Seller’s Market

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Can You Spot a Sellout?
We’ve all got our price, right? So test your integrity quotient against some of the most notable sellouts of recent years. Your response to their actions says more than you think.

It used to be said that America’s young lacked a ritual to mark the start of their adult lives. They ought to be sent on vision quests or flogged with holy reeds, we declared–some gesture to symbolize that childhood was over. But thanks to the triumph of the market and all its values in recent years, this problem has been solved. Americans now have a new rite of passage: selling out.

For centuries after Judas took his silver pieces for betraying the better man, then hanged himself in shame, selling out was viewed as evil. People did it all the time, of course, but extolled a higher ideal–and were quick to vilify anyone else who fell short. With the economy on a mad run these days and most Americans feeling flush, attitudes have changed. The rewards are now so high it’s often seen as foolish, even pathological, to resist. Dreaded no more, selling out has become the ultimate career goal, the universally desired destiny.

Or so it is packaged. Everywhere you look there’s a story about the talented young, their minds and bodies honed by perfect diets and top-notch schools, eager to trade their assets to the highest bidder. If by chance you possess a gift that someone wants to buy–a head for figures, perhaps, or just your figure, period–the message is clear. By all means, child, sell!

The sale itself can be a spectacular thing, as in the case of spies and traitors. More often it’s an insidious process that can leave us numb to the moral horrors we commit as calmly as we brush our teeth. By far the most common form of selling out is the quiet betrayal of our selves, the squelching of the inner voice that tells you what you want from life, along with what you will (and won’t) do to get it. To betray yourself is to be nagged by the fear that the life you’re living may actually be someone else’s.

Which leads to the central paradox. Never before has there been such opportunity to seek one’s true self–to ‘follow your bliss’ as the mythologist Joseph Campbell famously put it. And yet never have so many been so reluctant to live by their own scripts. Today’s tremendous wealth should be funding a time of great creativity and free expression, but that has yet to happen. Instead, this may be one of the great conformist eras, perhaps even more so than the 1950s. That decade had its lonely prophets warning about hollow ‘organization men’ and advertising’s ‘hidden persuaders.’ We have our prophets too; but their dire warnings, so often heard, are now ignored. And these days, the persuaders don’t hide; they’re cultural heroes. The only thing left invisible to us is our conformity itself.

From Herman Melville’s Billy Budd to the brutal novels of urban initiation written more recently by Richard Price, the process by which a man’s ideals were drained or beaten out of him has been one of the culture’s enduring literary themes. If there’s a curious modern twist to the story, it’s the growing role of women in it. Tutored from birth about the trap posed by what Betty Friedan labeled the ‘feminine mystique,’ many young female entrepreneurs are learning how wildly it sells. Take Genevieve Field, co-founder of Nerve.com, a Web site for connoisseurs of ‘literate smut.’ Or American soccer star Brandi Chastain, who bared her sports bra in the Rose Bowl and soon was endorsing it for Nike–a gesture that revealed not her own body, which is hers to flaunt, but rather another layer of branding worn like a second skin.

Sellouts? Your call. But given the culture’s tolerance for cashing in, even our celebration of it, what happens when the consequences are really serious? Last summer, for instance, Michael Phillips, a scientist heading an important study on the safety of genetically engineered crops, suddenly switched sides, taking a job with a biotech trade group–and shocking the study’s sponsor, the National Academy of Sciences. Despite the obvious ethical breach, the Academy insisted that the study results, due this fall, would be objective. But to take them at their word wouldn’t be very scientific, would it?

As for those who do show integrity, they’re more apt to lose a job than walk away with a better one. Dr. Jerome P. Kassirer, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, resigned his job earlier this year after resisting plans by the Massachusetts Medical Society to build a publishing empire around their famous publication’s good name. Other medical journal editors have also been driven out, as huge revenues from drug company ads during the 1990s have led to expanded marketing efforts–and less editorial freedom.

Oddly enough, these people are the victims of good times, not bad. Once again, the true nature of our mania reveals itself. The real price of our current wealth may lie in how hard it has become to see beyond it. It’s worth noting that Joseph Campbell really began to follow his own bliss when the Great Depression hit in 1929. He spent five years reading and writing, living close to the bone–liberated from larger social expectations by economic collapse.

Artists are often praised for having the inner resources to stay true to themselves. But this idealization is problematic. Since ancient times, many (not all) artists have been cozy with power, often using their gifts to disguise and embroider its abuses. As early as 3,000 years ago, the Egyptian tomb painters were trading their talents for fish from the Nile and beer, and life was pretty good. For most artists throughout time, that’s probably been the norm, more so than the solitary heroism of a Solzhenitsyn. In other words, artists are a lot like everyone else.

Where then lies the modern path to an authentic life? The quickest, steepest route is still flat-out renunciation. St. Francis of Assisi pulled it off with flair, ripping off his fancy clothes one day and trading them for a beggar’s rags. John Chapman, alias Johnny Appleseed, gave the mendicant’s way a peculiarly American spin, wandering the frontier sowing orchards. But for all but a few, dropping out may be more dangerous in spiritual and psychological terms than mindfully wading in. Consider the bitterness that so often grips those who choose to remain pure, compared to the relative happiness of those who take a (slightly) lower road.

It may be that there isn’t much clean money in the world, and few inherently noble callings–only noble people. There’s no shame in staying in the game, if you do your subversive best to humanize it. Almost everyone has to live with a certain amount of selling out, given the basic proposition of civilization–that we trade our minds and bodies for what amounts to fish and beer.

A freelance writer for many years, senior editor Jeremiah Creedon has cut his share of deals with the devil. And having once taken $50 from National Enquirer to verify reports of the world’s smartest dog, he now admits it probably wasn’t.

Copyright 1999 by Jeremiah Creedon.

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