Bear Stearns and The Great American Character Flaw

In the year between college and going to graduate film school I had the interesting experience of working at Bear Stearns in Boston. It was quite the place. High-powered stockbrokers roaming the halls. The companies name encrusted in commanding bronze letters at the entrance. The smell of financial success. I started off in a mammoth room of cold callers and stockbrokers-in-training. It was before the internet really hit. Every seat was the same except for one high-back chair in the center of the room. That was Sal’s chair. The other brokers looked to him as if he were a god. I can remember he had a Superman figure standing atop his desk. This was a guy who new the art of cold calling. He was the epitome of what someone could do in this room – the self made man on the rise. I wonder where he is today, what his life looks like now?

Learning about what happened to Bear Stearns last week felt kind of like having strolled about the decks of the Titanic before its fateful voyage. How could an institution this mighty and this old have gone belly-up over the last weekend? It seems unfathomable.

What, you are probably wondering, does Bear Stearns really have to do with fatherhood? Hang tight, I’ll be getting to it, but there are more dots to connect.

Yesterday, I was reviewing some interview footage of Dr. Michael Kimmel and at one point he was talking about how wrapped up our culture has become over the idea of ‘the self made man.’ It’s a truly American idea of manhood, an idea that transcended the other major male identifications: the artisan worker and the genteel landowner (two notions that originated in Europe and, while flawed in their own ways, both promote more family involvement. See Dr. Kimmel’s book for more on this.) Anyway, Dr. Kimmel argues that this ‘self made man’ notion of masculinity has resulted in men separating themselves from the home, due in no small part that being self-made has no safety net and so men feel the constant fear of losing everything should they falter or hold back from the demands of the marketplace – which in turn makes them always working and feeds absenteeism with the family. Obviously, being ‘self-made’ isn’t a bad thing, but the problem is that when left to its extreme, it easily becomes poisoned by all-consuming anxiety, ego and greed.

So, how does Dr. Kimmel’s idea relate to Bear Stearns, fatherhood and our country in general? Before I get there, here’s one more piece of the puzzle:

This morning I was reading Paul Krugman’s column in the NYTimes. Krugman’s article speaks about how we have forgotten the lessons learned from 1929 – that the extreme practice of deregulation has, in the long term, a terrible price. I would go even further to say that the idea of deregulation is nothing but an expression of the self made man ethos in a larger economic context. Deregulation is the belief that we rise and we fall by what we do in the marketplace, right. It speaks of how it should be up to us and us alone to win and to get as rich as possible; and that, in it’s own pure form (something the current leaders of our country have been pushing so hard) there shouldn’t be any controls on it because an unfettered free market where people can make business as they choose is good; and people, being ethically responsible adults, should be able to police themselves. (It makes some sense except for that silly little notion, known as greed.) So, from my vantage point, deregulation is really a manifestation of the self made man idea pushed to a larger social extreme.

The bottom line for me is that this ‘self made man’ idea of masculinity, which has taken over our capitalist system, which has squeezed out the larger tenets of democracy, is not just poison for fathers or families or individuals but to society as a whole – and now we are starting to pay a serious price for it.

So, RIP Bear Stearns. Sal, I hope you and your fellow mates got onto a lifeboat in time. Maybe a little shake-up is a good thing for our country.

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