[6 February 2012]
“Mitt Romney is a rich man, but is Mitt Romney’s character formed by his wealth? Is Romney a spoiled, cosseted character? Has he been corrupted by ease and luxury? The notion is preposterous.”
—David Brooks, “The Wealth Issue,” New York Times, 19 January 2012
“As a man is, so he sees.”
Whether we believe or not that a person’s character can be formed by wealth or, for that matter, by poverty, depends upon where and when the question is being addressed. It also depends upon whether we hold the notion of “character” as something shaped outside the circumstances of our own lives, or, whether we believe as Blake did that “as a man is, so he sees” and that therefore wealth sees through the lens of wealth.
At the present moment in the US, the answer to whether wealth affects perceptions would be David Brooks’s answer. It’s preposterous for us nowadays to think that anything shapes our own self-formation, our own self-design. We will ourselves to be what we choose to be regardless of any outside conditions. The wealthy man chooses to be wealthy and is not subject to his own choice. In short, we have all been watching Oprah, or have read Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, or enjoyed Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, as popular on PBS then in the `80s as Downton Abbey is now.
I don’t know what Mitt Romney’s own “Abbey” world is, but I get a view of wealth and privilege in the Downton drama. What the characters of Downton Abbey reveal is not only the play of chance that often confounds choice, but the power of social class to confine choice within established boundaries. If you’re Carson the butler and not the Earl of Grantham, your choices as the butler will not be the choices available to the Earl. Call this difference the product of economic difference. But there’s also a similitude here: Carson the butler and the Earl both share a respect for privilege, and this is so because they both live within the Abbey order of things.
What I take from this is that the closer we are to inhabiting the same world, the more we look at that world in the same or similar ways. Perceptions of other people and their problems has much to do with how closely linked we are to other people and their problems. Carson the butler goes about as puffed up in his “uniform” as the Earl does in his because Carson has identified with this world of privilege; he lives in the reality frame of Downton.
In the second season of the drama, when war comes to the Abbey, the Earl dons a military uniform to express his tightness with the war effort, his brother-in-arms affiliation with the convalescing soldiers. He makes an effort to bridge a divide, a divide that has existed since Earls and butlers came on the scene, but one that war is undermining. The ‘99%’ are fighting to preserve a world of privilege, a world of choices never available to them, a world that the ‘1%’ enjoys.
What war does is put all that center stage, pans in tight with the old camera lens. And the horrors of war no doubt serve to place life and death on that undeniable playing field of a mutually shared mortality. Alongside this is the power of a capitalism that nullifies aristocratic privilege and tradition in the face of a mutually shared quest for quick return on investments.
The Earl of Grantham seems to have an admirable character that remains unaffected by war or privilege. You can suppose that his character would be the commendable whether he was an Earl or a butler. That view of an underlying moral strength and integrity, a nobility or fineness of character resonates here and now as powerfully as does the story that we make of ourselves what we choose, that we all self-design our lives. We will our character into being.
I don’t subscribe to either story but think the issues are complex, in motion and heavily politicized. By “politicized” I mean brought to serve a purpose, not innocent of time and place, of the conditions and circumstances of our lives. I don’t subscribe to the view of an essential, foundational “character” which remains unaffected by what chance, war, wealth, poverty, family, power, memory and other people put before us. I believe that the transporting of “character” as in novel or play to something beyond dramatis personae, something qualitatively descriptive that reliably identifies us, is a sleight of hand gesture.
Perhaps you can make some reliable judgment of “character” based on a knowledge of actions taken, of behavior over time in a variety of circumstances. Perhaps life partners can do that. Perhaps also the results may only indicate a complexity of responses, some perhaps even contradictory. I refuse to stand in judgment of something so ungraspable as “character”. I won’t cast a vote based on an allegation that someone has an estimable “character”. I would, however, cast a vote in a society just reaching awareness that a class war has been ongoing since the Reagan-era, and it is based on which side of the wealth divide a candidate is aligned: Have or Have Not.
The kind of question we can realistically deal with is this: Will a life of wealth and power affect perceptions and therefore the reality frame one lives within? And, most importantly in regard to someone seeking the presidency, will a career of wealth and power fence or “high hedge” leadership within a compound that excludes the ‘99%’? Could not someone commended for his or her “character” yet be totally imaginatively incapable of seeing the world outside the boundaries of that commendable “character”?
I’m not giving up on my incredulity toward acquiring any reliable sense of what we mean by “character” because whether you find it knowable or not doesn’t matter. What matters in a society with a wealth divide bigger than the Grand Canyon is whether those who fly over the canyon in private jets see the rest of us no more clearly than as specks down in the canyon?
In response to the observation that FDR had both wealth and privilege and identified with the ‘99%’ to the tune of the New Deal, a liberal enfranchisement that Neoliberals are dedicated to dismantling, I say FDR did advocate on the side of his own class. The creation of a strong middle class after WWII established a defense against any formidable leftist assault, of any socialist variety. The economic and thereby social mobility resulting from FDR’s actions brought the wealthy class into a comprehensible non-inflammatory role: if you worked hard enough you could join the wealthy.
Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, began what has been a 32 year tearing down of that compact between classes which, while leaving the ‘99%’ (I comply here with Occupy Wall Street’s ‘99%’ because it has a present day impact but it is unquestionable that the top 20 percent of income earners have little incentive to alter their own well-being) in increasingly dire straits, has also exposed the wealthy in a manner that historically has not turned out well for them.Since the astronomical increase in wealth of a small percentage of the population which began in the `80s, on through the “affluenza” of the `90s and right up to and beyond the Great Recession of 2008, a recession “financially engineered” by too much power in the hands of the too wealthy, there has been a satellite effort to form a new dictionary of meaning, a reassignment of word and world.
Those who enjoy huge bonuses and limited taxes or tax rebates are the new “entitled”, the deserving “winners” who are irreplaceable. Those who fire workers are only “creatively destroying” them, a “liberation”. The more money you return to those who already have your money, the more “creative” capitalism, which is “self-correcting”, can be. If you hold an ancient view that “self-interest” is what civilization works to convert into an interest in others, your chances for survival in the competitive arena are slim. If you don’t believe that you can will your way to success, that only you can shape your destiny, then someone like Saul Alinsky has gotten into your head. If you believe that anyone who thinks an annual income of $350, 000 is “not much” and is prepared to bet $10,000 on a factual check issue doesn’t share the world you live in, then your mind has been clouded by a liberal press.
I don’t think Mitt Romney has been “corrupted” by “ease” and “luxury” because I’ve only observed “corruption” in the pipes of my Nissan pick-up truck. I can’t recognize it in people. I don’t even know if “ease” and “luxury” are the conditions of Romney’s life. Like many, I have not had many opportunities to observe “ease” and “luxury” except in museums and European castle tours. But I do think we are enveloped within the social, political and, most importantly, economic circumstances of our lives. I think that the ways we experience life shapes our perceptions, our thoughts and our actions, and further, that what we need right now in the US are leaders whose own enveloped lives are not drastically removed from 80 percent of the population.
We are not above or beyond or external to, or certainly in command by will of the world within which we live, a world that may have little resemblance to the world of others, through no fault of our own. Heidegger notes that what we make of the planet is a human life-world through a uniquely human process of “worlding”. What the world may be independent of our human worlding, we cannot know, though now a school of speculative realists are engaging that most intriguing issue. I do know that Romney is Earl at Downton Abbey, and I think I’m probably Thomas, the footman.
I’ll take my preposterous belief that wealth shapes our being a bit further and point out that part of Romney’s lackluster appeal has to do with wealth. Because wealth is so obviously an indication of how a person is in the world, how they see things, a wealthy candidate is a boring candidate because his wealth makes him totally explicable and predictable. I should add “in a capitalist society”, because the path here is so well-known: competition on one marketing frontier after another, increased profits as each frontier is “opened.”
The last frontier is history and that’s the one Romeny wants to open—and win—within. Success needs to be memorialized beyond any present success. Because there’s nothing too surprising in this ambition made by an ambitious man in a culture in which such ambition “goes without saying,” there’s no excitement in watching him go through the steps.
Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, is interesting to watch because there’s nothing so transparent as wealth to clue us as to how he sees the world. The culture, in short, doesn’t clearly brand him, although Gingrich is a product of a society that has raised self-absorption and personal will-to-power to great heights. With Gingrich, there’s always the chance of a detouring from expectations, an aberrance that draws our attention.
Rather than the transparency of wealth, there is in Gingrich the transparency of ego, a sort of overriding, all influences ego. Whereas a rich man sees the world through the eyes of a rich man, an egoist bound in a narcissist stage sees only himself. There is, of course, a certain pathology to this. But pathology is interesting; Gingrich’s exuberant self-confidence projected in sharp quips makes him a dramatis persona on a stage with the lifeless.
Pathology empowered, of course, is something else. When a necessary egoism displaying a self-assuredness and self-concern remains focused only on self-interest and fails to expand to a real interest in others, you can expect a detachment from others, an empathetic and compassionate detachment, that transforms an interesting and charismatic political candidate into one whom we need to be wary. Wealth and privilege call for wariness on the part of the voter and so, too, does narcissism.
In both cases – Romney and Gingrich—there’s a deficiency in being able to imagine the lives of others. A society severely torn by a wealth divide and by an economics that avows the blind force of a “Creative Destruction” is in desperate need of attachment and not detachment. The privileged ego and the aberrant ego are not promising palliatives in a country that is darkly and viciously divided.
Downton Abbey‘s appeal to an American audience may have much to do with a sense of security that social hierarchy imparts, a society in which economic disparity is contained by anaristocratic order. But American democracy cannot escape its own far different political order; Downton Abbey remains an escape to what our own divisive politics cannot provide. It’s a momentary and unconscious escape, one to be rejected immediately by a staunch American pride and patriotism when brought to a reflective level. We are able to dismiss any sense that aberrant ego can be contained and constrained in the US, as we imagine it could in the Downton world. We can also dismiss any sense that the detachment that great wealth brings can prove as effective now in the US as we imagine it confirming the order of Downton.
Romney is more clearly the Earl of Grantham than Gingrich is any of the characters we can identify. Gingrich’s dramatic self-inflation onto the national stage is the legacy of a “one among equals” aspiring society, and not the aristocratic society of Downton. Gingrich is also the product of a society that has raised self-interest to the level of highest good.
The Downton world, on the other hand, allows its hierarchical order to blow the trumpet of ego and therefore no ego need perform its own self-inflation. Self-interest becomes something a gentleman never reveals. And so there is no place for Gingrich in Downton. It’s not surprising, then, that Romney seems to be somewhat puzzled by Gingrich’s presence alongside him in the Republican primary.
Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, at a 2011 Republican debate
Joseph Natoli has written about postmodernity, popular culture and politics in numerous books and articles. His first e-book, Occupying Here & Now: The New Class Warfare (January 2012), is available on Amazon Kindle. Links to all his writing can be found at www.josephnatoli.com