Our Ruling Class
There are two sorts of stock human dramas that play out in every age of history. The first concerns people who were once rich but are now discovering they are poor. The second is their opposite: people who were once poor who suddenly realize they are rich.
Years ago there were riveting accounts in a Manila newspaper about a man, whose surname was a byword for inherited wealth, pathetically resisting eviction from his ancestral home. The man -- who gave his occupation as artist -- sat disconsolate in the driveway of his former home, surrounded by his books, records and memorabilia, refusing the court order to leave until hunger and the elements forced him out into the street.
The second was represented in my mind by the story of a Chinese businessman who one day found a clan delegation in the shoddy warehouse where he lived, slept and held office despite his great wealth. They implored him to redeem the family honor by not riding around in a jalopy, an act which they claimed reflected badly on the clan's status. "Honorable patriarch," they begged, "could you not purchase a suitable limousine commensurate to your true wealth?"
The old man was nonplussed. He liked sleeping on packing crates, had no interest in fancy clothes, and was rather fond of his jalopy. But deferring to duty he acceded:
"Oh, alright. One of you please go and find the minimum quality luxury car suitable for the purpose. And remember now, the minimum quality! Not a penny more than necessary."
That was my archetype of the accession to wealth story until I read about Chelsea Clinton, who recently told Fast Company in an interview how she gritted her teeth and took on lucrative gigs before deciding to join her family’s philanthropic foundation because, "I was curious if I could care about (money) on some fundamental level, and I couldn’t." She decided making money bored her after all and decided to pursue her true Clinton calling, which was telling people what to do.
In Chelsea the Clintons had finally become true aristocrats, finally left their Little Rock roots. Chelsea had joined that elite group which has had money for so long it bores them. She, as the British well knew of the upper classes, finally accepted her duty to rule, shouldered the burden and paid the sad price for a life cursed with luxury and privilege.
To real aristocrats, position is simply the way things have always been. In the movie The Aviator, the Howard Hughes character sits down to dinner with Old Money, and his hosts don't even know where their money came from.
Ludlow: Then how did you make all that money?
Mrs. Hepburn: We don't care about money here, Mr. Hughes.
Howard: That's because you have it.
Mrs. Hepburn: Would you repeat that?
Howard: You don't care about money because you have it. And you've always had it. My father was dirt poor when I was born…. I care about money, because I know what it takes out of a man to make it.
It is always rude to inquire where money comes from. Among real royalty it should simply be there. The recompense for the burden of aristocracy is privilege. Aristocrats must do their duty from grace; now could we please get out of the way? The notion is captured in one of CS Lewis' books, The Magician's Nephew, where Uncle Andrew explains to Digory that truly important people are not bound by rules:
"The moment I picked up that box I could tell by the pricking in my fingers that I held some great secret in my hands. She gave it to me and made me promise that as soon as she was dead I would burn it unopened, with certain ceremonies. That promise I did not keep."
"Well then, it was jolly rotten of you," said Digory.
"Rotten?" said Uncle Andrew with a puzzled look. "Oh, I see. You mean that little boys ought to keep their promises. Very true: most right and proper, I'm sure, and I'm very glad you have been taught to do it. But of course you must understand that rules of that sort, however excellent they may be for little boys—and servants—and women—and even people in general, can't possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages. No, Digory. Men like me who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny."
Morality is for the middle class. Gustave Flaubert knew that aristocrats valued the right to pursue their calling free of the niggling restraints of bourgeois respectability. "There was an air of indifference about them, a calm produced by the gratification of every passion; and though their manners were suave, one could sense beneath them that special brutality which comes from the habit of breaking down half-hearted resistances that keep one fit and tickle one’s vanity -- the handling of blooded horses, the pursuit of loose women."
The problem of course is what happens when the long-rich go broke. The once-rich-now-bankrupt become worse than bust, they become ridiculous. A modern example is John Kerry, who is making a beggar's tour of the Middle East. He still acts like King of the World, but his latest stop was Kurdistan, where he pleaded with those tribesmen to save Obama's foreign policy from collapse. "Kerry urges Kurds to save Iraq from collapse." The plea may have fallen on deaf ears, as the Kurds seem determined to have their way:
Some senior Kurdish officials suggest in private they are no longer committed to Iraq and are biding their time for an opportunity to seek independence. In an interview with CNN, Barzani repeated a threat to hold a referendum on independence, saying it was time for Kurds to decide their own fate.
But at least they received Kerry courteously. They could afford as the coming men to grant Kerry and his boss the former trappings of equality. The subtle change in power relations was evident in Poland. "Poland's president says US still an important ally," something he probably said out of politeness and sentiment more than hard calculation. It was at least an improvement on the judgment of the Polish foreign minister, who declared his country's alliance with America as worthless:
A Polish magazine said Sunday, June 22, 2014, it has obtained recordings of a private conversation in which Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski says the country's strong alliance with the U.S. "isn't worth anything" and is "even harmful because it creates a false sense of security."
Being SOS ain't what it used to be. If Kerry were more perceptive, he'd notice what every aristocrat in decline might perceive: the increasing reluctance of tradesmen to take credit; the ever more frequent absence of his favorite tailor at Savile Row when he comes to order another suit on installment; the growing insistence of cash on the nail. Perhaps the most telling story of our aristocracy's reduced circumstances comes from Alabama, which is eagerly anticipating jobs the Chinese are outsourcing to America. "Ni hao, y'all":
PINE HILL, Ala. (AP) -- Burdened with Alabama's highest unemployment rate, long abandoned by textile mills and furniture plants, Wilcox County desperately needs jobs.
They're coming, and from a most unlikely place: Henan Province, China, 7,600 miles away....
"Jobs that pay $15 an hour are few and far between," says Dottie Gaston, an official in nearby Thomasville.
What's happening in Pine Hill is starting to happen across America.
After decades of siphoning jobs from the United States, China is creating some. Chinese companies invested a record $14 billion in the United States last year, according to the Rhodium Group research firm. Collectively, they employ more than 70,000 Americans, up from virtually none a decade ago.
None of this, of course, is evident to the men in Washington, who give their occupations as "artist" or "lightworker," "messiah" or "nonprofit activist." They are above it all, or at least the eviction notice hasn't arrived yet. These individuals are still surrounded by their Nobel prizes, plaques, best-selling ghostwritten books and hoary old oil portraits: fat, dumb and happy.
They still think they're rich, and grandly raise the minimum wage to a level they can't afford; order the servants to let in the thousands swarming the southern borders to sup at the remembered feast long picked clean; promise subsidized health care to all and sundry; and -- as an ultimate beau geste -- order the un-MIRVing of the U.S. strategic deterrent so as not to upset that nice man, Mr. Putin, who lives next door.
Kerry is almost a central-casting perfect picture of a degenerate aristocrat. Just as Chelsea doesn't do money, neither does Kerry do foreign policy. He at least does artistic gestures. Only the other day Kerry made an important announcement. Speaking at a the Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies Pride event at the State Department, he declared: “I’m working hard to ensure that by the end of my tenure, we will have lesbian, bisexual and transgender ambassadors in our ranks as well.”
By contrast, the parvenus are on the move, killing off American allies, grabbing money and arms, positioning themselves for the attack. Marcus Luttrell's Afghan savior is being hunted by the Taliban. ABC News cites sources who say that new-generation terror groups have developed novel explosives that are undetectable by airport screeners and may soon target passenger planes bound for Europe and America. NBC News warns to get ready for the blitz. "With ISIS forces nearing Baghdad's city limits, U.S. officials don't believe the relatively small, ill-equipped army of Islamic militants will be able to take the city by a frontal assault. Instead, they fear that ISIS will terrorize Baghdad by launching a wave of suicide bombings and possibly cutting off water and electricity to the city of 7.5 million."
Why, if this keeps up Kerry and Obama might even notice, especially if they unleash the car bomb blitz on New York City or Los Angeles. The contrast between the frivolous Western aristocrats and the hard-charging, innovative terror entrepreneurs could not be more striking.
What Old Money and Power find hardest to accept is that perhaps their scruffy, uncredentialed and coarse opponents might not only be their equals, but their superiors. One is beginning to suspect that the terror masters are better men -- not better or more capable men than normal Americans -- but better men than the aristocrats. The terror men are the sort who buy the cheapest acceptable limousine, not because they like it, but simply to make fun of the manners of their decadent victims before they detonate it as a car bomb.
The men in the White House are like grifters who inherited a great fortune and have unexpectedly come into clothes, cars, houses and jets without the slightest clue how they were earned. Not Downtown but Chitown Abbey. Amazed at their good fortune, they entertain hangers-on, clowns and toadies at lavish parties; they dispense tawdry gifts to the favored and Obamaphones to anyone who shows up at the door.
"Give him a handful and tell him to go away."
And when one day it comes crashing down, they won't even know why or have the quality to dignify it with the pathos of tragedy. It will just be sad. "Oh look, the beer's gone." F. Scott Fitzgerald, who chronicled the rise and fall of the rich perhaps better than anyone ever did, remarked that "it takes a genius to whine appealingly." By the looks of it, the grifters will be low-class to the end: sans talent, sans grace and sans a clue.
Recent items of interest by Belmont readers based on Amazon click-throughs.
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