Exquisite Corpse - Issue 4
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Toward A Politics of Envy: A Modest Proposal
by Nick Bromell

"If it takes a bloodbath, let's
get it over with."--Ronald Reagan

Maybe because it's the beginning of another election year and Bush fils has already raised 58 million dollars--not to fight the Democrats, but to fend off other millionaires like Forbes and McCain. Maybe because I can't open a newspaper without reading about yet another CEO pulling down billions in stock options. Maybe because these ten years of a bull market have thrown so many people I know personally into the ranks of the truly rich, leaving me gazing wistfully after their luxury liner as it disappears towards a rose-pink hotel on the beach in Cannes. But whatever the reason, my resentment has started to ferment.
     Clear mornings in April, I awaken with the sour odor as of envy and hatred in my breath. I find myself hoping that accidents will befall celebrities--a private plane gone astray in the fog, a Mercedes limo incandescent in a tunnel. When Republicans in Congress bitterly oppose an increase in the minimum wage and rally as one around a cut in the capital gains tax, I feel the stir of something primal in my veins and barely stop myself from rear-ending the massive black BMW at the next light. What's so galling, so poisoning, so maddening is that one is no longer permitted to hate the rich, nor even to mutter a word against them. For that would be "divisive," a fretful whine in the ear of a public chewing the cud of news it gets from the makers of natural vitamin e and other soybean products.
     When was the last time you asked them point-blank how much money they have and how they got it? Yet your take-the-high-ground strategy plays right into their hands because it's an obtuseness, like their obtuseness, that refuses to acknowledge the most glaring fact in the room: they're rich, and you're not. Until we make that simple little acknowledgment, they have us right where they want us. Until we admit that they have what we want, we can't possibly try to grab our share of it. And of course this social drama of the haut bourgeoisie is played out less intimately but just as effectively on a national scale. When was the last time you heard a politician say the word "rich?" Or read that the rich inhabit another country yet control the one we live in, too?
     Perhaps you're thinking that we could criticize the rich without getting so ... personal. Indeed, that as descendants of Jefferson's yoeman farmers, we should take the higher moral ground and argue from ideas rather than envy, from honor not hatred. If my tone strikes you as a bit too strident--or worse, as the pitiful complaint of a poor loser--that's just my point. The rich have succeeded in getting us to cauterize the most natural and necessary of emotions, our envy. They've gotten us to accept as inevitable a superiority they win through constant exercise of will and force. And when our wellspring of envy has at last completely dried up, we will have no inner drive left with which to fight the rich as they bring to fulfillment the iron logic of their destiny--getting richer while we get poorer. We know that the rich can be willfully stupid, but must they succeed in making us stupid, too? Or do you think they'll draw a clean line in the sand and say this far, and no further, this rich and no richer, this much but no more power?
     Let us admit to each other that the rich have somehow managed to twist us. Their mere proximity transforms us. If they lived within moated castles and we didn't see them smiling at us from the cover of every magazine, we would hate and fear them as we hate and fear everything we find strange. But precisely because they have lured us into their charmed circle, where they hand us a glass of wine and the hope of one day sharing their self-assurance, we surrender to their happier and simpler outlook. Invited to the homes of the very rich, Edith Wharton's heroine Lily Bart "felt within her a stealing allegiance to their standards, an acceptance of their limitations, a disbelief in the things they did not believe in." We may not set foot in the palaces of the rich and famous, but every mall is a Rodeo Drive, and as we gaze at all the marvelous things money can buy don't we feel this same stealing allegiance to our betters, to those who are really running the show?
     Nowadays, no one teases the rich kid next door, calls him a sissy, and lies in wait to trash his shiny Schwinn Roadmaster. Now everyone wants to be one of the rich--rich like Michael Jordan, rich like Bill Gates, rich like a rock star or a rapper, like a model, like a writer, like a banker. Ronald Reagan was right: there is a trickle-down effect. But what has trickled down in significant quantity is values, not money. Today, we all want Corian countertops in our gourmet chef's kitchen, a jacuzzi in our cavernous master bathroom, a king-size bed in our master bedroom. Now we can all be J.P. Morgans, financiers trading our mite on the internet. Now we can all make the scene at e-mail auctions. And if we're very "successful"--in alumni magazines that's code for rich--we can even hire our own personal assistant, the Roman slave of the '90s, smart enough to handle difficult phone calls yet craven enough to pick up the dry-cleaning and take the kids to birthday parties. Do the rest of us have a choice? Be rich or die. Be a winner of a loser.
     Like Lily Bart, we're already in the house of mirth, playing by the rules we find there--and they don't work to our advantage. For the rich have the quality, as Wharton put it, "of making other standards non-existent by ignoring them, a force of negation which eliminates everything beyond their own range of perception." Standing at a cocktail party, I slowly realize that in the eyes of the person I'm talking to I am essentially not present. The little struggles that make up my round of existence--keeping an old car on the road, making mortgage payments, chipping away at my monumental credit card debt, worrying about what my kids are learning in school--have no meaning to this denizen of the wealthier precincts. His eyes glaze over even as his features mime the friendliest of interests. It's not just that James has never owned a car that failed inspection, never had to balance a check book, never sent his kids to a public school, but that he doesn't want to hear that I do. The news of even these little frictions appalls and terrifies the inner child he so ruthlessly protects behind his bland blue gaze. The rich are not stupid, obviously. But their silent refusal to grant that the lives of those with less money are more difficult is a stupidity the smartest of them accepts without demur.
     So when I visit the rich I become someone else, co-signer of a compact that commands my allegiance, my good manners: if you want to hang around us (and the choice is yours) you will have to behave as if you were one of us. And most of the time I do. It is only afterwards,. driving home to the house I bought in a "good" (that is, rich) neighborhood and can't really afford, that my mind obsessively returns to the theme. Where did their money come from? Did he inherit or did she? How otherwise can they afford that house- not to mention the summer vacations on the Vineyard and their membership in a tennis club? In the bubble of these unasked and unanswered questions, I allow a passion to brew. It is the right passion. The true feeling. Why shouldn't I--shouldn't we--let it go all the way?
     What I'm proposing has nothing to do with economic theory or the like. It's the economy, stupid is a realism of cringing accommodation. It plays on our fears that we are society's losers and claims to set a place for us all at the banquet of the wealthy. It turns fear into hope--mindless, misguided, stupid hope. Because what everyone knows deep down is that the real feast is going on somewhere else. That while Clinton has helped the working poor bring home a few more bucks each Friday, the senior partners at hundreds of law firms and financial services are bringing home bonuses of several million dollars. What's needed is not hope but hate, not a politics of meaning, but a politics of envy.
     Deep down, whether we admit it or not, we all feel the same way about the rich. If you aren't willing to admit to yourself that underneath your surface amiability, underneath your twinges of envy, underneath your liberal disapproval, underneath what you still recall of the Marxist analysis you learned in college, underneath all the lubrications of the social world there burns a single steady flame of hatred, not just a feeling but a passion, like lust or envy, a monster of sorts but nonetheless our monster, the one equalizer we can wield in the face of their careless possession of mutual fund accounts, college savings, new cars, and big houses, don't worry. One day you will. As long as the rich keep getting richer, the postponed day of reckoning becomes ever more inevitable.
     And they will go on getting richer. Stupid as they can be when they wish, they're smart about what count. Money. Just as sharks have the lowest IQ in the marine world yet are perfectly adapted to dominate it, so the dozen or so rich people I know have in their blood a wisdom about wealth that has helped them compound their advantages, saving money I have squandered, making investments I can't afford, and so forging steadily ahead of me until one day they retire and disappear from view entirely--sending back the occasional Christmas card from Pinehurst or Pebble Beach.
     Maybe if the rich apologized once in a while, or just admitted to the fact of their wealth, or just named it--came right out and said, I know I'm rich, I know you're not rich--then maybe I could begin to process my envy and forgive them. I imagine a day of national reconciliation. The rich emerge from their enclaves and circulate freely among us wearing "I'm Sorry" buttons with us wearing "That's OK" buttons. Or maybe something more like a carnival, with all of us dressed in costumes and mingling in the streets, with the rich occasionally slipping a $1000 bill into our hands.
     But of course no such thing will happen. Not just because the rich are loathe to part with their money under duress, but because they've already won. As soon as I realize that my hatred of them should logically entail a hatred of myself, I pipe down and stop complaining. Like that nurse in the Beatles' song, even while I know I'm in a play, I am anyway. I may not think I'm "rich," but my income places me among the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans. Never mind that it's the top 3 percent who are really rich and who own 40 percent of America's wealth. Compared to the rest of the world I might as well be a Mellon or a Rockefeller. And that's why I'm so bitter. In the last analysis, I have no moral superiority to the rich, my life is not significantly more honest or more real than theirs. I mean, what's so real about keeping a 1985 Toyota Camry on the road? If I had a lot more money, I'd certainly buy a new one. So you see how cunningly they've woven their web? We're silenced by self-consciousness, and as we struggle to escape from sticky threads of self-contradiction, the spider delights in our frenzy and descends for her meal.
     What, then, is to be done? If I cherish my flame of hatred, will it consume me, too? Perhaps. But every great cause requires great sacrifice. If the sympathetic aristocracy must ever be the first victims of the Jacobins, let us go forward nonetheless. We may be the first to feel the cool steel of the underclass's fury, but let us speak the honest word anyway. Let honesty beget rage, let rage beget change. Let's put down the glass of wine and wipe the smile from their faces.
     It's someone else's turn to be rich, don't you think?


     My friend Robert, who has married a rich woman, does sometimes let a gleam of irony play across the surface of his impeccable detachment, acknowledging with the subtlest intonation that all of this--from the grand piano in the living room to the new Toyota Forerunner in the driveway to his wife chattering about the swim team in the kitchen--is them, not him, the rich, not us. But like a lifer who has grown so used to his cell that sunlight feels blinding and the breeze outside chills and frightens, Robert never steps outside his wealth. After all, as he says to me in all but words, he knows what's good for him. And so would I, if I had his good fortune.

Nick Bromell's essays have appeared in, among other places, "Harper's," "Tikkun," and "The Georgia Review"; his book about rock and psychedelics in the 1960s, Tomorrow Never Knows, will be published this fall by the University of Chicago Press.

Email: nbromell@english.umass.edu

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