The Glitter is Gone

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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.”

Fred Smith
Fred Smith is a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. He spent several years as teacher and administrator at Charlotte Christian School and The Stony Brook School before co-founding Leadership Network with Bob Buford and serving as President for 12 years. Fred is the Founder and President of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries. Fred will tell you his true vocation is that of a Sunday School teacher and it is this role for which he would most like to be remembered. Fred and his wife, Carol, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They also have three well-loved grandchildren.
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Showing 12 comments
  • Connie Hudson
    Reply

    I want to disagree! I really want to disagree, but I can’t…. And that makes me disagreeable!!!!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Always feel free to disagree! I even disagree with myself on a regular basis.

  • Scott Purcell
    Reply

    As one of those 1%er’s, I’d like to politely disagree. The level of gifting to charities, churches and public institutions is at the highest levels in history. And wealthy people, often through “family offices” are pouring many billions of dollars into job-creating start-ups in all types of industries, including those with a focus on alternative energy, social-good, gender and race empowerment, and so much more.

    Yes, there’s not as much showiness as in the past. Sure, wealthy people drive nice cars, drink nice wine and cluster together in gated communities, but they aren’t making movies about their lives or touting their wealth (aside from a handful of strangely popular outliers such as the Kardashians). The fact that wealthy people don’t put that out in a “glittery” way should be applauded. Giving without requiring anything in return, investing in people who can’t afford to undertake ventures that help society. Nobody is perfect, and there are plenty of bad examples, but overall the reality is that those who have been fortunate enough to achieve wealth are very actively sharing it and working to use their money to make the world a better place.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Scott. I read a book titled “Are You Misunderstood?” that was helpful to me. It said the #1 reason for being misunderstood is you did a lousy job of saying what you meant. I hope that is the case here with this particular blog. I wanted to focus on those who have distorted what it means to be “rich” like the examples I used. I did not mean to say everyone in the 1% is this way. I know better than that after 30 years with The Gathering and countless other examples. I do think people resent those who have focused almost exclusively on accumulating wealth at the expense of others or have done it in ways that do not create value for anyone but themselves. I try to limit myself to 800 words and it looks like I should have added a few more or done a better job with the 800 I had. Thank you for reading and making a comment.

  • rev. david luckenbach
    Reply

    Good morning, Fred. As always, I appreciate your reflections and insights. It has certainly been much, much worse. The excesses of the .01% in the Gilded Age, profiting from egregious child labor practices and tolerating abhorrent urban tenements gave rise to the so-called Progressive Era, which in turn laid the foundation for the welfare state in which we live today. I remain hopeful that we will elect leaders who will address and resolve the ridiculous cost of health care and chart a path for fiscal and environmental health. If we do not, then I expect that the electorate will support folks who make Bernie Sanders seem quite moderate. It is in the interest of the 1% to offer policies which are both compassionate and prudent.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, David. It’s interesting to me that Bernie’s book has not sold well after the initial surge. Is that a sign of his not being radical enough or too old or people have moved on to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? I do believe we are going to get whiplashed between the extremes for a time – even though the majority of voters are in the middle. It is the extremes that own the media from which we get our news but Ben Sasse said the other night at the Trinity Forum that the number of viewers of Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow represent comparatively small numbers of viewers – only a million or so each. They have large megaphones but to a very limited audience. But, that was not your comment! Yes, it is in the interest of all of us to support policies that are compassionate and prudent. Let’s talk more sometime.

  • Ann
    Reply

    Fred, challenging. I sense we are in a time of realism… harsh lighting , not glitter . True loss and anger for many . It’s always inspiring to hear the stories of generous rich people … and there are many …who work quietly and diligently to make our world a better place . Even now with the media focus on corruption by those with power and wealth – individuals, leaders and corporations – the stories of good and real people still shine and glitter !

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Yes, I am afraid I might have left the impression that I am indicting all “rich” people who find themselves in the 1% – either globally (all of us in the US) or in this country. I’m not. I’m writing about those who have abused and distorted what it means to be wealthy and created disgust instead of interest. Obviously, I should know as well or better than most how many people with wealth are also generous, kind, compassionate and responsible.

  • Alyson Hinkie
    Reply

    Truth. I’m reading Walter Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good – “The bread of heaven is a contradiction to the rat race of production; the creator God who presides over the bread supply breaks the grip of Pharaoh’s food monopoly; food is freely given outside the economic system that functions like an Egyptian pyramid with only a few on top of the heap.” The 1% and the politicians who are owned by them have become the Pharaohs of the modern age.

    I am ambivalent – distraught and hopeful at the same time – distraught that we have turned our land of abundance into a land of scarcity for so many of our citizens, and hopeful because there is a tried and true blueprint that shows us how to change – God is love, and love works for freedom. Once freedom is claimed, there is grace and comfort in the wilderness.

    I am also convicted. I’m not in the top 1 percent, but I sure live a privileged life. I am asking myself what I need to do to be part of the change that will right the wrongs.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Reading Walter Brueggemann is dangerous stuff! It’s one thing to read Thoreau or minimalists but WB is convicting! We can live our lives faithfully and responsibly no matter what percentage we are in. We don’t need to be dragged down by guilt of having more than others. After all, Paul said he was content with much and Ecclesiastes talks about the gift of enjoying what we have been given. I think the problem comes when we start to live in comparison to others – with less or with more.

  • Andrew Geleris
    Reply

    Thank you, Fred, for an extremely important and insightful article. I believe the Church needs to say such things more often. Wealth is a Providential gift (Deuteronomy 8:17-18). When wealthy people occasionally tell the stories, with justifiable pride, of the many years of hard work and inventiveness required to achieve their wealth, I always cringe a little inside. Actually I cringe a lot. They certainly do deserve enormous credit for their part in this achievement. However, as a neurologist, I am acutely aware that in addition to their hard work they have also been the beneficiaries of God’s gift of simply the good health and intellect required to earn money. I regularly see patients with Downs Syndrome, Multiple Sclerosis, strokes, and other disabilities that make achieving wealth impossible. I sometimes wonder if the purpose of God allowing a chosen few, the 1%, to earn wealth is to give them the unique privilege of proclaiming the love of God to our materialistic culture with an effectiveness far beyond the power of our greatest preachers. By generously giving away large amounts of their wealth they are able to incarnate the same love God the Father showed by giving His only begotten Son and the love Jesus showed by putting aside His own wealth so that we through His poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9. Philippians 2:5-11)

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Andrew. I love the warnings in Deuteronomy about taking credit for wealth and forgetting where that ability originates. I’ve written elsewhere about the connection in Scripture between wealth and honor – or substance and weight. They are different from merely being rich.

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