has written about him, and what I have to say is only about that.

Joe was a friend of Fred's and recently passed away. Fred's article, "Bageant Moves On," is a tribute to his friend. Now Joe Bageant may have been a fine man, but that is certainly not what Fred's description portrays. For example, Fred writes:

"Joe described himself as a redneck socialist, and was. He was profoundly concerned with the fate of the people he wrote about, those who worked hard all their lives and ended up with nothing. Funny: I've never met a socialist who didn't care about others, or a capitalist who did. The truth is that a great many decent people are on the wrong side of the intelligence curve, don't come from families that send their young to university,and can't protect themselves from the corporate lawyers and bought legislatures."

I cannot decide if this is very funny or very sad: "I've never met a socialist who didn't care about others, or a capitalist who did."

I'm not a capitalist, just an independent individualist and I don't care about others at all, I mean "others" as some amorphous unidentifiable anything that looks like a human being. There are some other individuals I know personally I very much care about, because they are worth caring about. Those "others" that Joe Bageant, and I suppose Fred too, "care about," he describes as those, "who worked hard all their lives and ended up with nothing." What were they supposed to end up with? Who was supposed to supply it?

Not everyone I care about is a personal acquaintance. I don't know Cory Miller personally, but I know what kind of man he is, I know what he's worth. I care about men like Cory Miller. I think Fred would call him a, "capitalist," because he's "the guy who has spent 25 years toiling and sweating, fretting and fighting, stressing and risking, to build a business and get ahead." A "guy who has been on the very edge of bankruptcy more than a dozen times over the last 25 years ...." His "combined businesses employ 32 full time employees, and distribute $5,000,000.00 annually through the local economy."

Fred describes those, "who worked hard all their lives and ended up with nothing," as those he cares about. The truth is, they did not work hard. Cory Miller worked hard. Just showing up for a job every day is NOT working hard. And most of them did not even do that but were like those Cory tried to help, as he said:

"You see, I know because I've had them work for me before. Hundreds of them over these 25 years. People who simply will not show up to work on time. People who just will not work 5 days in a week, much less, 6 days. People always looking for a way to put less effort out. People who actually tell me that they would do more if I just would first pay them more. People who take off work to sit in government offices to apply to get free government handouts."

I could not explain everything that is wrong with what Fred wrote better than Cory did. "America was made great by people who embraced the one-time American culture of self reliance, self motivation, self determination, self discipline, personal betterment, hard work, risk taking. A culture built around the concept that success was in reach of every able bodied American who would strive for it. Each year that less Americans embrace that culture, we all descend together. We descend down the socialist path that has brought country after country ultimately to bitter and unremarkable states."

That, apparently, is exactly what Fred would like. He keeps saying things about whatever happened to the America he knew as a boy. Cory explained what made America what it was, but Fred has embraced the very opposite principles.

Fred says that all Joe wanted was, "books, a guitar, friends, internet, wine, and occasional substances not approved of by DEA." The self-reliant, self-motivated, self-determined, and self-disciplined are not drunks. Those who seek personal betterment by hard work and risk taking are not druggies. Now I believe that everyone owns their own life and is (or ought to be) free to live it as they choose, but that does not mean free to evade the consequences of their choices. It does not mean one can coast through life, just working at some "jobs" someone else provides, wasting their life on every pleasure of the moment, making no serious effort to improve themselves in every way they possibly can, making no plans for their own lives and futures, having no purpose for living beyond a few shallow experiences and expect to have anything at the end of their life.

Cory Miller, by the way did not go to a "University." I see no reason to suppose he has any special intelligence or abilities beyond character and hard work. I'll take one Cory Miller to any thousand Joe Bageants, or those he cares for, even though I would probably not be able to spend the afternoon drinking and "talking about art, music, the news, politics, and people," with him. One can have those kinds of "conversations" in any frat house or bar in America. If you want to talk about ideas and principles you'll need to find a Cory Miller who knows what they're for and how to make them work.

—(04/28/12)