Friday, 13 July 2012

Getting Even: The New American Nightmare

“Don’t get mad,” Mary Iacocca counseled Lee as Henry Ford II threw more and more of his dynastic weight around, “get even.” Lee learned this lesson from his late wife well. When Mafiosi contacted him to offer to break the auto tycoon’s bones, he politely refused the offer, adding he’d prefer to break those bones himself.

“It’s not that I believe in turning the other cheek,” Lee explains in his best-selling autobiography, “Henry Ford destroyed a lot of lives. But I got revenge without resorting to violence. Because of my pension, he still pays me a lot of money to go to work every morning to see if I can knock his block off. It must drive him crazy.”

Surprisingly, the reviews of the book almost never comment on the anomaly of the Roman Catholic immigrant’s son taking vengeance on his former boss. Mary’s espousal of American folk wisdom takes precedence over his otherwise pervasive Christian ethic.

And the “getting even” phenomenon is more than an aberration in our executive suites. It is fast becoming a major life style in an America trying to adjust to a two-tier system of rewards and remuneration. The Encyclopedia Britannica recently exposed “a mole” in its computer room—a disgruntled employee who had replaced the word “Allah” for the word “Jesus” in the 1988 edition of the prestigious reference book. Only the most sophisticated electronic countermeasures exposed this “getting even” tactic. “Tampering” indeed.

The tampering scare this is harrowing the boardrooms of every manufacturer and distributer of food and drugs in the United States is explainable only as part of the getting-even syndrome. Disgruntled employees, fuming over slights at work, scheme to bring Goliaths down by threatening to poison, or by actually poisoning, the firm’s customers. The conspirators care not who gets hurt in this form of corporate terrorism: they only want to “get even.”

A related getting-even syndrome is the mass killings that more and more often disfigure the American scene. Take the recent massacre in the Edmond, Oklahoma, post office. All of us feel outrage and frustration at the helplessness of “decent citizens” before the “unexplainable” outbursts of loners that cut down innocent people. But Rose Roney of Philadelphia recently disagreed with a typical outrage editorial in the Philadelphia Daily News (Sept. 8) in a letter that makes sense:

“Your editorial of August 22 is the most senseless, inhuman article I have read in some time. This man had a problem, so every one of his fellow employees said, probably as you did, he is a psycho. So what did they do to help him? He was given no encouragement and no help. His chances for future help were nil.

“It is fine for you—an editor on a newspaper, sure of his salary and evidently sure he’s right about a man he never even saw. Well, I think you’re a cruel, heartless person. How do you know if this man suffered from depression or some other kind of mental illness or even just loneliness? How unkind! As long as unfriendly and unkind people are in the world, there will be people who will go berserk.”

Not exactly, but true enough.

The world has been “unfair” from time immemorial, and the seven capital sins were not invented yesterday. But what gives the getting-even syndrome in America its special savagery is what I call the Expectations Gap. The American Dream is a kind of open-end promissory note assuring one and all that a rainbow awaits them around the next corner. And there have been so many rainbows around so many corners that the Dream retains its semi-official legitimacy. But the psychological burden the Dream exacts on the losers (and we seem to be at a point in our economic development when losers are rising exponentially) is frightening and fraught with anti-social dynamite.

Even more revealing in the Edmond affair is a letter written the same day by a postal employee in Philadelphia, a veteran of 13 years’ service, a former steward in the American Postal Workers Union: “I am surprised,” writes Frank J. Mori Jr., “that the incident that occurred in the Edmond, Oklahoma Post Office hasn’t happened sooner.

“The U.S.P.S. doesn’t understand that an employee’s personal life is a priority, and the job comes second. But postal standards, production comes first and your personal life comes second. As a former shop steward, I have witnessed that if any employee is not liked by management, they give him a history of disciplinary problems. I have seen many employees blackballed by U.S.P.S. managers.

“Management will not tolerate any employee who makes waves, right or wrong.

“It’s a tragedy that 15 postal workers were killed. My heart bleeds for all of them, including Patrick Henry Sherill. Maybe Sherill’s rage will wake up the U.S.P.S.

“It doesn’t have to beef up security, it must start improving working conditions.”

There are those who would pish-posh such humanitarianism. The wages are good, the hours are regular, and in America a worker can always move on to a new job if the going gets really tough. But that is an increasingly dated scenario. Blue collars put up with monumental guff, including racial harassment—black on white in some cases where power has shifted—because there are no well-paid openings elsewhere. But the real pinch in American remains psychological—the gap between what the system grandly promises and what it delivers to most people most of the time. The gap is growing—and at a faster and faster clip.

The final example comes to mind. Shortly after finishing Tim Cahill’s Buried Dreams (1986), about the Chicago building contractor who stuffed over 30 of his homosexual victims under his house (he was really only caught when he ran out of crawl space and started dumping them in a nearby river), I read a review of the book in the Wall Street Journal, the self-styled diary of the American Dream. It contended “the mystery of evil” was the only way of explaining that mini-holocaust. Nonsense.

The killer’s father was a Polish immigrant who took “dumb Polack” abuse at work every day; he came home and retired to the basement workshop where he tinkered and drank himself into daily intoxication. When he surfaced, it was to pass the stupidity charge to his son. Cahill diffidently passed on the psychiatric hypotheses that the crawl space murders were a symbolic acting out of the son’s utter frustration. I buy it. The ethnic counterpunching that defaces our workplaces is a monstrous boil that every so often is lanced by “random” compensatory acts of violence. We’re getting even all right, but as Pogo said, the enemy is us.

From Welcomat, October 14, 1986.

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