Thursday, August 09, 2007

America--Land of Wealth, Privilege, and Aristocracy?

When I was growing up, way back in the middle of the twentieth century, everyone "knew" that the U.S. was the land of democracy, freedom, and equality--not just in a political sense but in a social and economic sense as well. Movies, books, TV shows, cartoons, newspaper and magazine columns, advertisements, and other forms of pop culture all routinely played off the notion that, in America, everyone up to and including the president was "just plain folks," while in Europe the old spectres of class, caste, and hereditary aristocracy continued to haunt society, repressing individual freedom and making life a lot more boring, stodgy, and stifling.

Hence the stock imagery of the breezy, informal American (played by Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart) turning up at a British fox hunt, a French dinner party, or an Italian embassy ball and shocking (yet secretly delighting) the stuffy, overdressed Europeans with his casual, friendly, unassuming manners. The unspoken message: We Americans don't give a hoot about class distinctions, wealth, or privilege. We just take every person as he or she comes, and we delight in deflating pomp and arrogance.

Well, that was then. Today, it seems, as the wealthy overlords of America's new Gilded Age become ever more entrenched, the real bulwark of the spirit of egalitarian democracy is now what Donald Rumsfeld once derided as "old Europe." According to this story in today's Times, the latest blockbuster bestseller in Italy is a The Caste, book denouncing the class privilege and insularity enjoyed by the nation's politicians:
If sales of the book are a good measure, the authors seem to have caught the wave of a widespread malaise here. Since it was published in mid-May, "The Caste" has sold 630,000 copies, a phenomenon in a country where a nonfiction book is considered a best seller once it hits the 20,000 mark.

"What's striking is how the book exploded off the shelves," said Giuliano Vigini, a publishing expert.

Cesare Salvi, a senator with the Democrats of the Left, said: "Sure, I've read it. More unfortunately for politicians, everybody's reading it." Mr. Salvi's own 2005 book about the political machine, "The Cost of Democracy," will come out in paperback in September.
What's more, the book seems to be having an impact on the privileged politicians it attacks:
In July, Italian politicians tried to repair their image. The cabinet approved a bill aimed at "containing the costs of politics and administrative apparatus." Parliamentary leaders agreed to $82 million in cuts. Members of Parliament will now get smaller pensions, and only after five years in office. Their pensions will also be frozen if they hold other public offices. Also cut was an annual $4,200 stipend that lawmakers could use for study abroad.
By contrast, as income inequality and the concentration of power among privileged political and business leaders continues to rise here in the U.S., the general public seems to be reacting not with outrage and protests but with bored yawns. And the few people who find these trends outrageous, like John Edwards, are rewarded with attacks on their "hypocrisy": "How can he speak out on behalf of the poor when he himself is not poor?!"

I guess the American economic and political systems are going to have to become even more unresponsive to the needs of the average person--and show even more signs of flirting with a general collapse, as they did in the 1930s--before the outrage level will rise high enough to revive the old attitudes of disdain for unearned privilege and respect for egalitarianism . . . attitudes I once thought were permanently engrained in the American character.

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