Tressie McMillan Cottom, "New Money"

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s essay “New Money” is another one of those Du mußt dein Leben ändern moments. I hope you’ll make some notes on your reaction after reading and share.

I’m still stuck on her first paragraph:

People say they want to be rich. I think what they really want is to be free. On the other hand, people who claim to be working for freedom will enslave themselves to money. It is all very strange.

That’s it. That’s America, hundreds of years of history, in a paragraph. Hundreds of years of blood, genocide, illegal wars, violence, broken treaties, broken dreams, insolence, arrogance, shallowness, abuse, neglect, and a few of the most incredible leaders, activists, prisoners and thinkers the world would be blessed to know, let alone have. What I mutter to myself nowadays: this country did beat Hitler, once.

Freedom and wealth promise simplicity when understood as moral notions, ends in life. Professor Cottom has me imagining an interlocutor, someone who enthusiastically says they want to be rich. They’ve felt the destruction poverty causes and understand how much better and easier life is with a few more dollars. They know no one will seriously challenge their answer. If someone can take care of themselves in an individualistic, materialistic society, that must be a fundamental moral good. (The ironic “justice is minding your own business” conclusion early in Plato’s Republic.)

Photo by Josh Appel / Unsplash

I too want to feel like I can take care of myself. It’s horrible to have to think about how dependent I am on so many people and institutions. Maybe I want to be free, too, just like everyone else.

However, I remember why I decided to study Greek thought. Notions like nobility and shame, which feature prominently there, didn’t disappear. Only the words themselves and the rhetoric went away. What wealthy people want is praise from being thought noble (think Mitt Romney). What less wealthy people want is to avoid the shame of being thought unworthy of wealth. Freedom is a difficult word to apply to this state of affairs. Being free of shame in a positive sense means being no less than prophet or philosopher willing to die for truth. That’s not freedom in any way we understand.

What about freedom from anxiety? Professor Cottom’s essay explores the rituals born of the very real fear that one will be cheated or bullied by means of money. Having money in surplus can make this anxiety invisible. But since there’s no amount of money that can actually end anxiety, some people “enslave” themselves to acquisition without realizing what they’re doing. “People who claim to be working for freedom will enslave themselves to money.”

Freedom from anxiety does seem to address the logic of the opening paragraph. It’s a dangerous answer—it’s too good. If you’ve yelled “it’s not economic anxiety, it’s racism” at an article or op-ed recently, you understand exactly what I mean. One thing I’ve learned reading about the history of racist laws and institutions: people work very hard, far harder than any material benefits could compensate, to make sure others are oppressed.

I think, for myself, I want to understand what people take pride in and try to understand the possibility of freedom. That might sound too simple for scholarly work. Too naive to help me survive in a country dedicated to breaking labor for the sake of breaking laborers. But “pride” and “freedom” are notions with immediacy. If someone plays a lot of piano, makes a passage from a piece sing beautifully, and beams while doing so, the pride in accomplishment is recognizable. And this doesn’t match up with freedom easily. I made a piano sing, once. I would neither call myself free nor even remotely aware of freedom at that time. I really needed to be.

Further reading

I’m not commenting on the essays below. You’ll recognize immediately that this is a selection of the best in American letters. The relation between freedom, wealth, and the American Dream hits personally and profoundly: