Debt Collectors, Social Darwinism and William Jennings Bryan


And I know my life, would be alright, if I could see it on the silver screen -- The Eagles

A silver-screen biography can etch a person's place in history. General George Patton is well-known by baby boom audiences because of the 1970 Oscar-winning movie about him. General George Marshall, whose historic impact on World War II was far greater, is pretty much forgotten. No movie, no long-term legacy.

We like people like Erin Brockovich and Congressman Charlie Wilson because someone made a great movie about them.

As fewer and fewer people read books or study history, we ultimately wind up viewing most of history via the vision of a film's writers, directors and producers. Few of us have any other data to counterbalance the image.

I ultimately feel sorry for William Jennings Bryan.

There are a lot of positive things that could be said about Bryan. One of the greatest public speakers who ever lived, he ran three times for president and his populist influence changed the way that 20th-century campaigns were conducted. He never won on his own but the movement he helped create was a critical reason for Woodrow Wilson's election. Bryan served as Wilson's secretary of state but as a devoted pacifist, he resigned when the United States entered World War One.

When is the last time you've heard of someone giving up a position like secretary of state strictly on moral principal? We have people leaving government office to become lobbyists but it's pretty rare to have a person resign because of deeply held convictions.

Bryan ought to be a hero and role model. He took on Wall Street and the robber barons a century before anyone ever heard of Occupy Wall Street. He stood up for the rights of people in small towns and who lived on small farms. He was one of the leading, and most important, male voices crying for women to have the right to vote. He believed in populism and allowing the voice of the average citizen to be heard. He is a truly great man.That few have heard of.

Actually the worse thing for Bryan is that people do have a view of him. For many it is a negative view.

I blame it all on Hollywood.

A 1955 play called Inherit the Wind became a blockbuster movie in 1960. It was about the 1925 trial of John Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee, concerning the concept of teaching evolution in schools. In what became a slideshow with the fan fare of the later OJ Simpson trial, Clarence Darrow represented the side of teaching evolution in schools and Bryan represented those who believe that a strict interpretation of first chapter of the Bible was the proper view of creation.

For both great men, the trial should have been a minor footnote in their lives. The trial did not make any new law or have a historic impact. It might have been long forgotten expect for two things. Bryan died immediately after the trial and the movie and Inherit the Wind is the lens that people view Bryan through.

Inherit the Wind had Spencer Tracy playing a part based on Darrow and Fredrick Marsh playing a character based on Bryan.

It's a terrific movie with great performances from two of the greatest actors who ever lived. It has a strong underlying message about the fear, censorship and McCarthyism that was taking place at the time the play was written.

Unfortunately for Bryan, there was a lot of liberties taken with the character based on him. Inherit the Wind made him look like a pompous, lying, bigoted, arrogant, jerk. He was actually none of those but since it came out 30 years after his death, no one was around to tell the other side of the story.

There have been some recent scholars that try to set the record straight.

Michael Kazim's terrific biography, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, and several other scholarly works make the point that Bryan, like many religious conservatives, were not really opposed to the concept of Darwinism and evolution at the time it first came up in the late 19th century. Instead it was the idea of Social Darwinism, the survival of the fittest, that sounded the alarm with Bryan and many others.

World War I seemed to Bryan to be a consequence of the "survival of the fittest" mentality and Bryan's push against Darwin was actually to sound the alarms about taking social Darwinism to its furthest extreme.

Like most people, I did really get that message from the Scopes trial. Especially, like most people, my lens for that trial initially was Inherit the Wind.

I'm willing to buy into the explanation that Bryan was railing against social Darwinism as it fits the natural pattern for the rest of his life. The message is further complicated by the fact that Bryan's death did not allow for any "post-trial spin."

In today's times, the Scopes trial would have worn out cable news with commentators debating every back and forth of the trial with endless arguments to come. In 1925, no one had spin masters. Darrow is universally considered one of the best trial attorneys in history and Bryan was a great politician was little courtroom experience. It was not a fight like Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier. It was more like Muhammad Ali versus Leon Spinks. Darrow blew Bryan out in the courtroom and Inherit the Wind was the capper. Bryan, and his warnings about "survival of the fittest" have never really been heard.

All this brings me to debt collectors.

Chasing Debt: From Wall Street to the Underworld is a terrific, must-read book by Jake Halpren. Halpren has written several books, including Fame Junkies, that I am a big fan of. Chasing Debt is a fascinating look at the world of debt collection.

To use the words "fascinating" and "debt collection" in the same sentence seems like an oxymoron but Halpren takes a mundane topic and makes it absolutely fascinating with his insights and boots on the ground research. Like Gary Rivlin's classic book Broke USA, about payday lending, it shines a light on an ugly side of society and tells a riveting story.

Chasing Debt and Adam Tanner's fantastic book, What Stays in Vegas, have caused me to spend a lot of time contemplating a couple of sober factors.

The first is that technology is making it easier and easier to exploit others. The second is that it is hard to find solutions to do anything about it.

Going back to Bryan's fear of how we may become a society based strictly on "Survival of the Fittest," Halpren and Tanner make me realize how close we are to that happening.

Debt collection, like more and more businesses, are those that place the economic force of Wall Street and usually the political and economic force of Washington, against the rights of the individual. Halpren notes how the buying and selling of debt, even debt that does not have documentation to prove that it an actual debt, has become a billion-dollar industry.

As Halpren notes, debt collection attracts some of the best practitioners of Social Darwinism, former drug dealers and people with prison records. Chasing Debt traces the history of several people who move from drug dealing and jail to debt collecting (and sometimes back to drug dealing and jail) as the same kind of aggressive "get rich or die" mentality can make people successful in world like debt collecting, where intimidation is a key tactic.

Very few debt collectors actually know or care about the people they are collecting from. They just want to make a commission.

What I found stunning, and fascinating, about Halpren's book was that idea that roughly 90 percent of people who are sued by a credit card company don't even bother to show up in court and defend themselves. Often the attorneys for the credit card companies have poor or little documentation. The debt is sometimes being collected on by several companies and the person collecting has no relationship with the original debtor.

All the person has to do is show up in court and ask the debt collector to prove their case. It would totally change the nature of debt collection if more people would.

It's easy to see why people don't go to court and fight. Most people are intimidated by courtroom settings and think that hiring an attorney will cost them too much money. As Halpren noted in Chasing Debt, by the time a credit card makes to the courtroom, a person is usually beaten down by the debt collection process and ignoring anything to do with it.

As we create a society of winners and losers, it's easy to see how the rights of the individual continue to get beaten down. People won't exercise the rights they have because they ultimately think that "fighting the system" is futile.

Which makes those who are pushing "survival of the fittest" to the extreme take it to yet another extreme.

In the over 90 years since William Jennings Bryan's death, we have seen scores of major atrocities played out with the theory of "survival of the fittest" as a motivating factor. We are also seeing it at every level of business and society. There seems to be no legal, political, economic or moral consequence to people who want to exploit other people.

Bryan had a unique sense of populism and his rise to political power was the result of his being able to connect to average individuals. The same kind of average individuals who are being run over by invasions of privacy and up against massive forces fueled by massive amounts of money.

At some point society needs to stand up against these massive forces before we are all crushed.

Fighting the way that debt collectors do business would be a good place to start.

Then we can do a proper sequel to Inherit the Wind.

Don McNay is the owner of McNay Consulting, in Lexington Kentuicky is a best selling author and a former syndicated columnist.