“So,” the man in the lilac vest asks me by way of greeting, “Are you making any money these days?”
We’re at a Jewish Federation event at the USC campus downtown. It’s Sunday, and we’ve spent the morning listening to speakers talk about the many ways in which this world could become a better place.
At lunch, senators and City Council members have been introduced and honored, two dozen donors and dignitaries have been praised and appreciated, the mayor, having cut short his own birthday party to be at this luncheon, has delivered a keynote speech about faith and tikkun olam (repairing the world).
The man in the lilac vest is no stranger to the art of making money. And he knows how to give it away, as well. He and I have met only once before, a few months ago when I went to him asking for help on a matter in which we were both involved.
I wasn’t asking for a donation or offering to help raise money for one of his causes. He asked what I do for a living, and when I told him, he decided he wasn’t interested in what else I had to say. He didn’t care what profession I was in; what he really wanted to know is whether I am, to borrow a phrase from the language of the old country, “a person of consequence.”
In Persian, “a person of consequence” is one who has earned and deserves respect because of what he is or what he has done — because of his character, or his accomplishments, or his kindness to others, or any of those qualities that used to matter not so long ago, values that were upheld as cornerstones of a healthy society.
In its original meaning, it doesn’t denote wealth or social class — only what a person has done with that wealth or how humble he has remained, despite his superior station. But in the heady years of sudden wealth and swift ascent of the 1960s and ’70s, many Iranians confused wealth with character, vanity with class.
And because we lived in a place where might was right and in a world where money is might, the word “consequence” became synonymous with “wealth.” “A person of consequence” was someone with enough money to be reckoned with by other people of consequence.
America, too, is a place where might is right and where money can often buy respectability. Only here, “a person of consequence” is referred to in admiring tones by awestruck observers as a “successful person.” Here, within our own community, “a successful person” is someone who has made a lot of money and has the potential to make even more.
It doesn’t matter if he’s content or unhappy, if he’s a good parent, if he’s committed a single selfless act in his life. He can be “a doctor” who’s in Africa treating sick children out of the kindness of his heart (in which case he will be said to be wasting a perfectly good education), or he can be “a successful doctor” who has put eight years of medical training in the service of injecting weird chemicals into the lips of rich women. He can be “a journalist” (in which case he is wasting time till he grows up and finds a real job), or he can be “a successful journalist” (like Geraldo Rivera), who makes a lot of money for making asinine statements on cable television every night.
In America, you can be a person who broke the law and went to jail, or you can be “a successful” convict who robbed little old ladies of their life’s savings, did time and went back to give some of the old ladies’ money to good causes. Tikkun olam, indeed.
But what if, as happened to so many Iranians 30 years ago and is happening to so many Americans these days, the wealth disappears? Do successful people suddenly become failures? Do people of consequence become inconsequential?
Is that why the man in the lilac vest wants to know if I’m still making money before he even says hello to me?
But it’s not the intentions of men with interesting fashion sense or the semantics of the Persian or English languages that interest me (though they are, in a very transparent way, indicative of a people’s ethics); it’s what they imply about our standards as a people and about our culture as a whole.
I’m not concerned about a few hundred sharks on Wall Street or a few dozen wealthy Westside Jews who compete for social acceptance by one-upping each other on spending money on their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs. I’m concerned about a national worldview that reveres wealth and aspires to excess, a society where even the poor revel in accounts of the myriad ways the rich find to waste money. About a country that produces Donald Trump, then gives him permission to, indeed rewards him for and sits down faithfully every week to watch him, berate those who have less than he.
I’m concerned about us — Jews on Wall Street and in Los Angeles and elsewhere — and the extent to which we have bought into those values, adopted the language and the morals of consumerism at the expense of so much that has defined us over time: learning, creativity, kindness to our fellow men.
I’m concerned that we may have come more and more to define charity solely in dollar terms. That so many of us nowadays fail to teach our children that we were of consequence even when we lived in ghettos and were berated by others; that we survived those ghettos because we knew the true worth of a human being, the true meaning of success.
Long before we were rich enough to host luncheons at USC, before we were important enough to hobnob with mayors and senators, before we felt secure enough to form the Jewish federations of the world, we were scholars and artists, soldiers and scientists. We made the world a better place because of who we were and what we did, not because of what we could buy or give away.
I still have a job, yes, and I still make money by writing. But I’m concerned about a future in which, even on a day of community service, even as we preach tikkun olam, we gauge our own and each other’s worth by any measure but our humanity.
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.