Posts

After Madoff: Redefining What ‘Success’ Means

From Madoff to Enron to Long-Term Capital, the American people have been subjected to some pretty sophisticated scams over the years; but no hoax is more shameful, or potentially destructive, than the presiding myth of wealth’s infinite virtuosity. The myth … Read More

By / January 15, 2009

From Madoff to Enron to Long-Term Capital, the American people have been subjected to some pretty sophisticated scams over the years; but no hoax is more shameful, or potentially destructive, than the presiding myth of wealth’s infinite virtuosity.

The myth provided an intoxicating rationale for easy money, lax regulations, and the sort of self-delusion required by the financiers who convinced each other and their clients that they could create brilliant financial mechanisms that would endlessly spin money out of thin air. This, as we now know, led to the unmooring of the financial sector – the driving force of the global economy – and sudden, collective realization that the whole thing was built on the sort of short-lived, rickety edifice we associate with scams.

In this way, Madoff is the perfect embodiment of all the ills and excesses that the myth perpetuated and inflicted on society. Unfortunately there’s nothing metaphorical about the pain Madoff inflicted on the Jewish community. And we will be doing our community a massive disservice if we come to understand this story as the work of one, lone financial psychopath. We have done this to ourselves.

What seems from afar an incestuous miasma of machers, millionaires, billionaires and Jewish philanthropic "leaders" is really a very clear picture of the contemporary power structure of the pay-to-play Jewish establishment, where someone like the inspiring Ruth Messinger is a side-show annoyance without keys to the back room and Bernie Madoff is a marionette controlling the bureaucratic puppets who run many of our communal organizations. 

The myth of wealth’s virtuosity, and the concomitant values it engendered, has had a disproportionate influence over our community. Partly, it’s because we’ve disproportionately benefited from that myth and those values.

One problem is how we’ve come to define success. Our children can choose between a banker, lawyer or doctor as their role model. No surprise, then, that their bar mitzvahs are spiritually meaningless affairs whose primary effect is to introduce the children to an aggressively competitive class structure in which, approximating the popular ‘80s bumper sticker regarding toys and death: "He whose party is the most extravagant wins."

Madoff’s brilliance is how well he understood this class structure and its evolution into adulthood; how he drew such emphatic lines between Us and Them, admitting the chosen to a circle of privilege, a "secret society" in the words of one of Madoff’s victims; such admittance conferred on both gentile and the Jewish Mcmanor-born instant status.  They were "winners."

In a vacuum created by institutional decay, poor leadership, and powerless, uninspiring clergy, our Jewish "winners" (bankers et al) stepped in, often honorably, to fill the void. Even our outreach programs began to stress exclusivity, reaching out to only the most successful and influential among us.

And so ours has become a pay-to-play community where those with the most money have the most influence over the organizations, synagogues, charities, and country clubs that make up our communal infrastructure.

In effect, the myth itself became the central organizing conceit of this period – that ambition, financial wherewithal, and social status were the agents of communal progress.

Better to be a macher than a mensch these days.

We made goo-goo eyes over the megabucks high-financiers, with their turbo-capitalism and hyper-consumption, and now we’re paying the price. And I’m not talking about the billions lost by the Jewish charities Madoff bilked. I’m talking about the perception created in all those people we’ve been crying so much about  — all those unaffiliated Jews who just keep assimilating and intermarrying -who can now feel validated in turning their back on a community not worth turning towards. 

As we have made our bed, so we must lie in it. It’s time to get up and change the sheets.

Tagged with: