Saturday, March 08, 2014

Who are the good people?

Some digressions are wonderful.

In the course I teach at the Creative Media Institute, we were discussing David Lindsay-Abaire's wonderful play, Good People.  This is one of my picks for important plays of the decade.  While it is set in Boston, the true setting is the United States during the Great Recession, the tale of a South Boston woman who loses her job and visits an old friend from her neighborhood in search of help.  Thus the play squarely examines the conflict of social and economic class against the backdrop of a competitive economy.

Two fallacies the story portrays very clearly are (1) the tendency to view poverty and unemployment as necessarily the consequence of moral weakness, and (2) the tendency for those who have "made it" to believe in a mythical equality of opportunity, and to forget about help or advantages that some have.  Refreshingly, the playwright does not strain the point by contriving any characters of unblemished virtue.  Indeed, the ambiguity of the characters' ethics and virtue is part of the point.

I'm not sure how the digression began, but a student in the class spoke up about his experience working in automobile sales and financing.  With some encouragement from me, he revealed some vivid details of how salesmen and managers view customers, assessing their buying power and credit-worthiness, the negotiating tactics, and after horrifying the students with all of that he started to talk about the competitive pressure on these staffers, motivated not only by greed (the rewards are great for the successful ones) but how disposable they are.  In other words, the cynical handling of customers is driven by the pressure to survive.  (Just as, in the play, Margie sometimes may lie or manipulate in order to survive however she can.)

I could not have contrived a better illustration of capitalism's human problem.  In an economic system that sets people's health and welfare against one another, short of a revolution against that system people do what they do to survive.  Who are the sympathetic people, the "good people" in an economy that does not provide sufficient employment and rations essential needs and political power based on financial power?  What do we think about an economic system that obligates people to behave the way auto salesmen behave -- and worse? 

It's the perfect title for the play.  "Good people" is a phrase that emerges in many discussions about political economy and social policy.  The good people, as opposed to those deemed non-virtuous.  When I lost my full-time job in 2011, due to circumstances out of my power, I would sometimes hear people remark that people should have to pee in a cup to receive an unemployment check.  Although I have not yet had to collect an unemployment check, I see no shame in utilizing a benefit that working people pay for while they are employed, and so I would tell them that I was unemployed and ask them if they felt I was suspicious and should take a drug test.  Usually, I would hear something like this:  "Oh, I don't mean you."  Am I among the good people, then?  What makes me so?  As opposed to whom?

Who are the good people in a system where opportunity is rationed by money and social class, and where the strong feed on the weak by design?

The salesmen and the customers are an example of how the competitive economy pits working people against one another.  Are not managers subject to similar survival pressure?  And while CEOs seem to enjoy a great deal of power and freedom, what is their experience as they sit on top of these corporations responsible for delivering the goods to their investors?  What happens to them, as human beings?

Does anyone really feel they have a reasonable degree of freedom or control of their lives within this system?  Maybe successful entrepreneurs do, or some of them.  Maybe retirees who have plenty of money.  But no one is beyond the reach of the system's problems.  In one recent, amusing example, Exxon's  CEO, who has defended fracking in accordance with his company's interests, has personally joined a lawsuit seeking to keep fracking away from his own ranch, and he might lose.  

In a system that does this to us -- a system that cannot even protect the victors of perpetual class conflict -- what does a phrase like "good people" really mean? 


Marc Sawaya said...

Any system that provides for a single situation where the suffering of one person (or any creature) is profitable to another is a poorly conceived, and our system provides myriad.

Walmart has done interesting science into our condition. They know, among many things, how many registers to have open at any given time to maintain shopper abandonment rates within the optimal threshold.

Are good people virtuous or opportunistic? Is it possible to be both?

Anonymous said...

Great analysis of the play--and the real world it reflects. The GAMM just did a production of the play, and it was the perfect environment, this post-industrial Pawtucket neighborhood. Interestingly, the actor who played Margie is now playing Lady M in That Scottish Play. From one kind of tragically distressed manipulator to another. . .

Anonymous said...

I am the actor who played both Margie and Lady MacBeth, and it is so interesting to be made aware of how they may be parallel...I find this article so interesting Algernon, and so true. It was eye opening to experience the responses of many people to Good People. Margie is certainly not a saint. She does what she can to keep going. And I guess manipulator yes, but in the end she decides to let it go. At the end of the play she is basically in the same place as she was in the beginning, except that she has the satisfaction of knowing that, for who she is and where she is at the time, she did the "right" thing. I loved playing Margie, and found her complex, real, and full of flaws. There was a code that was instilled into people who grew up in that neighborhood(my dad actually grew up in the Old Harbor Projects). And she adhered to that code. She is proud maybe to a fault. I hope you do produce this play! It is funny, moving, relevant, and just a joy to play.

Algernon said...

For those reading these comments, I want to point out that "the GAMM" refers to the Sandra Feinstein Gamm theatre located in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. I remember when this theatre (founded as Alias Stage) was located in a small theatre in Providence's jewelry district. They now occupy a wonderful historic building in a working class city next to Providence, and are providing professional-quality theatre. Their website is and I recommend them to anyone in the area.

Christopher said...

Just a comment on freedom. The need for freedom (actually hard to define) is overrated. Most people want restrictions and limitations and usually make life decisions based on security and certainty rather than freedom.