Wild America

Sociologist Derber says rampant self-interest in business, government and society is tearing us apart

By Sandra Howe
Staff Writer

Individualism run amok in business, government and society is eroding the sense of common good in America, says Prof. Charles Derber (Sociology), and threatens the fabric which holds American society together.

In recent years, Derber says in his new book The Wilding of America: How Greed and Violence are Eroding Our Nation's Character, America's societal bonds have been under assault by "wilding," which he defines as self-oriented actions by individuals, corporations or the government which hurt others. This country's traditional belief in individualism has combined with the economic and personal insecurity many now feel, Derber explained, to create a culture where people do virtually anything to put themselves ahead.

"When self-interest becomes moral rationale for severely antisocial behavior," Derber said, "it undermines our conscience and social bonds, and the sense of obligation that goes with them."

In his book, Derber outlines three major types of wilding behavior and offers some possible solutions to counteract the destructive aspects of individualism.

Prof. Charles Derber (Sociology)-"When self-interest becomes moral rationale for severely antisocial behavior it undermines our conscience and social bonds, and the sense of obligation that goes with them." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Derber sees economic wilding as the morally uninhibited pursuit of money at the expense of others, citing the savings and loan crisis and the misdeeds of junk bond deal-maker Michael Milken as examples. Derber says corporations routinely cross the line separating capitalism from wilding when they pay their executives huge salaries while laying off thousands of workers, without considering the personal costs to their employees.

Economic wilders have been abetted by their counterparts in government, Derber maintains, who abuse political office to benefit themselves or their social classes. The Wilding of America offers a strong indictment of the nation's politicians and their policies, blaming the Reagan Administration for the rise of paper entrepreneurs - lawyers, financiers, real-estate speculators, investment bankers and others who make money through financial transactions that do not increase the size of the economic pie - all of whom Derber calls "the ultimate economic wilders."

Government symbolizes what Americans have in common, he said, but is unwilling to ask citizens to sacrifice for the common good. With "not-in-my-backyard" politics shaping the future, he said, "many have come to view the government as the enemy, which simply reinforces the idea that we have no common destiny."

Social wilding includes personal or family acts of violence, such as child or spousal abuse, and collective forms of selfishness that weaken society. It tends to draw the most public and media attention, Derber noted, referring to the recent murder trials of Susan Smith and the Menendez brothers. But the 1989 case of Charles Stuart, who committed suicide when the evidence pointed to him as the killer of his pregnant wife, represents a pivotal event in the redefinition of wilding.

"Prior to the Stuart case, people only associated wilding with inner-city gangs," he explained, noting that the phrase first came to attention when it was used by a group of inner-city youths to describe their attack on a jogger in New York's Central Park. "But Charles Stuart was an embodiment of all the values we idealize in this culture. He was living the American dream, which sadly became distorted.

"In such extreme cases," Derber continued, "individualism becomes so intense that a person is absorbed by greed and selfishness, losing empathy for all in his or her way."

The Wilding of America also focuses on the Contract with America, binge drinking and cheating on college campuses, some popular movies and television shows, and the instability of the family unit as additional signs of our decline into a nation of "wilders."

Derber suggests re-connecting individual freedoms with responsibilities to society through increased volunteerism, investment in education, raising the minimum wage and developing tax incentives that encourage companies to invest domestically.

He singles out Boston College, for espousing the principal of community, and Saturn - the General Motors subsidiary which generates high productivity, quality and profits by involving workers as partners - as models in the counter-revolution against wilding which should be affirmed and recognized.

"Such examples leave me optimistic about the possibilities of realistic solutions for America's crippling social ills," Derber said.

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