The C.S. Lewis take on Gates and Wal-Mart

Fake it 'til you make it: Can posturing by the titans of commerce signify true change?

By Andrew Leonard
January 29, 2008 3:19AM (UTC)
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Can CEO posturing transmogrify into something greater and of lasting value, simply because the posturing creates its own aspirational reality? How the World Works leans skeptical on that matter, but feels nonetheless that any letter from a reader which cites "The Screwtape Letters" by C.S. Lewis in support of its thesis is worth public exposure.

In a followup to "Bill Gates and Wal-Mart Want to Save the World," Jonathan Powers writes (after first quoting HTWW):


But even if you dismiss both speeches as self-serving grandstanding, it's still worth noting the direction in which the rhetoric is flowing. That Lee Scott should feel compelled to pledge that Wal-Mart is going to do the right thing, because it's the right thing to do, signals that the once all-conquering ideology of free-market greed-is-all-we-need-ism is no longer acceptable to tout in polite company."

Interestingly, I have a pair of quotes from C.S. Lewis which help amplify and clarify your point. First, in "The Screwtape Letters," Lewis observes that "all mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be." In Lewis's view, pretension represents not some ugly deformation or attenuation of a primordial and irrefragable character, but rather the practice by which individuals aim themselves, as it were, at who they want to become. Second (and this is the fun one), in his autobiography "Surprised by Joy, Lewis claims that:

The distinction between pretending to be better than you are and beginning to be better in reality is finer than moral sleuthhounds conceive.... When a boor first enters the society of courteous people what can he do, for a while, except imitate the motions? How can he learn except by imitation?

I absolutely believe that the rhetoric of Gates and Scott represents an act. It doesn't derive from their current core characters; they don't yet really understand or believe this stuff; they are simply pretending. But -- and this is what gives me hope -- they're now pretending to be better CEOs than they were. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, "Fake it 'til you make it." These guys are faking it, yes, but that means that they (and we) have a chance at making it.

-- Jonathan Powers

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works Wal-mart