Recently I saw some TV clips from MSNBC and CNN, one critiquing Herman Cain, the other an interview with Michael Moore. They both reminded me that one of strangest aspects of modern American society is the system of indulgences that permeates our entire culture.
In a nutshell, our American elites, even if well-meaning with real concern for the less fortunate, have adopted the medieval practice of compartmentalization. Loud demonstrations of general progressive piety exempt one from consistency. Our medieval ancestors could practice usury if they helped repair a collapsed nave or joined a Crusade, as traditional Christianity tried to deal with an imperfect world of important Christians who did not wish to live by their doctrine.
Today, liberalism puts a comparable burden on its elites: can one occupy Wall Street and still enjoy the luxury of that iPhone 4s? Did the university professor in Zuccotti Park worry about Wall Street when his TIAA-CREF account used to return 8% plus per annum? Can we still jet to Tuscany and worry about carbon footprints? Can we live in Chevy Chase, Malibu, or Woodside and be stalwarts on the barricades of racial integration and multiculturalism? How can we make $200,000 a year as assistant vice provost for diversity affairs, when a part-time lecturer gets 1/5 for the same class a full-time, top-step professor teaches?
Examine the burdens of modern liberal exemption and indulgence.
Democratic strategist and MSNBC analyst Karen Finney said this the other day, “One of the things about Herman Cain is, I think that he makes that white Republican base of the party feel okay, feel like they are not racist because they can like this guy. I think he giving that base a free pass. And I think they like him because they think he’s a black man who knows his place. I know that’s harsh, but that’s how it sure seems to me.”
Accusing either Cain of being an Uncle Tom sort or his supporters of being racists in backing a supposedly minstrel-like African-American (and that is what the successful entrepreneurial Cane is reduced to) is now a sort of standard left-wing narrative. There are no repercussions in such smears, no charges of racism. I assume that when Cain authentically drops his g’s, he is a sort of embarrassment to the liberal elite; when Obama does that in front of the Black Caucus, apparently we are to assume that this is some sort of wink-and-nod necessity for the former Harvard Law Review editor to do the necessary pandering to his “base.” Indulgences for racist stereotyping are purchased by loud proclamations of liberalism. Were Cornel West or Harry Belafonte a conservative, their rantings would long ago have been written off as false-consciousness racism.
Michael Moore’s wealth is usually pegged around $50 million. If half his fortune were liquid and conservatively put into a savings account at about 2% interest, Moore’s annual income would be about $500,000 per year. That income would easily put him into the now hated “1%”, a group which he and others have blasted as schemers who benefit from capitalism at the expense of the 99%.
Yet when asked about his own 1% status recently on CNN, Moore was left sputtering and grasping for straws about his high-school education and all the philanthropic things he does. In other words, his liberal fides supposedly purchase him an indulgence from the supposed sins of being rich — in the manner that the left, the media, and popular culture do not go after George Soros for nearly breaking the Bank of England (making a $1 billion profit in currency speculation), or being convicted of insider trading in France (upheld on appeal). There are no signs at Occupy Wall Street damning the Soros speculations that fund "good" causes.
Savvy wealthy people — whether the Kennedy Trust beneficiaries, a Bill Gates, or Warren Buffett — understand that minimizing tax exposure, trying to avoid federal inheritance taxes through foundations, or accumulating vast riches are, in the liberal sense of ethics, offset by progressive platitudes. In short, we are supposed to think differently of John Kerry trying to avoid taxes on his multimillion-dollar superfluous yacht than we do of a car dealer’s Lexus. Warren Buffett can praise big government and higher taxes as the indulgence necessary to feel OK about shorting the government billions of future inheritance taxes by giving his fortune to a privately-run foundation that apparently is felt to be more efficient than the Department of Human Services, who, after all, could use the cash in these times of mega-deficits.
Greener Than Thou
Rarely have indulgences been more transparent than in the carbon-offset racket of the early 21st century, in which Al Gore and others established companies to do green audits on millionaires, enabling them to keep the big Malibu beach house, the Net jet account, or the 20,000 sq. ft. estate. Burning nearly 20,000 kilowatts per month or flying on private jets is the sort of indulgence purchased by Earth in the Balance or An Inconvenient Truth.
Green indulgences allow one to consume almost anything one wishes, to such an extent that one can assume that usually the loudest and most influential green advocates are themselves greater than average consumers of carbon. Loud advocacy of cap-and-trade might win you release from the purgatory of a rather large house.