Thursday, September 08, 2005

Tycoons and an Economically Stratified Society

Tuesday I used the phrase the Right’s “desire for an economically stratified society” to partially explain the line from Barry’s Boys:

Back to when the poor were poor and rich were richAnd you felt so damn secure just knowing which were which.

Ever since that concept of “an economically stratified society” came into my mind, I have been thinking of the opening chapter of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s uncompleted novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon. The setting is an airplane trip across country during the Great Depression. The passengers are all from among what I have heard called the “privileged class”—i.e., the rich who inherited their wealth. During the Depression, only the wealthy could afford to fly across the United States.

Back then trans-continental air travel wasn’t measured in hours but in days, to the passengers had ample time for extended and multiple conversation with one another. A primary topic of conversation was these affluent folks’ fear of a revolution by the impoverished that would strip them of their wealth. It was 1932 and the time of the Bonus Army was camped in Washington, D.C., making demands on President Hoover and Congress. Each of these rich folks feared a revolution and, to some extent, their becoming impoverished in the aftermath. Not all, of course, feared destitution. Fitzgerald writes:

It was in the very lowest time of the Depression and the young actress kept staring out the window in such an intent way that the stewardess was afraid she was contemplating a leap. It appeared though that she was not afraid of poverty, but only of revolution.

“I know what Mother and I are going to do,” she confided to the stewardess. "We’re coming out to Yellowstone and we’re just going to live simply till it blows over. Then we’ll come back. They don’t kill artists—you know?”

There are many other allusions to the wealthy classes’ fears of socio-economic classes “below” their privileged class. Some are in literature, others are in song. Unfortunately, for the most part, few are in the history books we use to teach our children. For example, I love reading history. Yet, I was in college before I encountered anything about the Bonus Army and the role it played in the American saga. That first insight came to me not from a history book, but from the singing of Woody Guthrie.

I must end this post with questioning my own statement: do the wealthy and privileged classes of the United States today truly want an “economically stratified society?” Since I am not among those folks, I can’t answer that question. However, based upon my knowledge of history and comments and actions of politics of the Right, I tend to believe that they do. I will continue to ponder this: as Sam Keen has said, the answer to a good question usually leads to another question.

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