The Glitter is Gone
Listen to “The Glitter is Gone” by Fred Smith
In the past there has always been an unspoken bond between the very rich “one percent” of our world and the rest of us.
During the Great Depression, people flocked to the movies to escape the harshness of their lives and catch a momentary peek at the one percent who were doing well. For years, the most popular movies were those with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers floating around dance floors in formal wear, drinking champagne and enjoying the life of high society. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s bleak, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me…They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are…” did not keep people from enjoying the fantasy life of their favorite celebrities. They lifted spirits in hopes of a better time.
In the 60s, we all were caught up in the fairy tale of Camelot as lived through the Kennedy clan. They not only enjoyed all the benefits of great wealth but were beautiful, brilliant and athletic. The Kennedy family embodied what we wanted America to represent and became our royalty as no other family until then – or since – has been. We excused their imperfections and absorbed all the details of their enchanted lives.
In 1984 Robin Leach created the television series, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” The show featured the extravagant excesses of wealthy entertainers, athletes and business moguls. For more than a decade Robin fed our obsession with opulence, conspicuous consumption and over-the-top living. Leach closed every show with a wish that became his signature catchphrase, “Champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”
Today, we have tawdry reality shows that allow us not only to watch the royals on the red carpet but to see them bicker, whine, shop, change gender, and live large. The Kardashians, Paris Hilton, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (and on and on) allow us a glimpse into lives that yes, are different from you and me, but not in ways that make us dream or hope for something better.
What happened? When did we turn the corner from wanting to live vicariously through Fred and Ginger to joining Madame DeFarge in her silent knitting of names of those who would be beheaded when the revolution comes? Where did this smoldering anger come from over the income disparity between the current one percent and the rest of the world?
I have a theory and that’s all it is.
Whereas we were once mesmerized by the lives of the very rich, we are headed toward a revolution against the “Billionaires of Wall Street” and those invisible yet powerful figures behind so much of what is wrong with our country. In the past, they gave us momentary escapism or the simple relief of entertainment, but there was always something of value that both sides brought to the relationship. They needed us as an audience for their magic, and we needed them to fill a void. Without them our lives would be reduced to the ordinary. Without us they would be actors without a stage. Yes, they were mostly imaginary but that was part of the draw. They were different – but not alien. They were flawed but not hollow. They had faces and names. Even as the rogues they often were, there was some redemptive quality that kept us curious and not repelled. They glittered.
That’s not so today. The new one percent are nameless, faceless, and colorless shadowy figures who live in guarded enclaves or a place named Wall Street. They are heads of interlocked dynasties and global financial firms, but 99 percent of the people could not tell you their names or recognize them on the street. They bring nothing we value in our lives. In fact, it is just the opposite. They take without giving anything in return. We resent them – whoever they are. They are rich at our expense and, worse, they don’t have any interest in us at all. They are cold and loveless. They consume, destroy and create nothing. They are “those who have worshipped worthless idols and become worthless themselves.”
What a change in such a relatively short time. It may be that Thomas Piketty, the author of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” is right that we are entering a time not unlike the French Revolution when the masses took to the streets not in protest but in bloody revenge for being duped, used and abandoned. For the first time in our country’s history we are no longer dazzled by and curious about the very rich. Our eyes are open. They do not entertain us or relieve our anxieties about tomorrow. They are boring in their pursuit of one thing only. In the end, we are not entertained, scandalized or amused and, sadly, that is a dangerous thing. Our world is the poorer for it. The glitter is gone.”