I keep reading news articles about the top 1% being evil. Today I read that the excesses of “the rich” are the same as those of the poor… So actually the middle class should what? Judge both as being morally unfit? Indulge both?
The other day there seemed to be some disagreement between a thinker for Slate who said that someone writing for The Atlantic was silly in trying to say that the 1% aren’t “the real problem” but that the top 10 to 20% are (and the writer at Slate believes that the top 1% are “the real problem.”) The writer for The Atlantic seemed to believe that the true middle had all but disappeared? They tended to think that the upper middle class has morphed into a permanent bigger chunk of upper class in recent decades and left everyone else behind. (Do I have that right? I only read the critique in Slate.) And the writer for The Atlantic also tended to think that income was not the best gauge for class… (I agree with them)
Having been exposed to a vast range of people in life from all social classes I feel impatient when I read almost all these articles. Very impatient.
First of all, it’s not a new idea that the excesses, vices and etc. of the rich mimic those of the poor. It’s ridiculous to miss that that point has been made for a long time… How long? Well probably since the term social class came into our minds as a conscious thought.
But…while the humanity of both the poor and genuinely wealthy (I refuse to use the confusing term “rich” without some hint of irony or sarcasm) are the same and humans all share the same basic emotional fundamentals the direct causes of the “silly behavior” of the wealthy and poor are very, very different. It’s a little absurd to compare them, even if well intentioned.
Where a poor person might not truly understand interest on a loan and accidentally borrow too much and go bankrupt, a wealthy person who doesn’t come from new money (this is where old versus new money discrepancies are important despite how scary they seem to a lot of contemporary thinkers) likely has at least heard or read about such things in a real life, non-abstract way… So when the poorer individual buys a house they can’t afford with a huge mortgage, leases a new Cadillac and takes out tons of student loans for a career that won’t cover the costs of that education they might actually be slightly innocent. They might not actually know any better… But when a wealthy person buys to excess, avoids responsibility and sweeps into a spiral of self destruction it’s not for lack of knowing. Not really… The wealthy individual most likely is a bit nihilistic. Plain and simple… While both are driven by a desire for material items that might give them some happiness they are not the same people and it’s not the same experience for them or those encountering them (unless those people experiencing them miss a few things).
I have a cousin who dated a man from a very wealthy old American family for decades. They even lived together. The family is part of old (actual) high society. And she describes his mother as demanding her children make appointments to meet with her and walking around their estate wearing a real tiara. (This was a bit more than a few decades ago now) The son was emotionally affected by this distance, naturally, and not in a good way.
But…that’s hardly, hardly the same thing as a mother who barely sees her kids because she works three jobs to make her rent and feed them. The kid who grows up being exposed to gang activity and uses drugs to cope with the pain of poverty is not the same kid as the one who uses drugs to fit in with his equally disenchanted peers. They are both in pain and they both are suffering but for different direct reasons…
The excesses of “the rich” are tolerated because they have money. The excesses of the poor are not as tolerated because they don’t have money. And while you can certainly say that the poor and rich are both acting foolishly the poor person’s behavior is probably keeping them from acquiring more… Whereas “the rich” person with bad behavior (I prefer saying wealthy because that’s what we’re really talking about) has money but is totally screwed up in a different way. The wealthy person is potentially trying to get rid of money because they can’t handle it with real wisdom and a meaningful, grounded perspective… Very different.
It’s not like all the morally “dumb people” are magically delivered by storks to those at the the top and bottom of society… <rolling eyes>
The poor person just wants a better, more stable life (whether they know it or not). The wild, eccentric “rich” (again, I hate that term) have had some of the trappings of stability but are likely struggling from some existential despair (whether they know it or not). AND AGAIN, those are sooo different. You can’t compare them beyond simply to note a shared longing for meaning, peace and happiness. I think it’s actually insulting to both groups to compare them…
But…I think a lot of the views in these articles are from people who are somehow, in some way, “in the middle.” Whether they have just internalized the middle class perspective and are actually higher, or use a middle class perspective as their writing persona depends on the person, but in a lot of cases these writers truly are just somewhere in the middle trying to make sense of people they are not.
And when they look up they feel bitter. And when they look down they feel bitter. Why? In large part because that’s the emotional climate of this era… This is not a time of hope and trying to actually better things but of doubt, rage, and self focus. But also, I think people have an innate tendency to be a bit suspicious of “the other(s).”
Still, I think we often are all “the real problem” in our own lovely ways… And frankly while some are perhaps more guilty than others it doesn’t fix anything to disgrace other humans. You can have judgment about a situation or a person without being judgmental. (Although it’s tough to do) Also, as long as there’s bitterness there will always be the poor and there will always be “the rich.” Although, I do agree with the writer for The Atlantic more and find it frightening how stark and cruel things are and are increasingly becoming in regard to class.
But we can choose to be open-minded and rational. We can choose to be calm and discerning. We can choose to slow down and examine things objectively…
I fail at it here and there, but I’m trying… And I should try more.
Really though, both the poor and the wealthy do have the similar awareness in common of the tragic side of life… The poor see its bleak, harassing, dangerous and life draining filth. The wealthy see its profound sadness, as they have met the wizard controlling Oz and they know he’s just a man. And, I think, if those “in the middle” could wrap their heads around the closeness of the poor and their accidental, or at times arrogant ignorance and the rational, sometimes strangely benevolent, and at times tragically hostile despair of the wealthy they would be less bitter.
Sometimes the boring, simple, difficult and occasionally genuinely deep things that force us to grow (like working towards more meaningful relationships in person, keeping a disciplined budget out of necessity, reading actual books, voting with knowledge in elections, being involved with our communities, etc.) are the best things. It’s the life some strive for.
There’s a reason we are worried about the shrinking middle. There is a good reason…
P.S. In case you read the article in Slate and are prone to insecurity, let me point out that my sharing of my family heritage is not the same thing as people saying they are descended from Egyptian Pharaohs. I shared that real part of my actual lineage (again, there are authentic, accessible historical documents, DNA tests, oral histories, etc. to back up what I’ve said) to point out a part of who I am, where I’ve come from and give context not because I’m trying to create a glamorous persona or promote a self-aggrandizing personal story. It’s not delusion on my part dears. The only delusion would be by those bitter, self loathing and rage filled folks who can’t let it be reality and have to find some way to make it a lie other than feel jealous and inadequate.
And I’m not Elizabeth Warren either… Ha! I don’t just have one distant ancestor who happens to be some exception to a very different lineage. God bless her for being proud of her Native American heritage though. She should be.