When Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, he saw the people of Israel dancing and worshipping the golden calf. “Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.” (Exodus 32:9) During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24)
And yet in the land of the free we have created the “Land of the Dollar,” and we worship Mammon and build temples to the Golden Calf.
In the 1950s, a long list of artistic luminaries (especially Hollywood actors, screenwriters and directors) were investigated for Communist ties by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Some (Ronald Reagan, José Ferrer) pledged their allegiance to the anti-Communist cause; others (Elia Kazan, Jerome Robbins) named names of colleagues, acquaintances and even family members; still others did not acknowledge the legitimacy of the committee (the Hollywood 10, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Paul Robeson) and were either jailed or blacklisted. Bertolt Brecht, who fled Hitler’s Germany as a Communist and spent the war years in California, was subpoenaed by HUAC and left the following observation about the hearings:
The State does not put in an appearance but the execution does take place. One could call it Cold Execution—a certain form of peace is called Cold War there. This Cold Execution is carried out by the industry: the delinquent is not deprived of his life, only of the means of life. He does not appear in the obituary column, only on the blacklists. Whoever has witnessed the horrors of poverty and humiliation which, in the land of the dollar, fall upon the man without a dollar, will not prefer the punishment of unemployment to any punishment that the State could inflict.[i]
In his book Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis chronicles his experiences while working at an entry level job for Salomon Brothers. He marvels at the ability of Wall Street bankers to mask their own “self interest in the guise of high principle”:
If there is one thing I learned on Wall Street, it’s that when an investment banker starts talking about principles, he is usually also defending his interests and that he rarely stakes out the moral high ground unless he believes there is gold under his campsite.[ii]
In his detective novels Raymond Chandler (Dashiell Hammett is the Mozart of American detective novels; Chandler is the Beethoven) created a world in which the detective tries to maintain his moral integrity in the face of a corrupt social system and a decaying metropolis. In one of his best short stories (“Trouble Is My Business”), a father laments the death of his adopted son, which he himself has unwittingly caused with his miserly ways:
“My God!” he whispered. “My God!”
To which Philip Marlowe replies:
“You don’t have one—except money.”
These are words we should apply to ourselves, before an avatar descends upon us and like Moses, commands the children of Levi to slay all those not “on the Lord’s side.” (Exodus: 32:26-27)
[i] Bertolt Brecht, “We Nineteen,” in Eric Bentley, ed., Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938-1968 (New York: The Viking Press, 1971), 224.
[ii] Michael Lewis, Liar’s Poker (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989), 280-281.