All of this is supposed to be merry, high-jinksy, unpretentious, wickedly self-spoofing. But it seems more self-exposing, doesn’t it?
And all of it feels so decadent.
No one wants to be the earnest outsider now, no one wants to play the sober steward, no one wants to be the grind, the guy carrying around a cross of dignity. No one wants to be accused of being staid. No one wants to say, “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”
And it is all about the behavior of our elites, our upper classes, which we define now in a practical sense as those who are successful, affluent and powerful. This group not only includes but is almost limited to our political class, Wall Street, and the media, from Hollywood to the news divisions.
They’re all kind of running America.
They all seem increasingly decadent.
What are the implications of this, do you think?
They’re making their videos, holding their parties and having a ball. OK. But imagine you’re a Citizen at Home just grinding through—trying to do it all, the job, the parenthood, the mowing the lawn and paying the taxes. No glamour, all responsibility and effort. And you see these little clips on the Net where the wealthy sing about how great taxpayer bailouts are and you feel like . . . they’re laughing at you.
What happens to a nation whose elites laugh at its citizens?
What happens to its elites?
That’s nice rhetoric; I ask the same questions. Unfortunately, the answer I get is: nothing much. We don’t care.
Should we care? Of course we should care. But we don’t, not really.
Those elites get away with it because we either don’t know what to do about them, or can’t muster the political focus and will to do anything at all about them. After the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, we couldn’t even get a proper Pecora Commission. Then again, Pecora got to be Pecora because the American public of the 1930s demanded it. Us? Not so much.
Why not? Serious question: Why not? What has changed about American culture to make us so unserious about these things? I have a friend who used to have a high position in a Wall Street bank, who came to himself at one of his bank’s ultra-luxurious international retreats in the early 2000s, and realized that all that money had made him and his colleagues crazy. It frightened him so much, the decadence all around him, that he returned to the practice of his Jewish faith.
I was thinking just now about Huey P. Long, and how the hard times of the 1920s, and the so-called “Bourbons” — the elites that ruled Louisiana back then — produced Long’s governorship. Mind you, Long was an extremely savvy politician and peerless orator. He played the peckerwood on the stump, but he was so intelligent that he finished Tulane Law School in a single year and passed the state bar. He never went to college as an undergraduate; despite winning a debate scholarship to LSU, he couldn’t attend because he couldn’t afford the textbooks. Anyway, Long had a matchless political mind and fire in his belly to fight the state’s elites. He got the poor majority behind him, and worked wonders to change the lives of the poor for the better. But he also became fabulously corrupt and dictatorial, as we all know. He was one of the all-time great American demagogues, but he wouldn’t have gotten far at all if the political and economic system in place hadn’t been stacked against the many for the gain of the few.
So maybe America is waiting for a new and very different Huey P. Long today: someone who can articulate the grievances of the many, and focus their anger on effective political measures to make things more fair, or at least less abusive. Be careful what you wish for, though. The power Long had to break the grip of the Bourbons made a monster out of him, and saddled Louisiana with a political legacy of statism and corruption that we’ve never quite been able to overcome.
The political torpor we Americans have in the face of our decadent elites is troubling, no doubt, and frustrating to we who favor capitalism, but who know that capitalism requires moral capital to work as it should. It seems to me that history shows that elites who do not reform themselves will end up being reformed, one way or the other — either by the Huey Longs and Hugo Chavezes, or by more drastic means. It’s worth thinking about what responsibility the rest of us may have if a vicious regime should come to power promising stern reform. I’m thinking about what the Russian Orthodox priest Father Arseny said in the gulag, to which the Bolsheviks sent him, when he was dragged into a dispute among prisoners over who is the most to blame for the curse of the Bolshevik Revolution. The priest reportedly said:
You say that the Communists have arrested the believers, closed churches, trampled on faith. Yes, it does look that way, on the surface, but let us look into this more deeply, let us glance at the past. Among us Russian people many have lost the faith, lost respect for our past, we lost much of what was precious and good. Who is at fault? The authorities? No, we are at fault ourselves, we are only reaping what we ourselves have sown.
Let us remember the bad examples set by the intelligentsia, the nobility, the merchants, and the civil servants. We in the priesthood were the worst of them all.
Children of priests became atheists, and revolutionaries, simply because they had seen in their families lies and a lack of true faith. Long before the revolution priests had already lost the real right to be the shepherds of their people, of their conscience. Priesthood became a profession. Many priests were atheists and alcoholics.
From among all the monasteries of our land, only five or six were real beacons of Christianity. … Others became communities with almost no faith in them. What could the people learn from such monasteries? What kind of example was set?
We did not raise our people right, we did not give them the basis of strong faith. Remember all this! Remember! This is why the people were so quick to forget all of us, their own priests; they mainly forgot their faith and participated in the destruction of churches, sometimes even leading the way in their destruction.
Understanding all of this, I cannot point a finger at our authorities, because the seeds of faithlessness fell on the soil which we ourselves had prepared. And from there comes the rest: our camp, our sufferings, the wrongful deaths of innocent people. … The seeds of faithlessness fell on the soil which we ourselves had prepared.
The book about Father Arseny is here. It is worth asking ourselves how we contribute to the decadence we see among the superrich of Wall Street, if only by our passivity. Because if, God forbid, a Huey P. Long or a Hugo Chavez comes to power in this country, it won’t be solely the fault of the wealthy men and women who dined at the St. Regis Hotel.