Class, Race, and Legalized Gambling: William J. Bennett’s Nasty Habit and The Limits of Acceptable Debate

The second chapter is titled “Compassion.” Compassion, Bennett argues, “comes close to the very heart of moral awareness, to seeing in one’s neighbor another self.” “Treat no one,” Bennett instructs, “with callous disregard” (108).

The Book of Virtues is just one part of Bennett’s imposing record of speeches and publications arguing that America is the homeland of virtue and opportunity, where people who work diligently and honestly and honor God and country are rewarded with reasonable prosperity. Those who fail to exhibit Bennett’s virtues – self-discipline, capitalist work ethic, courage, responsibility, compassion, and honesty – are justly denied the riches they could attain but for weak moral character. Such is the rich moral reward structure of the United States, argues Bennett, whose recent Why We Fight (2002) claims that America’s supposed “war on terrorism” is a noble effort to defend and advance the superior values of “western civilization,” epitomized by the US. Certainly, this structure has worked out nicely for Bennett, the former Drug Czar, onetime Secretary of Education, and past Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Bennett heads a conservative agency called “Empower America” and collects $50,000 for each of his many speaking appearances.

It has been amusing to learn that the nation’s leading preacher of “self-discipline” was incapable of reigning in his compulsion to “cycle” massive amounts of surplus wealth through the slot machinery of morally challenged Las Vegas. And since one of the virtues to receive chapter-level status in The Book of Virtues is “Honesty,” it is especially fabulous to hear Bennett claim to have “won more than he has lost” in the casinos. Everybody knows that casino managers do not calibrate their slot machines so that people can break even on millions of dollars worth of pulls.

Too bad Bennett and his ilk don’t see the need to cycle a few more million (or better yet billion) dollars worth of food and other enrichment through the bodies and minds of America’s poorest children. The latter are now proclaimed even more irrelevant than usual in the face of America’s virtuous drive to “liberate” Iraq, to the great “collateral” advantage of Haliburton, Bechtel, and other needy subjects lining for their share of the general welfare. Talk about your “callous disregard

The chief original American “elite” concern with gambling, legal and otherwise, was recently summarized quite well by Eric Zorn, a liberal columnist at the Chicago Tribune. “The lure of gambling – the large payoff for a minimal investment – is antithetical,” Zorn preaches, in words that might have appeared in The Book of Virtues, “to the connection between effort and reward that we know to the associated not only with strong successful individuals, but also with strong societies.” What the mainstream commentators don’t have much to say about, however, is the higher immorality involved in the creation and maintenance of a social structure whereby one man can afford to entertain himself by cycling through machines a sum greater than the lifetime earnings of most of his fellow citizens. Here we must confront structural factors are of no small significance in the “winner-take-all” United States, sometimes referred to as “the casino society,” the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society by far, where a small and super-privileged slice of the American population enjoys considerably greater behavioral leeway than the rest.

The second thing omitted is the strong complementary relationship between this deep inequality and the explosion of legalized gambling in America. Casino gambling and state lotteries arose from the ashes and swept across the nation during the last thirty years thanks largely to the special political and policy influence exercised in America by those perched atop the nation’s unmentionable class structure. With the rollbacks of corporate and wealth taxation, welfare and job security that America’s privileged minority has imposed, casinos and lotteries became attractive both as a (supposed) solution to lost public revenues and job opportunities and as a way for Americans seeking to overcome and/or merely forget their misery. If Zorn and others concerned about the erosion of the relationship “between [workplace] effort and [labor market] reward” in the US want to get to the root of that problem, they ought to examine wage and hour patterns for unskilled American workers in recent decades. The relevant statistics certainly demonstrate a deterioration in the relationship, thanks largely to employer actions and public policy, including the export of jobs to the low-wage periphery, the roll back of unions and collective bargaining, increased reliance on immigrant labor, welfare “reform,” and much more.

Beyond their role in making regressive social policy, furthermore, the lotteries play a related dark pedagogical role in American life. They work, Nibert shows, to legitimate economic inequality by teaching Americans that the acquisition of a vast personal fortune is the single best thing that could ever happen to someone. They instruct us that the best thing to do about alienating and oppressive job conditions is not to struggle collectively for a better workplace but to escape those conditions in purely individualistic fashion by shooting for pie-in-the-sky. They falsely preach the existence of “equal opportunity” by advancing the false idea that everybody has an equal shot at making it big (“Anyone Can Play” and “Win”) in a rigidly hierarchical society.

How appropriate, then to read the title of a recent article criticizing Bush and Bennett’s educational ideas and policies, which work to undercut the nation’s core commitment to public schooling: “Gambling With the Children.” (Dr. Jamie McCkenzie, “Gambling With the Children,” No Child Left, January 2003). How perfect, finally, to recall the comments of Lt. General T. Michael Moseley, the air-war commander of the recent attack on Iraq, a fundamentally racist action Bennett sees as a glorious expression of America’s moral virtue. Walking through the ruins of a once-proud Iraqi palace, Moseley thought that the structure had interesting potential in the age of American globalism (Michael Gordon and John Kifner, “U.S. Generals Meet in Palace, Sealing Victory,” New York Times, 17 April, 2003). “This,” he said, “could make a pretty nice casino.”

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