The Cloud Minders of River Oaks

I’m back from a trip to Bushland. I just returned from a family wedding in Houston over the weekend. Every time I visit my relatives in Houston it’s quite an interesting experience for me. (For my musings about last year’s visit, go here.) My relatives in Houston have all become Republicans in the last twenty years or so. They were all Great Society liberals who supported LBJ in the 1960s but have since become, like most well-off white Texans, diehard Republicans who believe Bill Clinton is the anti-Christ. It’s a rather shocking transformation that has taken place during my lifetime.

My family in Houston often travels in some very interesting circles. The wedding was in the late morning on Saturday. It was followed by a jazz brunch reception at one of the hipper places in tony River Oaks. At one point I looked out at the bitter looks on the faces of the wealthy Houstonians eating Eggs Benedict. These folks had driven up in all manner of expensive cars (scores of BMWs, Mercedes, and Lexuses were on hand) and were clearly doing quite well financially. I thought to myself, “What a sour bunch!” My father said, almost as if reading my mind, “But these are the beautiful people.” I said, “Oh my goodness, really? They don’t look beautiful, they look unhappy.” He later wisecracked, “Besides everyone at this table, do you think Dean would get one vote out of the remaining fifty people in this room? These are the quintessential Bushies.” An interesting point, eh?

The next morning, as I still pondered the prior day’s experience, I watched an episode of Star Trek (the Original Series) entitled “The Cloud Minders.” In it, the Enterprise and its crew travel to a world in which there are two social classes, the ruling class that lives above the clouds in a city called Stratos and the worker class that worked extracting a mineral called zienite, on the planet‘s surface. The two classes have been separated for so long that they’ve evolved into very different groups of people who can scarcely talk with each other — both viewing the other with extreme suspicion and, not surprisingly, no empathy whatsoever.

Later the same day I went to a family Christmas Party. Recently, a cousin and her husband bought two residences, each worth in excess of a million dollars. Unfortunately, they were forced to sell one of them because, shucks, they really couldn’t afford that second one! They apparently were teetering on the financial edge just a few short months ago. Over the last few months, I’ve listened to several very compassionate descriptions of their predicament from my relatives. Their situation, however, seemed like a ridiculous and quite preventable one to me. Those of us who have houses that cost under six figures often find such stories of woe hilarious actually. The funniest part was when the cousin in question passed by at the Christmas Party wearing a $10,000 Rolex watch. After seeing the watch, my wife leaned over and said “I’ve got an answer to their problems! Can you say “Pawn Shop?”

Other topics of conversation from the Christmas Party included David Letterman’s possible leftist liberal leanings and how trial lawyers are going to destroy the medical system in this country. (During this discussion, one of my aunts, a small business owner, stated rather matter-of-factly that she’d never paid for health insurance for any of her employees during the last twenty five years.) I also learned that the courts were just out there to harass good taxpaying citizens by allowing nuisance lawsuits. In short, while my relatives were apparently filled with compassion for my cousin (who I honestly believe doesn’t deserve it), they apparently had little compassion for, well anyone else, especially those who couldn’t afford medical insurance or anyone who might file a lawsuit.

So, what’s the point of this post? Well, the whole experience has really gotten me to thinking about how the social classes in American really don‘t have much contact with each other these days. Those of the higher classes therefore have very little compassion for anyone else. The policies of this current administration certainly drive this point home quite effectively. While happily cutting taxes and helping their rich friends and contributors with tax breaks and credits, members of this well-heeled administration has done very little for anyone else who isn’t from their privileged class.

This is not a new problem either. Through a rather bizarre quirk of fate, I study wealthy elites in the Gilded Age and I see the same phenomenon in that era over and over again. Those of you who read my blog know that I returned to this idea rather often. Just as it is today, wealthy elites who were then effectively in charge of the most morally bankrupt political era in our history approached government the very same way. There were always plenty of goodies for their contributors and buddies but very little for anyone else.

My rather depressing conclusion? While there are notable (and brief) exceptions like the Progressive Era and New Deal, genuine compassion for your fellow man is not something that I would say is really a hallmark of the upper classes in American history. As social classes have become more distinct and isolated from one another in this country over the last century, empathy from those at the top has truly become a rather rare phenomenon. It was possible for a patrician like Theodore or Franklin Roosevelt to understand the problems of the working-class. However, a century later, it has become harder for those at the higher echelons of American society today, suffering from several decades’ worth of indoctrination with the modern-day version of Social Darwinist ideology, to do the same.

Like the Cloud Minders of Stratos or the wealthy elites of the Gilded Age, Texans from W’s patrician class apparently lack empathy for the poor or anyone outside their class.

At the very least, this lack of empathy explains much about the world view of the Bushies and their domestic policies, doesn’t it?