Greed is good.
That, you may recall, was the mantra of corporate raider Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film “Wall Street.” It came to symbolize the rapacious gluttony of that era — and its rejection of the dewy-eyed idealism of the 1960s.
Well, 1987 was a long time ago, but Gekko’s cynical watchword feels as timely now as it ever did. Indeed, a quick tour of recent headlines suggests that, if anything, he wasn’t cynical enough.
In Washington, President Donald Trump stalls the transition of incoming president Joe Biden, putting national security at risk because he can’t face the fact that he lost the election. And Republicans refuse to acknowledge Biden’s win for fear of Trump’s wrath.
In Waterloo, Iowa, Tyson Foods is accused of forcing workers to put in long hours at close quarters even when they showed symptoms of COVID-19. Supervisors are said to have organized a betting pool to wager on how many workers would be stricken.
In Mexico and Central America, researchers appointed by U.S. courts are searching for the families of 545 traumatized children separated from their parents under Trump’s so-called “zero tolerance” immigration policy.
The remarkable thing about all of it is how unremarkable it has become. In the 1960s, they’d have been shocked by such cruelty and stupidity. Even in the 1980s, decent people would have been stunned. But here in 2020, one’s ability to be surprised often feels … overwhelmed.
Here, greed is good. Cruelty is good. Cowardice is good. Self over country is good. Or, if not good, so much a part of the wallpaper of our daily lives as to be barely worth getting angry about. This is how it feels, too often. So one is glad for that which lifts you up. Which brings us to Dolly Parton.
The diminutive diva of country music, we learned last week, quietly gave $1 million to help fund research into a COVID-19 vaccine. Thanks in part to her generosity — and to scientists at Moderna — we now have one, said to be 94.5% effective. This comes just a few months after Parton, queen of a genre of music not known for its support of Black causes, renamed the Dixie Stampede attraction at her Tennessee amusement park (“I would never dream of hurting anybody”) and matter-of-factly pronounced her support of Black Lives Matter (“Of course Black Lives Matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter?”) Then there’s her Imagination Library program, which, since 1995, has given 147 million books to young children around the world.
Small wonder a Washington Post columnist dubs her a superhero and a Miami music critic calls her “one of the greatest human beings of our lifetime.” While it’s hyperbole, it’s hyperbole that speaks to a need. Yes, one is always gratified when high-profile people use their platforms in ways that uplift us all.
But in an era of famished decency, such generosity — of money, but more importantly, of spirit — offers not just gratification, but emotional comfort food. And a goad to our own better angels, a reminder that the only difference between giving $1 million to fund a vaccine and passing the clerk your credit card when the shopper ahead of you can’t pay her bill, is one of scale. Otherwise, it’s the same act, the same statement of, “We’re all in this thing together.”
That’s something they implicitly knew back in the 1960s. Even as late as the 1980s. It is worth rediscovering in 2020, as we embark upon the season of thanksgiving and joy in a frightening, uncertain time.
Generosity — of money, but more importantly, of spirit — is what’s good. Greed is only greed.