The rich can be anything, even different people, but you can't
© 2016 Gage Skidmore used under a Creative Commons license
One thing I’ve noticed (and maybe you have too) is that many things that were once considered to be part of every American’s birthright has been cordoned off for the rich, or at least the richer.
The most obvious stuff has to do with money. When I was a kid it was not uncommon for a single-earner family — whose income might come from a factory or grocery-store or even a farm job — to own a decent house, have a decent car (and change it out when it broke down), and have regular if modest vacations. And if the kids went to college it might be tough but it wouldn’t bankrupt either them or their parents.
Today that’s all something a two-earner family might aspire to — and that’s if no one gets sick and they didn’t pick the wrong health insurance, and neither partner’s job goes poof. As for college, well, kids, the schools ain’t charging any less, and the big companies you’ll be begging for an entry-level middle-class job when you get out ain’t paying any better.
Oh, and that’s another thing: If you want to feel safe, better not think about trying to find yourself, or exploring different ways of life or riding the rails the way romantic young people, including poor ones, used to do, confident that they had plenty of time to pick a direction. No, you better get on a white-collar career track quick and stick at it forever because pensions are getting shittier and Social Security’s a joke. And you better pick your job — like you better pick your college major — with both eyes on the long green, because life is merciless and “work-life balance” is strictly for closers. When your income and assets can be measured in the millions, maybe then you can shell out for the Ride the Rails Experience with dedicated hobo sherpas and artisanal Sterno.
Everyone knows the name of that tune: The working class, increasingly, is the working poor. In decades past the Robert J. Samuelsons of the world would tell you feminism and not economic need made two-earner families necessary and actually you’re really richer than your dad because you have modern conveniences (“If people want to duplicate their parents' lifestyles, they can unplug their air-conditioners, sell one of their cars” — LOL — “discard their VCRs and PCs” — ROTFLMAO). But now? The neos and nabobs don’t even try anymore; they just punt to “nobody wants to work anymore.”
Now, while all that has to do with money, you’ll notice some of it has to do with life choices — the kind you could make in the Old America without risking large penalties. Didn’t ever go to college or work a desk job? Some decades back there was still a chance that you would not die in a rooming house when your tank ran out of oxygen as a result. Today I wouldn’t take the odds.
I think about that whenever some toff makes a big switcheroo like Gwyneth Paltrow going from movie star to lifestyle brand huckster and someone uses that as an example of how to manifest dreams or some shit. I know some people go into steep debt believing in themselves before their ship comes in, which makes the whole thing a heroic happy-ending story, but you never hear about those people when the ship never arrives and they descend into hopeless poverty. The first rung of the ladder is way higher than it used to be, and if you lose your place among the basically respectable, it’s a bitch getting back. But for the rich there’s no risk beyond a possible, short negative media cycle.
I also think about gentrification in this context — how the lovely old buildings and neighborhoods the poor once had to themselves are now so rapidly colonized and gut-reno’d by the swells that it’s literally becoming a situation where as soon as they find out the poor have something nice they seize it. I think about moving to Baltimore partly because it’s still too funky for them.
But you know what really burns me? One of the great things about being an American used to be that you could reinvent yourself.
Remember that one? A person could sneak out of town, change his name, and start a new life. Immigrants were presumed to have left their homes so they could do reinvent themselves in America. Jay Gatsby and Don Draper ditto. Sure, most of the people who did it weren’t going to have a glamorous Archie-Leach-to-Cary-Grant transition, but it was doable. Credit reports, REAL ID, and the various other hook-ups to the Central Office one now needs to get even the meanest jobs and lodgings weren’t there to keep them from doing it.
Here too the rich have taken from us and taken over. Only they can “reinvent” themselves — and without even having to obliterate any traces of their old selves.
Take Glenn Beck.
Glenn Beck has been a nightmare and a grifter for many years. But unlike a lot of other rightwing con artists, he’s been slippery about what he’s doing and why. Even when he was pouring conspiracy theory gibberish into his followers, part of his con has been that he had suffered and his suffering had made him sensitive and that was why his people knew they could trust him. He dished out inspirational messages as well as watered-down blood libel.
But at intervals Beck tells his marks that he’s seen the light and has changed his ways. After Trump won in 2016, for example, we started seeing stories about how “Glenn Beck is Sorry” — sorry that he enabled Trump’s rise, that is — and had repented and would try to be a healing force in America from now on (“Don’t take my word for it. Watch my actions. I don’t care what you think about me. All I care about is saying, Please, don’t make the mistake I made.”)
Welp, maybe you know or can guess what happened next: By 2020 Beck was back at the whiteboard foaming at the mouth, telling the multitudes Joe Biden represented an existential threat to the nation. “We are not fighting the Democrats,” he said; “we are fighting Satan himself.” He credited “chiropractic brain rehabilitation” with “rebooting” his brain.
Now guess who was on Twitter yesterday with this heartwarming message?
His feed is still full of rightwing garbage (“The border is totally secure? Quantifiable LIE”), but one of the things about the rich being able to reinvent themselves is, not only can they be new people whenever they want and with hardly any effort at all — they don’t even have to bother covering the tracks of their old selves. They can be a new person for a day, week, month at a time — then slip back over the border, so to speak, into the Old Them.
If you tried to do that you’d be called on it in a minute, and maybe put in a straitjacket. But the rich can be born again as many times as they like, and everyone just rolls with it.
The money thing is bad enough, but it begins to look like the rich’s share of everything good have expanded to include the existential. I begin to feel that taxing them isn’t good enough — they may have to be dissolved as a class.
That’s how we should open the negotiations, anyway.