Madness in America: Part I

Mar 1, 2018

TAA 0010 – C. Travis Webb and Steven Fullwood discuss the history of denial in America, from Thomas Jefferson to the 2016 election. Should denial be considered a form of collective madness, and has social media made our denial worse?

[music]
C.T. WEBB 00:15 Good afternoon, good morning, or good evening, whenever you happen to be listening, and welcome to The American Age Podcast. Today, I’m speaking with Stephen Fullwood. Stephen, how are you doing today?
S. FULLWOOD 00:24 I’m actually doing pretty good. Thank you for asking.
C.T. WEBB 00:25 All right. Yeah. We were running a little bit late today and I appreciate Stephen’s patience, so. Today’s topic was suggested by Stephen and he had some personal anecdotes around the topic but what prompted it was an article that was in the September 2017 issue of Harper’s [it was The Atlantic], called “How America Lost Its Mind,” written by Kurt Andersen. So Stephen, do you want to lead us into that and why this is something you wanted to talk about today?
S. FULLWOOD 01:01 So I was casting about, looking for ideas for the podcast for this week and I realized that I had, in the stretch of a week, had been talking with friends who have been dealing with aging parents and illness with their parents and the effect it’s been having on their personality or their work, their livelihood. And also realized that I’ve been talking with friends who were either depressed or had suicidal ideation going on and they were just really exhausted at work or with relationships and so forth. And something about that article– I’ve been returning to this article for a moment now, thinking about what constitutes mental health in the US, specifically in the US. I know that’s a really large topic but I guess connecting what’s happening now in my life and the article with my own personal moments in the last two years, I wanted to kind of discuss with you and ask you to sort of weigh in on how you see the health of the nation connected to the individual and how– not looking for solutions but just looking for your own ways in which you think about mental health. And so my mental health issues, I’ve been in and out of therapy for about a good seven or eight years. Right now, I’m not in therapy. And in 2016, after a long illness, my brother passed away. It was very, very devastating, very painful. And two months after–
C.T. WEBB 02:32 Older or younger brother?
S. FULLWOOD 02:33 My younger brother. So at the time, he was 48. He was going to be 48 because he was born on Christmas and we’re two years apart. So I had just turned 50 in January. He passed in May. And he had both a heart issue and he also had issues with neurological issues. He was having strokes all the time starting at about 2011. And so–
C.T. WEBB 02:58 Was his death unexpected or was it a long struggle with illness or–?
S. FULLWOOD 03:03 It was a long struggle with illness. Up and down but then, after a while, his health deteriorated and it looked as if he was going to pass. But there were always those moments of, “He may get better,” or those moments, “He’s getting worse. You need to come to Toledo.” I’m living in New York City now. So I miss him and I love him. And two months after that, my grandmother passed away, my paternal grandmother. And so, 2016–
C.T. WEBB 03:28 Were you close with her?
S. FULLWOOD 03:30 I was close with her. Yeah. I didn’t grow up with her. I became close to her as an adult. And she was having issues with her memory. And so I don’t believe she was diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s but she could remember now–
C.T. WEBB 03:44 But some kind of dementia?
S. FULLWOOD 03:46 Yeah. No, excuse me, she could remember then but now was an issue.
C.T. WEBB 03:50 I understand. Yeah.
S. FULLWOOD 03:51 And so I don’t know. It was a combination of both the individual loss and then I just think people– the soundtrack to my childhood was eroding around the same time, so there was Natalie Cole, Maurice White of Earth, Wind, and Fire, Prince, David Bowie. It’s funny when people talk about, “Well, a celebrity is not your brother or your grandmother,” but it’s what they provided for you in terms of music or filmic sort of background to when you were growing up. So obviously, there are–
C.T. WEBB 04:26 Well, we just don’t live in one world, right. So we live in our familial world and then we live in a cultural world and we have these markers and people that we identify with that are potent and powerful and help shape who we are.
S. FULLWOOD 04:42 No, you put it really well. Absolutely. And it felt like– 2016, and then at the end of it, Donald Trump is elected [laughter]. So I felt exhausted. I felt exhausted and disappointed. And as I mentioned to you in the letter, the email I sent you, is that I think depression and being upset is a natural response to things that depress you or make you sad. And so you balance– from my perspective, my thing is just try to stay present, to work out, to journal, and to try to get these feelings out to be with friends and not to isolate myself, but to really kind of express those feelings. And so last year – and I’ll kind of wrap it up and bring it back to the article – in May of 2017, I left a job that I had been at for 19 years. And I was mourning now my brother, my grandmother, and a job that I had for 19 years. And it was something that I wanted to do so I could invest more time in my art forms. But thinking about how the Trump train was going around that time, it was, one, “Oh, my God, what the fuck did he do now?” You didn’t want to read your Twitter, you didn’t want to read the news because he was always doing something. So I never felt like I was getting any kind of grounding. And then sort of the latter part of 2017, I started to get back in my body and more healthy and more thoughtful, but it was still a struggle for some time. And I read the article that I sent you and I thought that this idea– and it was connecting mental health, mental illness, but also this loss of security that is sort of spread out sort of throughout the article, this notion of there being this objective truth and that– because as Americans, we can choose our own truth but we’ve gotten out of hand with it. And I felt like, “No, I think that’s not really it but I think it’s provocative enough to sort of discuss.” So I brought it to you to sort of talk to you about that.
C.T. WEBB 06:56 So which did you– just to clarify, which did you think that wasn’t really it? What part of his argument did you not fully identify with?
S. FULLWOOD 07:06 So it’s actually the entire article and I’ll tell you why. What it was for me was that the ’60s, of which I was born into, when you look at American history, it was one of the first times that America sort of had to reckon with its complexity in a way that it didn’t have to before. So you had this long sort of current going on with the civil rights movement, feminism, LGBTQ rights in culture, black power, black arts. And those moments were really critical just to rethink what it meant to be an object versus be subjective. And for me, I thought it brought a more engaging look at American history, culture and so forth, that we were starting to be– not the melting pot but be a little bit more of a complex sort of thing. And we sort of were but it wasn’t always in movies or in music – or more in music than in movies. But just in certain sectors. And so I felt like America, at one point, was on the verge of becoming the thing that it claimed to be. And so his whole article was that we’ve lost our collective minds and it started in the ’60s and the Internet has given us access to all of these fringe groups. And I feel like, “Well, no, not really. No.”
C.T. WEBB 08:25 Yeah. Yeah. I didn’t fully agree with the premise of the article, that somehow, we have just recently lost our minds. I mean there’s so many different ways to take the discussion. Yeah. One of the things that I thought about when I was reading the article, which I just– to me, I would call bullshit on. So there’s a story about Thomas Jefferson, who, in many ways, I think is kind of the apotheosis, the embodiment of what it means to be an American, right. So author of the Declaration of Independence, which I would still defend rhetorically. I mean I don’t think you get a much better articulation of what it means to be a human being. That said, this is the same guy that sold his children, literally sold his children, had a mistress, Sally Hemmings. And this is something historians resisted for years but it turns out, now they have genetic evidence he literally sold his children. And there’s a story in his– I forget which biography of his that I had read but there’s a story in Monticello when he would host these parties. And he had these elevators built into the wall, and you would put an empty tray on the elevator and then the wall would slide closed. And then a few minutes later, you would open it and there would be full drinks on the tray. And this was this magic trick he would impress the guests at Monticello–
S. FULLWOOD 10:09 Like a dumbwaiter?
C.T. WEBB 10:10 Yes, that’s exactly what it was. It was a dumbwaiter, right. And, of course, so what was this dumbwaiter? Well, this dumbwaiter was a bunch of slaves that were breaking their backs to pull a rope, to bring a tray down to the kitchen that no one else got to see, to pour drinks for them, to clean the glasses, to get them back up on the dumbwaiter. That dumbwaiter was the absolute embodiment of American denial around race and the construction of white identity. And so that was fucking crazy then and it’s crazy now. And one of the things that will often happen is– and I’m not saying we haven’t made progress. I would defend the idea that we have made some social progress. But the idea that we didn’t know in the 18th century that owning other human beings, and raping other human beings, and enslaving other human beings was wrong is nuts. They all knew it. I mean they would write about it. This wasn’t a surprise to them. It wasn’t all of a sudden, Martin Luther King went, “By the way, America, it’s really not fair that you have a segregated society.” We were in denial about it and denial is–
S. FULLWOOD 11:29 And continue to be.
C.T. WEBB 11:31 Yes, absolutely. And it’s a mode of operation that America– I don’t want to single us out too much because many, many, many large-scale human organizations function on denial, right. So it’s not like we’re the only ones but I am an American, we live in America, so it is the one that I am most intimately familiar with. But I do think he gets that wrong in the article. We’ve been crazy for a very, very, very long time.
S. FULLWOOD 11:59 Very, very long time. And with that craziness that sort of split– I don’t even know if it’s diametrically opposed– it’s probably a lot more complex, this idea of freedom while you’re holding other people captive. And those captive people had to be modernist because they had to think about what was going– “We need to get over there because, right now, this is untenable.” And I think a lot about the ways in which we say one thing in America but we do other things. And so that this notion of– I’ll be straight up, I felt like it was a white man who was losing, or who was feeling like he was losing, some sort of ground in this equality war. And it’s an equality war. So I listened to him and I read the piece and I was like, “I really like your references. I just feel like you went in to bake a cake but you came out with a pie.” And the article makes, like I said, some pretty interesting points around people kind of experimenting with drugs and thinking about the ’60s, and thinking about other ways of thinking about stuff, this counter-culture that was developing. And I was just like, “Well, I think those things actually made people a lot better or a lot more thoughtful, I guess, because, for the longest time, we didn’t have access to each other the way we have access to each other now. And the Internet is not evil – it’s simply like a tool, it’s like a gun. You don’t have to shoot anyone. It’s your choice. Maybe this is not the best metaphor but the idea of the Internet, for me, means I can go find information. And that’s so important in a society that claims freedom for all, education, which was really never an education to some degree. And that’s another– yeah, go ahead.
C.T. WEBB 13:53 It’s not how a lot of people use the Internet though. I mean at least for kind of reality-based engagement with the world around them.
S. FULLWOOD 14:06 Is that yours? Do you believe that? Or is that something you’ve read or some kind of crunching or sort of a philosophical structure? Because I’ve heard that before and I’ve always wondered.
C.T. WEBB 14:14 Do I believe that?
S. FULLWOOD 14:14 Yeah. That most people don’t use the Internet–
C.T. WEBB 14:17 I didn’t say most. I do think that a significant portion of the population uses it that way because they use any information that way, right. I’m not saying that there’s something particularly bad about the Internet. That’s one of the ways that I didn’t agree with the article. But I do think most people are not very well-equipped. Maybe we haven’t given them the right tools, we haven’t constructed society in a way to make them equipped, but to deal with the arbitrariness with the way we’ve set ourselves up in large-scale societies. So I don’t want to be abstract about it. I want to be very concrete. Let’s go back to Jefferson for a second. One of the things that Jefferson should be credited for is he called it. He said, basically, when you decide to associate as a people, you are authorizing yourselves for maybe three to five generations. Anything after that is an arbitrary authorization of authority and power. It’s built on quicksand, right. There is no sort of– entrenched power structures are that way because of momentum, not virtue, and Jefferson understood that. And many of the founding fathers– and I understand that’s kind of a– founding people understood that, they knew that, right. They were also crazy and, you brought up earlier, “whiteness,” right, and I want to put that in air quotes. What it meant to be white could only be constructed in relation to what it meant to be black, what it meant to be not a white person. You see in these pamphlets that were circulated at that time. Furstenberg, who’s a historian, has written about this. Literally, they talk about what it means to be free in relation to what it meant to be a slave, right. And of course, they were hiding at the time the hundreds of slave rebellions. I mean I think as a reasonable person, you could probably get behind the argument, “No. Okay. You should fight for your own freedom.” But guess what? They were regularly. There were hundreds of slave rebellions.
S. FULLWOOD 16:45 Hundreds of insurrections.
C.T. WEBB 16:47 And none of them wanted to be slaves.
S. FULLWOOD 16:47 Absolutely. Nobody wanted to be enslaved. Absolutely.
C.T. WEBB 16:49 Yes. That’s right. It happened all the damn time. So sure, you’re right, people need to fight for their freedom and they were.
S. FULLWOOD 16:58 No, people were doing it. You’re so right. And history has largely been suppressed. I mean you can hear a little bit about Nate Turner, but there’s a wonderful book by Vincent Harding called There is a River. And he talks about all these different movements and he uses a lot of newspapers and magazines and just laws at the time and court cases where people were constantly fighting for freedom, black people, people who– and then, also, I mean 1860 – what was it? – 1860, the fugitive slave act of 1860 was enacted because so many people were running around that time. There was a rumor of war. 1850, excuse me.
C.T. WEBB 17:43 Yeah. You don’t need a fugitive slave act. That’s right. You don’t need it if no one is escaping. You need those laws because people are not abiding.
S. FULLWOOD 17:54 And we’re establishing this insanity. Or not the insanity but the fact that America may have been always working with– of a poisoned mind or at least a slanted one when we’re talking about freedom here. And so the ’60s, again, for me, I have to reiterate it, it felt like, when I look at the ’60s and I read about this stuff, I read about the sort of mind-altering drugs that people were using. What was it? Not PCP, but LSD and the kinds of things that were going on there.
C.T. WEBB 18:29 Psilocybin, things like that.
S. FULLWOOD 18:30 Right. And rethinking the way– definitely opening their minds to other ways of living. Now, this was also the time though– because I love cults, I love cults, American cults specifically in the 20th century. There were a number of people starting cults and using that– people wanting to find out something different. They were looking for people who had either left the church, or the mosque, or the temple, or never had any established religion in their life, and they were just looking for something to believe in. And a lot of these men who called themselves white were establishing these things, from your Jim Joneses to L. Ron Hubbard– and it’s an amazing sort of point to kind of think about, “Can Americans live up to this idea of freedom? Can they live up to it and what does the freedom cost?” And this is where the author and I start to talk similarly because, if left with freedom, what do you do with it? And when you don’t find it and you go back to mental health, I think a lot about the moment where now people are feeling groundless. They don’t feel like the government is capable of getting anything done. And those people who I would call patriotic, I feel like they’ve got one ear closed, one eye closed, and they’re just pushing ahead with this, “Support the President. He knows what’s going on.” And it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting, it’s painful.
C.T. WEBB 19:55 Yeah. I mean I’m glad you brought it back around to mental health because they are all deeply connected. People need structures, right, human beings need structure. I mean even the most radical existentialists, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, they understood this. I mean you actually need structures within which to flourish as a human being. And so you get this proliferation of communities. You called them cults, basically just small religions, basically people kind of striking out on their own. I mean all those people that came across on all the Ninas, and Pintas, and all that, the Mayflowers and all those ships, they were all going to establish religious community. I mean if you want to use the vernacular, certainly from the perspective of the Brits, would have been cult-like. Cane Ridge, the gathering at Cane Ridge, which has been cited by a few theorists and historians as kind of this start of “American religion,” “American Christianity.” Woodstock being another kind of moment of overflow of enthusiasm and the sort of free associations of people around a transcendent idea. And maybe just by virtue of my background, obviously being a white heteronormative male, it’s probably easier for me to conjure sympathy who are Trump supporters, even though everything that he stands for is anathema and everything, I oppose all of it. Yeah. Very much. And he himself is repugnant [laughter]. But I don’t want to go down that road, so. But from the point of view of a 2016 Trump supporter, they didn’t feel like they were the apex predator in the culture, right. Now, you, as an educated professional may recognize, clearly recognize, the history of not just literal physical oppression but the history of cultural oppression and the literal whitewashing of cultural contributions by blacks and Native Americans, right. Yeah. But if you aren’t an elite, right, if you’re living in a town in South Dakota or in Ohio, you are not consciously– not only are you not consciously participating in that elitism – you are not nurtured by it because it has left you behind. And if you want to– just what does it hear like to the ear, right, for a person in white America to have their language circumscribed in such a way that it’s acceptable to talk about– now, I definitely, for anyone that’s listening, I am bracketing – this is not my point of view, right. I am re-capitulating–
S. FULLWOOD 23:26 Yeah. Sure, it’s not your point of view, Travis. Okay. Just messing with you [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 23:32 I’m re-stating what I would imagine that feels like. And that is the type of racial politics and the rhetorics surrounding it that have been championed by the left, to me – now this is me – I think is a dead end. Not because I am not for equality for every stripe, equality for every way of living, right, but because it is ultimately a mirror of whiteness. If you have allowed the historical terms upon which your identity is constructed to rest upon the history of dominance and the rhetoric of dominance, i.e. vis a vis whiteness, then you are only re-creating and reconstituting the very same power structures that have oppressed you.
S. FULLWOOD 24:40 Oh, absolutely. Here it is, though. So I want to get back to the dispossessed. The dispossessed believe in things that I’ve known all my life, because I see it in the movies, I’ve read it in the books, I’ve heard it in the music, I’ve listened to people when I grew up in Ohio, how whites felt that their President wasn’t supporting them or wasn’t for them. And this is Clinton.
C.T. WEBB 25:11 And we’re talking about– oh, Clinton. Okay. Right. Right. Right.
S. FULLWOOD 25:13 Yeah. We’re talking about Clinton. So this is not even Barrack Obama, no. But these were working-class whites. And I came from a working-class poor background and we’re all working at Pizza Hut. And two or three of us, black and white, we’re in college. So the sort of sympathy I have for people who are not doing any work around understanding their position or their – what do you call it? – their station in life, it grows when I learn and sort of take in this notion of a cult, right, and how people just want to be fed, people just want a nice house to live in, they want something to believe in– as Maria Bamford said in one of her jokes, she was like, “Anything you want to know, check the manual. You have a dress code. Great. There are these things that some people are looking for as a form of security. I get it.” I feel, though– the left-behind is what I call them because whiteness didn’t work for them in the way that it seems to work for the elite, seems to. There’s a comma there. But there is also this sort of exhaustion with, “How do you do to the table with one set of tools when someone doesn’t have a set of tools and all they have is entitlement?” How do you work through those really heavy, dense conversations rooted in history that someone probably doesn’t know about, doesn’t care about, but just feels like their problems are Stephen G. Fullwood black male, that I’m getting ahead because, somehow, there are– it’s the idea someone got a job because he’s black or she’s a woman, he’s disabled. But it was just really effectively dismantled in the ’90s with Clarence Thomas and so forth. It was affirmative action – thank goodness, I have a brain cell working [laughter]. And affirmative action was just simply trying to not even really even the playing field, and it wasn’t solely race. It was gender, it was disability, it was a number of things written into this idea to bring people– because it’s not like any black person, or any woman, or disabled person had just become qualified after this law was enacted. It didn’t happen that way. So you have to think about the logic behind it and think about what it means for people to feel like they have been left behind or not valued because of a system that was already rigged that they don’t acknowledge as rigged but still want to talk about white oppression, which doesn’t feel like a term to me. It’s like reverse-racism. It’s like, “What does that even mean?”
C.T. WEBB 28:13 Well, okay. Two things. I feel like the conversation could be usefully bifurcated into the people that deploy these stories and the people that use and live these stories.
S. FULLWOOD 28:28 Oh, this is a good one. Yeah.
C.T. WEBB 28:29 So Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump, Stephen Mnuchin, whatever, it’s a long list of people. I mean the Republican party, at least at the level of national politics since Moynihan and the whole benign neglect and all this kind of stuff have–
S. FULLWOOD 28:44 But they misused Moynihan. They did and it was problematic. But we can talk about that later. That was a problem.
C.T. WEBB 28:49 No. I didn’t mean actually– you’re absolutely right.
S. FULLWOOD 28:51 Oh, not you. Yeah.
C.T. WEBB 28:52 They misused him. Yeah. They used that to play the racial, political card, to compete on the national political stage. So there’s that kind of caval of people– cabal, sorry [laughter]. And then there’s the people that, as you were kind of characterizing before, just want to be fed, want to have their house, and show up and raise their kids, or maybe have their affair and their couple of divorces. I don’t want to sort of champion the noble poor. There’s plenty of assholes that are poor people just like there are plenty of assholes that are wealthy people [laughter]. So I would like to split those two things apart because I see two different levels of responsibility, right. I see the level of responsibility– so when you’re describing how do you sit at the table with the people that believe those things, it depends on where you’re at on that spectrum. So there are plenty of “whites,” right, and there’s a reason that I always quote-unquote that because race is a bullshit construction from the 17th century that we still live with. But you’ve got those people, so then you have the people like you and me, right. We have the benefits for a variety of reasons, whether it’s luck, whether it’s predisposition, to have had the benefits of a first-class education, even if that first-class education was because of a damn library card, right. I feel, right, in a kind of Marvel comics way, that intellectuals have a responsibility to imagine more capacious frameworks for people to live inside of.
S. FULLWOOD 30:51 Oh, I completely agree with that. Yes. Absolutely.
C.T. WEBB 30:55 And I do think that post– not the people in the ’60s– I mean you can’t tell me that I am going to say– I mean I am convinced that I will ever say anything about race in America that is more potent than what Ralph Ellison said in Invisible Man. I won’t, no one will. The people that were writing and–
S. FULLWOOD 31:15 I disagree with that for so many reasons because Ralph Ellison is explaining an issue that I find very interesting because he wasn’t invisible to me. It’s the optics of that novel that I find very problematic. But go ahead because I think you might have something more, but wanted to say that Ralph Ellison [laughter]–
C.T. WEBB 31:30 That would actually, certainly make a good conversation. I’m specifically talking about the way in which he kind of– I mean it’s kind of the whole locus around the construction of white paint. The very potency, the whitest white, right, is this drop of blackness. So we’ll bracket Ellison. So you had the people, Baldwin, King, all the rest of them, right, that were in the business of combating on the frontlines this bullshit rhetoric and framework around separate but equal, racial segregation, racial politics, racialized science, all the rest of it. That legacy, I do feel, has been largely abandoned or sidelined by a doubling down on cultural studies and all of the other sort of tribal, intellectual frameworks that have arisen in the last 20 or 30 years. What have we provided to the people that haven’t had the benefits of our education to pursue, to hope for? What’s the other end of these frameworks that are around intersectionality, things like that? I’m sorry, go ahead.
S. FULLWOOD 33:03 So what I was going to comment on was this idea of the responsibility of an intellectual, or an activist, or an artist, anyone who may have more information than the regular folk, or more ways of seeing, or different lenses to take in and crunch information. Although I do question– because there are different Baldwins at different times in his career and, Ellison, I definitely feel like he– there are questionable things that I have not just about the Invisible Man but some of his politics, but I’ll leave that there for a moment. I want to go back to this responsibility. The tribal part of it– earlier on, when you were talking about the cultural part of it, I said, “Well, I’m not that versed in knowing what’s going on in the academy.” When I worked at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, I had the benefit of talking to different academics in different points in their career about their politics and what they were writing and so forth but was, by no means, well-read in what they did. What I’m curious about, though – and I’m fully in alignment with you and agreement – is imagining what’s possible, the imagining of not looking at the same structures and trying to use those structures to get anywhere else because they clearly don’t work and they never have worked around race, around gender, around a number of things.
C.T. WEBB 34:28 Well, they worked for some people. They worked really well for some people.
S. FULLWOOD 34:31 I’ve argued with you before on this. They don’t work for them either because how comfortable can you be if you have to have your foot on someone’s neck all the time? It’s a lie. It’s been a lie for the longest. It doesn’t work.
C.T. WEBB 34:45 So here’s the thing. So to jump in for a second, it’s only a lie for the person that has to have their boot on their neck. There were people that had accumulated so much material prosperity, they didn’t have to put their own boot on someone else’s neck. They had Jeeves put their boot on the guy’s neck and they got to ride around in their carriages and sort of–
S. FULLWOOD 35:08 But it’s all about perspective here.
C.T. WEBB 35:08 –muse about the meaning of life.
S. FULLWOOD 35:10 It’s all about perspective here, meaning that those very things that constitute a good life in the US, like everything else, has been sold to us like the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s something that exists but something that’s not really attainable because looking at people who have wealth, accumulated wealth or are rich, they’re poor examples of living. They’re poor examples of living. It’s the idea that you have to have the biggest or have the most access to and, therefore, somehow your life is better. When you listen to some of these people when the veil comes down and there’s that moment where you hear something, “I’m lonely, I’m this,” whatever, I mean it sounds like the propaganda of a 1930s sort of film epic, “Oh, daddy, he’s rich, but he’s so alone,” and blah, blah, blah. But there’s some truth in that and there’s also the lack of imagining that life could be any better, that your life is better because you accumulate these things. I find that terribly offensive and terrible, just completely terrible and very anti-human. I just feel like it doesn’t actually–
C.T. WEBB 36:21 So I would say– so I think you and I would– I don’t agree with that. Not because I don’t think that the pursuit of wealth is inherently valuable. I agree with your criticism of that but I think for a lot of people, particularly in America, in western European countries, I mean there’s some research around this, right. Your level of happiness goes up as you approach $70,000 a year, right. And then it kind of levels off and then you’ve got some disagreement around amounts of money after that. There’s some research that shows that happiness dips again if you over-accumulate and this kind of stuff, so. And you don’t have to– oh, go ahead.
S. FULLWOOD 37:10 Yeah. This is the idea of– okay, so the people who are doing these studies, I’m sure these are reputable people. I have no problem with that. My issue here is–
C.T. WEBB 37:20 I’m sorry, can you repeat that again? I’m sorry, go ahead.
S. FULLWOOD 37:22 Sure. So I have no problems with the people who have done the studies or even the people reporting, but I’m also thinking that levels of happiness related to what? To poverty, obviously, to not having access, not to have that certain amount of money, to having a certain cache, or access, absolutely. But there’s something about it that still feels false and I can’t get under it enough sometimes in my thinking around it, but it feels like– no, I’m not sure if that constitutes happiness. Maybe call it something else. Call it something else. And I’m sure that people do feel that it is happiness but I’m not sure– my happiness means– or not even my happiness. My contentedness is really largely dependent upon my family’s and depending upon the communities that I’m around and my friends, my close circle of friends, the family that I chose. And so when I see people say that– there’s a lot of pretending going on when you have money and have wealth. How happy could someone be with that? How happy could one actually be with pomp and circumstance like that?
C.T. WEBB 38:26 Yeah. No, so here’s the thing. So I think if that is the end, then, no, probably no, that’s not going to purchase you any actual satisfaction or happiness. But at the same time, struggling to make rent or having to go to your neighbor’s house to eat cereal when you were a kid because your parents didn’t have enough money to provide you with breakfast, there’s nothing ennobling about that.
S. FULLWOOD 39:07 No, there isn’t. And that’s not what I’m suggesting either.
C.T. WEBB 39:10 But what I’m saying is that there’s– I mean we probably need to narrow our sense of what we’re talking about when we talk about wealth. So everyone that I know, right, on a relative global scale, is unbelievably wealthy. In terms of human history, in terms of global economics, unbelievably well off, right. I mean reliable heat, potable water, roof over your head, transportation that can be dependent on, leisure times and activities to do podcasts and things like that. That is luxury on a scale that most human beings have never known in their entire lives going back thousands of years. That is wealth. I’m not talking about it’s radical pursuit of better BMWs or Teslas or something like that. Sure, okay, I agree, that’s something kind of ratcheted up to an extreme and that would literally apply to any human pursuit, right. If you pursued the accumulation of knowledge that frenetically, it would also be a kind of unsettled unhappiness. So I don’t know want to– to me–
S. FULLWOOD 40:38 I’m keeping the door open.
C.T. WEBB 40:39 –when I hear things like that. You’re keeping the door open to?
S. FULLWOOD 40:43 I’m keeping the door open. I’m not doubling down on what I said but I have some beliefs and I’m like, “Okay.” I’m listening, I’m listening to this wealth, what you’re saying because I’m curious. I’m like, “Okay, have I really considered that?” And I think that, like I said, having access to things – and I know that you’re not saying this – but it feels like it doesn’t mean happy. It just means convenience for me. And so I’m keeping what you’re saying in mind for sure because I’m curious.
C.T. WEBB 41:12 Yeah. I think you have a fair– I think your discomfort with the word happiness I basically am in 100% agreement with. We probably could have had a slightly more productive exchange if I had constrained what I mean by happiness. What I mean by happiness is– oh, go ahead. Not that we didn’t get somewhere useful and interesting. What I mean is that what I mean by happiness, and I think this is something that makes it a more useful term, something to actually kind of get behind, is the idea of it comes from the Greek eudaemon, which is flourishing. This is what the founding fathers were talking about. These weren’t a bunch of hedonists. These were people that had read Seneca, stoic philosophy, very immersed in the Greeks. This is the idea of flourishing. Happiness, to me, is the ability to flourish and whatever that means for you. And when you take away that ability to flourish, you end up with things like mental disease. This is sort of what we had talked about when you– yeah, when you have closed off every opportunity to a minority group, to an other to pursue their own flourishing. What you have is discontentment on a personal – and I would agree with what you said – even on a national level. So in this way, I fully agree with you. You can’t flourish as a people if a significant portion of your population is enslaved or thought of as a second-class citizen. So, I’m sorry, go ahead.
S. FULLWOOD 42:59 Oh, absolutely. That sounds good. Yep. I have nothing else to add to that. I agree [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 43:06 All right. Well, I’m actually glad. So we haven’t done a lot of podcasts, but I think we had a slight disagreement, which I actually appreciated. I thought it was productive, so hopefully, we can have some more.
S. FULLWOOD 43:17 Yes, absolutely. We can work on that.
C.T. WEBB 43:20 Yeah. Stephen, thanks very much for talking to me today.
S. FULLWOOD 43:24 Thank you.
C.T. WEBB 43:25 And thanks, everyone, for listening.
S. FULLWOOD 43:27 Thank you very much.
[music]

References

First referenced at 00:25

How America Lost Its Mind 

The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history.

First referenced at 08:25

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

For a man who insisted that life on the public stage was not what he had in mind, Thomas Jefferson certainly spent a great deal of time in the spotlight–and not only during his active political career.

First referenced at 14:17

In the Name of the Father

In this revelatory and genuinely groundbreaking study, François Furstenberg sheds new light on the genesis of American identity.

First referenced at 16:58

There is a River

From an unflinchingly black perspective, Harding writes of the struggle of heroic African Americans to achieve freedom from slavery.

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