Carole Owens The rich will always be with us
Odd but true that in our country, there has always been support for economic inequality. The Occupy Movement may be actually dead or merely closed due to weather. Either way the movement contributed awareness to our public dialogue and terms to our vocabulary.
We now know there is economic inequality. We remember there used to be in the 19th century. Later, in the 1950s to the 1970s, we assumed there was not. Now Occupy has told us that once again there is. Post Occupy, everyone everywhere mentions this inequality. No news report is complete without the latest statistic on disproportionate distribution, or the terms "the 1 percent" and "the 99 percent."
Ever wonder why the disproportionate distribution of wealth is so extreme -- 99 to 1 -- but a movement against this disproportionate distribution is never more than 50-50? Might not the majority rise up in protest? Yet they do not and rarely have. Why not?
First and foremost we believe in American mobility. We buy the dream that anyone can grow up to be president and anyone can be a billionaire. We believe the game is fair, not rigged, and honest hard work will result in economic security. We believe lightening does strike: With a dollar and a dream, that is a lottery ticket or a patent, you can become one of the 1 percent at least the 10 percent. Therefore, don’t attack the rich; don’t knock ‘em, try and join ‘em.
Possibly the strongest sales pitch for economic inequity was Social Darwinism. The rise of Social Darwinism was concomitant with the rise of the 19th century nouveau riche. It was simple: Darwin’s theory "the fittest survive" could and should be applied to humans. The theory was first propounded in England where they had blood lines so the English were uninterested in wealth being accumulated by clever commoners. Exporting Social Darwinism to America, it found its natural home.
America in the 19th century was replete with wealth without pedigree. Social Darwinism was welcome information: American rich were biologically superior, more fit. With the aid of minister and master orator Henry Ward Beecher, Social Darwinism was married to the Church. The new religious Social Darwinism offered strong support for the invidious comparison. That is, it justified the rich their riches, and the poor deserving of their poverty. God made the superior rich, and the morally inferior, the faithless, poor.
Social Darwinism has never dropped from the American dialogue, and in fact, we fight about it every election cycle. The poor are poor because they are immoral or lazy, and they must pull themselves up by their own boot straps versus we have a communal obligation to those blameless and less fortunate. The rich are the best among us, the job creators, and the font from whom the majority’s well-being trickles down versus there can be no democracy or political equality when there is striking economic inequality and inequitable distribution of resources. It is an argument never resolved only refought.
After the Depression, we developed a new approach: Leave the rich in peace, and ignore their existence. How? It was the "can’t buy you love" campaign. The "I may not be rich but I sleep at night; I can look myself in the mirror" campaign. It devalued money in story and myth; made fun of and only mildly vilified the rich. These stories characterized the rich as not very clever and not very lovable until the day they meet someone from the middle class, have their eyes opened, give away their money (not all of it), and become lovable as a teddy bear. The real lovers, the popular among their fellows, were struggling financially but Clarence rang the bell on their Christmas tree.
These myths did the job: It made the rich irrelevant and almost invisible. After the preceding decades of being blamed for the Depression and called robber barons, anonymity was just what they wanted.
What do they want now? Probably just what they are getting: post-apocalyptical tales. Books, movies, and computer games that all tell the same story: scorched earth, the end of everything, in short, the promotion of hopelessness.
"It is what it is," as the kids would say. Can’t change it; don’t try. Promoting hopelessness protects the status quo just as Social Darwinism explained and defended it, and "can’t buy you love" diminished the importance of it.
They used to say: The poor will always be with us. What is more frightening is so will the rich.
Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.
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