Skip to main content

Values, Trump, a Movie, and a Play

Walter Moss: The Loman tragedy, however, is not caused just by the family’s own failings. America’s capitalist consumer culture also contributes to it.
The Loman tragedy, however, is not caused just by the family’s own failings. America’s capitalist consumer culture also contributes to it.

The older I get the more I agree with wisdom scholar Copthorne Macdonald’s observation that “values are at the heart of the matter.” He elaborated on these words by quoting a famous neuropsychologist who wrote that “human value priorities . . . stand out as the most strategically powerful causal control now shaping world events. More than any other causal system with which science now concerns itself, it is variables in human value systems that will determine the future.”

To take just one important example of values, ask yourself, “What Are the Values of President Donald Trump?” Judging from remarks (see here and here) about his winning—“My whole life is about winning. I don’t lose often. I almost never lose.” “As a country, we don't win.” [But if you elect me,] “we're going to win so much. You're going to get tired of winning”—his chief value is stroking his own ego. Important values such as compassion, humility, empathy, and tolerance seem foreign to him. The consequences of this values vacuum for us Americans are incalculable.

My most recent reflection on values was prompted by seeing the excellent Iranian film The Salesman, last year’s Oscar winner for best foreign film—see here for Ed Rampell’s earlier review. The central values clash in this Iranian film is between a husband (Emad) and his wife (Rana), and it is over how to treat an old man who has apparently attacked Rana. Emad desires revenge, and wishes to humiliate the ailing old man before his family. Rana is appalled at her husband’s lack of empathy and compassion, and urges him to let the old man go.

My first thought on seeing this spousal conflict was how typical it was for a woman to be the more compassionate and a man to be the more aggressive. Ever since Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata we are used to seeing women portrayed as being more peace oriented than men. In the twentieth century women like Jane Addams, who helped found the Women’s Peace Party in 1915, and Dorothy Day, who opposed the U.S. entry in World War II and atomic weapons, were among leading pacifists. In 2015, Spike Lee provided a modern adaptation of Lysistrata in his film Chi-Raq. Even when female political leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton appear hawkish, it is likely their behavior is partly motivated by a desire to defy the gender stereotype of women being “soft.”

The Loman tragedy, however, is not caused just by the family’s own failings. America’s capitalist consumer culture also contributes to it.

In Rampell’s review he mentions that The Salesman “deals with the concept of ‘honor killings,’ wherein usually Muslim male members of families are ‘duty-bound’ to revenge the breaking of sexual codes generally regarding female relatives.” Although set in modern Tehran and reflecting certain aspects of Iran’s socio-political culture, the movie also deals with more universal themes such as empathy and humiliation. The film’s director, Asghar Farhadi, said in an interview that “empathy is a common subject” in all his films, and I have devoted an essay to this important value.

Besides being a teacher, Emad is an actor, and he and Rana, as the film shows, are playing the central roles in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which Farhadi believes depicts “a character [Willy Loman] crushed by the humiliation he feels from society.” In the humiliation Emad suffers because of the attack on his wife, Farhadi wishes us to see “an Iranian version of Willy Loman.” And the director also thinks that “the relationship he [Emad] has with his wife is very similar to Willy's relationship with [his wife] Linda.”

When it comes to dealing with values, Miller’s most famous play is even more important than Farhadi’s fine film. Since its first staging in 1949, it has become one of the most performed plays in the world and the basis of several film or TV versions. In a 1998 essay, writer Joyce Carol Oates declared that “nearly fifty years after its composition, Death of a Salesman strikes us as the most achingly contemporary of our classic American plays. . . . As we near the twenty-first century, it seems evident that America has become an ever more frantic, self-mesmerized world of salesmanship, image without substance, empty advertising rhetoric, and that peculiar product of our consumer culture ‘public relations’—a synonym for hypocrisy, deceit, fraud.” In 2012, several years after an economic crisis preceded by greed and the likes of swindler Bernie Madoff, the British publication The Economist stated that Miller’s play was “even more timely now than at its first staging.”

The tragedy of Willy Loman, according to the magazine, is that “he is undone by his failure to build the life he had imagined and his inability to help his children to build a better life for themselves. Willy's shortcomings appear to be caused by a mix of hubris and self-delusion.” Biff, the oldest of the two adult sons of Willy and Linda, says about his dad, “He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong,” and “he never knew who he was.”

The Loman tragedy, however, is not caused just by the family’s own failings. America’s capitalist consumer culture also contributes to it.

Death of a Salesman

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

Willy became a salesman when he “realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want.” He thought that through sales he could earn a good income and gain the love and respect he desired. His most important values—being a “success” and being well thought of—are not the wisest ones to seek, and by stressing these rather than emphasizing love, compassion, empathy, and other noble values Willy sets in motion his own individual tragedy which culminates in his suicide.

Willy’s poor values affect not only him, but his family, including Linda, who at the end of the play is left a widow. Earlier, he had a sexual relationship with one of the secretaries of a company that he sold to—she says to him at one point, “You are the saddest, self-centeredest soul I ever did see-saw.” His son Biff’s discovery of the affair when he was a senior in high school contributed to his failing to graduate. Before then, Biff was a football star, and Willy liked to brag about him, while justifying Biff’s cheating in school and telling his two sons that grades were not that important. Instead, he tells them that he is thankful that they are “built like Adonises. Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want. You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer.” By the time they are in their thirties, however, neither son is content or successful. Although both sons have long been womanizers, neither is married.

The Loman tragedy, however, is not caused just by the family’s own failings. America’s capitalist consumer culture also contributes to it. From the 1890s forward, as historian William Leach has written: “American corporate business, in league with key institutions, began the transformation of American society into a society preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition, with more goods this year than last, more next year than this. American consumer capitalism produced a culture almost violently hostile to the past and to tradition, a future-oriented culture of desire that confused the good life with goods. It was a culture that first appeared as an alternative culture . . . and then unfolded to become the reigning culture in the United States.”

In his autobiographical Timebends: A Life, Miller mentions an outraged woman who called his play "a time bomb under American capitalism," and he confesses that he “hoped it was, or at least under the bullshit of capitalism, this pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last.”

Willy’s belief that “selling was the greatest career a man could want” came to him in the 1920s. This was the decade in which Metropolitan Insurance put out a pamphlet, “Moses Persuader of Men,” extolling Moses as “one of the greatest salesmen and real-estate promoters that ever lived.” In 1925-1926 the book that topped the non-fiction best-seller list was The Man Nobody Knows. It stated that Jesus was a great business executive, “the founder of modern business,” and that his parables were “the most powerful advertisements of all time.”

By 1928 (like 2008), partly prompted by advertising and salesmen, many Americans were spending beyond their means and making reckless investments. Like them, Willy wants what the consumer society of his day has to offer and is often in debt pursuing this part of the American dream. Early in the play, we see that he and Linda once had trouble making their installment payments on a new refrigerator, a washing machine, and a vacuum cleaner, as well as paying for roof and car expenses. Not long before Willy’s suicide, he and Linda discuss the one final payment that they have to make on an old refrigerator that has just broken down again. Willy complains that they should have bought a better-advertised refrigerator rather than the little known brand they did. He then laments: “Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it’s broken! I’m always in a race with the junkyard! I just finished paying for the car and it’s on its last legs. The refrigerator consumes belts like a goddam maniac. They time those things. They time them so when you finally paid for them, they’re used up.”

1928, the year before ­the Great Depression hit, was a “big year” for Willie. According to him, he “averaged a hundred and seventy dollars a week in commissions.” For three and a half decades, Willie continued working as a travelling salesman for the same company; but then in his sixties, he is no longer an effective salesman, and he is fired. With the firing, “the humiliation he feels from society” (in the words of Iranian director Farhadi) seems complete.

Unfortunately, his younger son Happy does not realize that his dad’s tragedy was caused by his values—or “dream” as Happy calls it. Near the end of the play, this younger son says, “I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have—to come out number-one man.”

Unfortunately for us Americans, the dream of Willy Loman—coming out “number-one man”— sounds eerily similar to the dream of our current president—winning (“My whole life is about winning”). And the capitalist consumer culture that contributed to Willy’s tragedy shows no signs of abating under Donald Trump, who symbolizes the excesses of conspicuous consumption. And just as Willy Loman’s lousy values led to tragedy for him and his family, so too Trump’s third-rate values could have tragic consequences not only for him, but also for our American family.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss