On a steamy hot day over half a century ago Martin Luther King stood on the capital steps and started his most famous speech with these words, “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” The American dream – that wonderful hope that any American, if he works hard, imagines well, and operates on the basis of integrity can become what he wants to become.
At least that was the idea 51 years ago. I’m not so sure it is today. Getting something for nothing seems to have supplanted that once noble idea. Whether folks are expecting government to provide their well being or are wasting their money buying lottery tickets, the idea is the same.
For decades the curriculum for my English classes involved the reading of Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winning Death of a Salesman. It was always painful, living through this play year after year; I was too much Biff, my father too much Willy. Death of a Salesman opened old wounds.
But every year I’d bind up those wounds and haul out the scripts because buried in the bowels of this play – roiling under the surface of even what Miller thought he was saying – lies a powerful idea, an idea that may well destroy this great nation, an idea young people needed to be able to spot when they saw it, an insidious, seductive idea.
Willy Loman (though Miller denies it) bears a useful name – he is indeed low on any totem pole you could find. He works at a job he’s not any good at. He lies about his lack of success to his wife Linda who knows he’s lying and doesn’t seem to mind. His one role model in life is another salesman, Dave Singleman (also a fitting name) who, as far as Willy can tell, is able to earn his living just by going to a town, sitting down in his hotel room in his green velvet slippers, and calling his customers on the phone. That is Willy’s American dream. He is so deluded that he actually thinks it a noble objective.
Willy Loman is a man with talent – he can build anything, a new front stoop, a new ceiling. He’s proud of that, but it doesn’t affect his deluded desire to follow in Singleman’s slippered footsteps.
Willy has two sons: Biff is the Willy with the hammer in his hand; Happy is the delusional Willy who conducts his life the way his father has his – pretending to be something he’s not, wearing the family motto, “Money for nothin’ and the chicks for free,” if I can borrow Mark Knophler’s lyrics.
As the title of the play informs us, there is no happy ending for the Lomans, which is worrisome because the Lomans are America. I don’t think they were when Miller wrote the play (just four years after the end of WWII), but they are now. We are a nation divided – the Biff contingent, a little rough around the edges, not always reaching our greatest potential, but willing to work hard at simple and beneficial work, able to see our own faults and admit them, wanting nothing that we haven’t earned, even if what we’ve earned isn’t all that much. Think Duck Dynasty.
The other half of the nation is “Happy,” living a fantasy life of lying and cheating and debt, taking advantage of women, confusing charm for substance, demanding that everyone else maintain his illusions. Think New York Times.
The Happy’s of this land imagine a world where they can live without the constrictions of morality, where they can expect others to take up their slack, where the obvious must be ignored. They think they can play golf when they should be working. They believe, in spite of overwhelming evidence, that man is essentially good, that God is simultaneously evil and non-existent, that Islam is a religion of peace, that spending money you don’t have is beneficial to one and all.
Allow me to illustrate -- in just this last week
- The House passed a 1.7 trillion dollar omnibus spending bill, never mind that they didn’t read the 1,500 page bill, never mind that we don’t have the money.
- Our president declared that unemployment payments stimulate the economy, evidently unaware that the money to pay the unemployed must be garnered from those few who still have jobs.
- The DOJ issued rules against religious profiling (i.e. Muslims) in spite of the fact that over 90% of terrorist attacks are perpetrated by Islamic extremists.
- Elitist movie critics shat all over Lone Survivor – all that war and heroism being way beneath them and disturbing to their fragile ideas about peace and love.
- Our president declared that he will just enact legislation with his pen, Congress and Constitution be damned. Who does this man think he is?
Death of a Salesman paints such a clear contrast between those who are honest with themselves about the nature of reality and those who plug their ears and yell, “La, la, la, la” ( or “racist, racist, racist”) as loud as they can to block any threads of truth that might slip through. The dichotomy is actual vs. virtual, production vs. destruction, fact vs. wishful thinking (using the term thinking loosely).
Personally I prefer actual, factual production. No economy can prosper without producing something, without making some physical, actual thing, both useful and beneficial, out of the intelligence of its people and the gifts the earth provides. Take iron ore out of the earth and by applying knowledge and skill -- metallurgy, engineering, and organization to produce an automobile. Take wool from sheep – they need someone to relieve them of their over-production – and make clothing. Take falling water and make electricity, which gives light by which to read the books that we make out of wood pulp, ink and imagination. Yes, there are services that need to be rendered and middlemen who must be paid, but their jobs would be meaningless if no one made anything. We’d all starve, for one thing. And go naked, which is a whole lot of bad. Production, actual and physical, must happen. We must earn our living by the sweat of our brow – not by sitting at some government desk, or cashing a welfare check.
Neither Willy nor Happy produced much. They were salesmen of unnecessary products. Willy sold (or pretended to sell) women’s silk stockings. He wasn’t even good enough at it to provide such luxuries for his wife. I see America going the same direction. Our factories are closing; our oil refineries are aging; we aren’t allowed to drill on public lands. This is very noticeable in the Pacific Northwest where we can no longer cut logs – I miss the smell of wood chips and sight of the giant log trucks rumbling through town. Now we just sit in this pretty valley and sell things to each other (And the owls are still dying.).
Biff, on the other hand, after much struggle and some time in jail, finally understood. “We never once told the truth in this house!” he screams in the last act. He had finally found some self-respect, freedom, and peace working as a ranch hand out in the West. He had come to understand that you cannot dream your way to happiness; you have to actually do something, make something, help someone.
Ninety-two million able-bodied Americans are no longer in the labor force – almost a third of the total population. They are not producing anything, not adding to the wealth of the nation, but are, instead, taking from it. No amount of welfare can fix that even though it’s money for nothin’ and the chick’s birth control is free.
In fact nothing the government can do now will fix this split in our country. Our president is Willy Loman – willing to lie to our faces even when he knows we know he’s lying. And most of our congressmen are also willing to let him lie. The American people, one at a time are going to have to come to grips with the fact that there are no green velvet slippers and that lying to Linda will not make it so.