Freedom and Equality

FROM More Matter by John Updike

Freedom and Equality

On another occasion, in Russia, I was told by a Russian that you could always tell an American by the way he walked down the street. When I asked how, he tried to demonstrate a kind of gunfighter’s swagger and said, “‘Tough guy.” Tough guy! Is this where our cherished, hard-won equality has brought us, to toughness as well as to an easy affability and can-do resourcefulness? Looking at the violence of our film entertainments and of our popular music, and at our murder statistics and international image as a bully nation, and at the brutality that rages through our literary classics as well as trash thrillers, we must conclude that toughness is part of the equality package. Class-prone societies create a specialized warrior class to do their enforcing , and a romanticized criminal class; here in our Wild West only the color of the hats distinguishes the lawbreakers from the law enforcers. We are all gunfighters, and not even a Quaker woman, as played by Grace Kelly in the movie High Noon, can remam above the fray.

America promises equal opportunity; the opportunity, relatively unhobbled by feudal or socialist restraints, to get ahead. But to get ahead means to leave someone else behind. The ideal is of a level playing field, but in the game there must be winner and losers. Former President Reagan, in a startlmgly heartfelt answer to a reporter’s question, once said he wanted this always to be a country in which a person can get rich. Not, perhaps, a response that liberals can love, but a vivid and honest egalitarian one, expressing the hope that has brought millions here, and that motivates millions still. Not to serve a king, but to become, in Huey Longs phrase, every man a king. The American conditions of equality and freedom are supposed to liberate the productivity and creativity of each citizen. The incentive is personal gain, usually conceived in material and sensual terms. We are driven, that is, by the inequalities constantly held before us, by a celebrity-worshlpping, comfort-cherishing culture, by luxury-toutmg advertisements, by the fanatically engineered expensiveness of American life. Being born equal is a precondition of striving for more; contentment with one’s lot is not on the list of American virtures. Ambitiousness is. Greed almost is, or was a decade ago. Equal in our rights, we are free to strive to beat out the other fellow. This is the torque, the twist, the paradox, the stress that makes the explosive democratic engine go.

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Published in: on December 21, 2009 at 8:59 AM  Leave a Comment  
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