American Values

Natalie Herzig

     In this economy, it’s a struggle to imagine any money, but humor me, and picture a dollar bill. Imagine our good friend, George Washington—his stolid expression and unresponsive eyes giving no allusion to the great American values he represents. Life, liberty…and the pursuit of money?  What would George say if he heard that? The fact is, in a civilized world, money is a necessity, but do Americans value their money too much? How did it become a virtue to be wealthy?

     The American ardor for money is not a new addition to our mindsets. Long ago, the American Dream promised that a man in America has the opportunity to start with nothing and become a rich and therefore successful person. Whether that be VIA goldmines, cattle ranching, railroads, oil- America had it all! And thusly immigrants flocked in from all over the world to “cash in.” In the 1890s, banker J.P. Morgan single handedly bailed the US out of detrimental debt. With events like this, Americans quickly realized that money is power. With the belief that great wealth is plausible, is it easy to see why Americans began to believe that those who could not obtain it weren’t as capable as those who could. In the classic psychology experiment, Pavlov trained his dogs to salivate at the tone of a bell, for they had been programmed to connect the sound to the coming of food. It just may be that Americans have falsely connected the “ka-ching!” of a cash register to our perception of success.

     In the news and media today the biggest stories are ones that tell of the latest gossip or drama in our favorite celebrities lives—and you can bet any magazine or newspaper that aims to sell copies will make these their front page stories. When the most prevalent people in news are the rich and famous, we begin to think that rich people are more important.  Sorry doctors, artists, governors, philosophers, and peace corps members, you are all going to have to take a backseat to Britney Spears. In fact, this is the reason Britney can demand twenty bottles of lukewarm water, a bag of only green M&Ms and a heated toilet seat, while the cancer cure researchers can barely get their dirty bathroom made a priority. While Britney contributes to the world in her own special way (sugary pop singles, sensual dances, and bringing the shaved head back in style), it can be argued that the cancer cure researchers have a slightly higher purpose. But in face to face with a cancer researcher we are not in the teary-eyed, sweaty awe that a Britney meeting would bring on. Their dignity does not touch us, nor does their intellect impress us. Here is the difference: money.

     To an American “the visible signs of wealth testify to an inward state of grace.” So naturally, we are compelled to flaunt as many signs of our wealth as possible. Those new designer earrings go great with your Gucci bag! But you might need to get a different color Lexus to match… what a better way to nonverbally shout, “Hey world! Look how well I do!”  In our society, people aren’t considered successful unless they have something physical to personify their success. And we are so distracted by the pursuit of money that we often forget that there are other things in the world for pursuing– like our relationships, families, and passions. These days you might find more artists going to college for accounting than art. Art may not always pay the bills, but aren’t you sacrificing a lot more by not making art? I recently read an article written by a European man which noted that “in America you are honored because of the money you possess,” this was in direct contrast with his culture where wisdom and character make you an honored individual. Imagine a society where people who posess these qualities demand the highest level of respect. Your grandparents and teachers might be the celebrities!

     Those who become rich are few and far between. Because Americans believe they make their own fate in this world, what money represents is an incalculable source of our identity. It is important for everyone (not just Americans) to remember that money has no actual value other than what we attach to it. Hopefully our children won’t live in a world where the Lady Liberty drops her book for a Coach bag,or where our Eagle drops its olive branches for a stack of twenties.