Review Questions for
"The Good Man Fills His Own Stomach"

Charles Derber

Derber's thesis: America has become a wilding society as the pursuit of the American Dream, long respected as an agent of progress, has turned pathological.

Is Derber just a cynic? If you think so, you should be willing to try to prove him wrong. Is he right? What can you do with such a disturbing vision? Give up? What connections between Derber and the current climate of American malaise (social, political) can you see?

  1. The term "wilding" was coined in 1989 after the brutal beating and rape of a woman jogger in Central Park. A group of adolescents viciously attacked the woman; when caught, the youths not only showed no signs of remorse but apparently felt smug satisfaction with their deed.
  2. According to Derber, the earliest "wilding" - in this case a vicious, sociopathic behavior by poor urban youths of color - played directly to the fears of middle-class whites who feared the lawlessness of America's urban centers. The cities were jungles; the youths who roamed the streets, predators. This racial and class view of wilding needed to be expanded, says Derber, after white, middle-class Charles ("Chuck") Stuart murdered his pregnant wife for insurance money to open a restaurant. The thread connecting the Central Park attack and the Stuart murder was an all-encompassing self-interest that could justify the most brutal acts of violence. America is becoming a wilding society, suggests Derber. The attitude responsible for wilding cuts across lines of class and race.
  3. Derber believes that the logic of wilding and the American Dream are connected. He suggests that those who attacked the jogger in Central Park were locked out of the American Dream, whereas Stuart, in an attempt to realize his American Dream, murdered his wife. Both actions were prompted by self-interest. In "unsentimental" terms, says Derber (who quotes anthropologist Colin Turnbull), the logical extension of the American Dream ends in a "conglomeration of individuals of all ages, each going his own way" (¶ 19). The Dream has prompted in some Americans an insatiable appetite for success. An "inability to satisfy (such a) chronic gnawing hunger is fertile breeding ground for a culture of wilding" (¶ 26).
  4. The Ik, a dispossessed Ugandan people, are according to anthropologist Colin Turnbull, "a loveless people" who fend only for themselves, without one thought for communal welfare. Derber uses Turnbull's work and sociologist Ashley Montegue's commentary on that work to illustrate a wilding society that is "dying because (the people) have abandoned their own humanity." Derber points to the Ik in a cautionary way, using the sociopathic mechanisms that are undermining that culture to analyze our own. The title of Derber's chapter comes from the "Ik concept of goodness (marangik), which means filling one's own stomach."
  5. See ¶s 25-27. Derber, citing Christopher Lasch, suggests that narcissism in the 1970s was a "mushrooming psychic cancer" that predisposed Americans to the exclusion of others. The Reagan and Bush administrations - largely through the "trickle-down" economic theories - promoted the ideological line that individual initiative and self-interest (selfishness) was good and ultimately productive for the country. These converging attitudes, one personal and psychological and the other national and ideological, helped to create a climate in which wilding could exist.