‘You make your own reality’: How Puritan thought cleared the way for the Roy family
The American love affair with money and power portrayed on ‘Succession’ has roots in ideology of those who landed in New England so long ago
‘To Banbury came, O profane one! Where I saw a Puritan — one. Hanging of his cat on Monday. For killing of a mouse on Sunday.’ 1845 lithograph of ‘The Puritan.’ E.B. & E.C. Kellogg. D. Needham, Buffalo.(Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.11265)
Great drama often reflects real life, and lately my TV screen has been full of stories that remind me of what we see on the news. In particular, “Succession,” which I loved and followed over four seasons, evoked the Trump family, the Murdochs, Elon Musk and others. If you did not watch, the featured Roy family owns a large media and entertainment conglomerate encompassing television networks and movie studios, theme parks and cruise lines. The obscenely wealthy family at the center, four siblings and their aging, unnatural patriarch, fight over crumbs of love, promises of power, and attention.
And man, these people are immoral, damaged, unpleasant, and just plain clueless. But because they are rich and therefore powerful, they all of them are pretty sure, all of them, that they are generally the smartest person in the room, and certainly better than the rest of us. “No real person involved” is claimed as justification for covering up an accident with the oldest son resulting in the death of a waiter. More than a few people around them are willing to go along with this ugly ethos, to everyone’s sadness in the end.
It all rings too true, and I have to ask myself, how did we get here? How is it that so many of us are willing to allow the very rich to behave so very badly without holding them accountable? How can Donald Trump announce that “if you are famous, they let you do it,” about sexual assault no less, and many of us simply acknowledge that it is both reprehensible, and at least partly correct. This attitude is not natural, not inevitable, and not particularly helpful to a well-run and equitable society. The Roys, in the almost-too-real fiction of “Succession,” do tremendous harm to themselves, other people, and the country.
I blame the Puritans. Seriously.
Pilgrims and Puritans first came to the Americas seeking religious freedom for themselves and their practice, after having been persecuted at home in England. While there are differences between the two groups, they became one population in New England, with Puritan ideology dominating. Puritan thought has been a strong influence on the American character.
We have this unexamined bias that money is, in essence, close to God.
The Puritans believed that God awarded wealth and power to those who were chosen as a spiritual elite. They associated wealth with goodness and authority, and authority with a shared religious belief – their own. At the same time, Roger Williams articulated a very different idea about power and faith, and got banished for his trouble. Although his vision – enacted first here in Rhode Island — became an inspiration to the American Constitution over a century later, some things from the Puritans persist.
There is no doubt the idea that wealth is associated with good qualities – moral fiber, intelligence, and natural authority – has become so ingrained in our culture that it is an almost invisible influence on our thinking. We have this unexamined bias that money is, in essence, close to God. We express this every time we celebrate those who achieve great wealth, even when they are horrible people. In Donald Trump’s case, some of his followers are explicitly placing him at God’s right hand, which would be inexplicable, except when you think about the Puritans.
The flip side to all this, which I believe animates the punitive approach we tend to take towards those who are in the state of being poor, is that only the less worthy end up that way. Even when so much evidence suggests that these things are not at all tied together.
It seems that we know it is not true, but we still cannot shake it.
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