Wealth & power

Hypocrisy is often dismissed as a humdrum moral vice; rather as pæderasty, or buggery, or commissioning abortions: things considered very grave in the past, but now quite acceptable among progressive persons. One feels almost cruel, or envious, to criticize the adept hypocrite. How dare we try to withdraw the air in which he lives and breathes? “Zero tolerance” is directed at more serious vices, such as having wrong opinions, or voting Republican.

As Paul Valéry said, “Power without abuse loses its charm,” and when, for instance, a governor who proclaims crippling Batflu restrictions is seen ignoring them, he is outraged. His critics are his opponents, he reasons; they really ought to be investigated first!

A milder, general criticism is sometimes made, about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. How is it that prominent environmentalists burn so much jet fuel in their travels from one conference to another, at the world’s most lavish resorts? Shouldn’t they go about in sackcloth and ashes, as they tell us to do?

This is to misunderstand their hypocrisy. We assume they are motivated by greed, and the love of pleasure, the way we would be. But why must it be piled on so thick? Many a jetsetter hardly uses the jacuzzis. He takes a quick shower, because he has another aeroplane to catch.

Yes, most people are attracted to the sumptuous, but in a fine and private way. They rarely encourage the paparazzi, or wish to be watched over their fences and walls. They hire security, to scare trespassers away. Servants, up to a point, must be endured, but in the past they could be ignored, the way we ignore appliances. I may not have a toaster, but I do have a stove, and could swear that it is staring at me. But it was manufactured in the 1960s, so I needn’t fear it has an Internet connexion. And besides, if it did, it wouldn’t be reporting to the tabloids, but to technical staff. We try to ignore them, at least so long as we can pretend they are equivalent to our maids and butlers.

It is hard for a modern to understand wealth; especially as it is so often distributed among the lowest classes, who rose to prominence through politics or business. In the past we understood why the prince lived well. He was born to that station. He needed the wealth, and to be seen flaunting it, as a mark of his power. His subjects might not take him seriously if he didn’t have a palace. They might laugh at him.

Our misunderstandings come from attributing to unthinking hypocrisy, what is perfectly calculated. For the truth is, human nature never changes, and wealth continues to express power. Hypocrisy, itself, is a signal of high station. I continue to enjoy the excuse of a Canadian Liberal politician, who was “called out” for obscene self-indulgence at the taxpayer’s expense, by a Parliamentary committee. He angrily rejoined, “I am entitled to my entitlements.” Like a Nancy Pelosi showing off the extravagant contents of her refrigerators, he was duly re-elected. Impressing the peasantry is an essential task.

Why don’t “conservatives” understand? The answer is, they are also moderns, and often have the same “born yesterday” quality they attribute to the “liberals.” They don’t understand, for instance, that it is their wealth and fame that entitles the Hollywood stars to mouth off, whether or not they know anything. You’d think we’d get that.

Wealth is a means to display power, much more than vice versa, but as power leads to amassing more wealth, hooo. It is a natural phenomenon, like the water cycle. The pretence of using one’s power to advance the public weal, is no different now than it was in the 15th century; or in the 10th, &c. And there were satirists then, too.