Wednesday, July 1, 2009



I am in a rush this morning. But I have enough time to say that I do not like the television show "NYC Prep." It is about six ultra-rich white Upper East Side prep school students who talk incessantly about clothes, advantages and money. They cannot reveal their names or their parents' names for fear that they might be abducted. It is as if they know that their wealth and lifestyles immediately inspire resentment in viewers.

Wealth divides Americans as much as it divides citizens in any other civilization. While we can talk about theoretical inequality all day, it is something else to see the way really privileged people live. It evokes true populist nausea. Most people struggle from paycheck to paycheck their whole lives. They never seem to get anywhere. Their parents had nothing to give and they didn't know anyone who could get them a job that actually could lead someplace. Yet the children on NYC Prep worry about whether they will receive a Mercedes or BMW on their 16th Birthday. How could a wage-earner or debtor not feel outrage when they hear about such blatant excesses?

As I watched these children move through luxurious apartments laughing, texting and planning European excursions, I thought to myself: "This is the kind of stuff that started the French Revolution." And my thoughts led me further: "Wouldn't it be satisfying to guillotine these little assholes along with their absurdly wealthy parents?" That would finally put some fear in them, wouldn't it?

Class inequality starts trouble when enough people realize how bad it really is. Class inequality touches both an emotional and a philosophical nerve. In America, wealthy people do a good job concealing their lives and lifestyles from public scrutiny. But when they come to light, outrage is swift and almost bloodthirsty. Human beings have an innate intuition about fairness. When they see some people with everything, while they struggle for nothing, they cannot help feeling that unfairness is afoot. When these emotions reach a critical mass, revolutions happen. Anger about unfairness topples governments. That's what happened in France in 1789. That was a bad year to be rich.

Revolutions excite me. I love studying them because I love reading about times during which old orders break down and the law fails. In pre-Revolutionary France, for instance, the law supported the wealthy. By law, they maintained their status, property and unequal privileges. But that did not give them right. In fact, the people smashed the law and killed those who violated right. The same thing happened in Russia in 1917. Revolutions obliterate unfair legal systems and the unequal social structures they support. Yet in both France and Russia, there was a spark that ignited smoldering resentments. Both France and Russia experienced international turmoil prior to their revolutions that weakened the law's grip. Thus, a historical pattern emerges: Revolutions happen when two things are present: (1) Massive popular resentment caused by social inequality and wealth disparity; and (2) A destabilizing event at home or abroad that compromises the law's power to restrain dissent.

In America, we have not fulfilled either prerequisite for revolution. While there is enormous social inequality and wealth disparity in America, there is a substantial counterbalance. Namely, there are millions of middle-class people who are sufficiently content with their economic lot that they are not prepared to risk comfort for something better. Additionally, America has never faced the kind of truly devastating "destabilizing event" that weakens faith in government altogether. America has not faced crippling wars in which millions of civilians die. Nor has its currency ever gone worthless, as it did in Germany in the 1920s. Put simply, America is quite stable. And that stability enables the law to control resentment engendered by social inequality. Unfairness, in other words, can survive in peaceful times when enough people really don't give a damn. This is the case in America today.

But resentment lives. You can feel it the minute you tune into NYC Prep and wonder how it is possible that some people have it so easy. And you'll have to forgive yourself for your intuitive desire to dethrone these modern-day nobles. Revolution or not, we can still dream about how gratifying it would be to humble these petulant bon vivants. After all, it's in our nature to recoil from intuitive unfairness.


Timoteo said...

Well said. As long as we have our big screen TVs and our SUVs, most Americans don't give a damn what happens here or anywhere else in the world.

Anonymous said...

during the presidential campaign, the first line on Obama's website asked people to volunteer and "Join the Revolution"