The Rich Are Different from You and Me

F. Scott Fitzgerald

The more I watch Mitt Romney, the more I realize I don’t understand people who are very, very wealthy. And it’s not only Romney. Recent stories have emerged about John F. Kennedy that are absolutely appalling, for instance how he ordered a college intern/mistress to give an acquaintance a blow job. Camelot looks increasingly seedy, and while the straight arrow Mitt Romney would certainly not do anything along these lines, we keep seeing other instances of an empathy gap.

Last Tuesday I turned to F. Scott Fitzgerald for help and today I do so again. Even those who don’t know his story “The Rich Boy” probably know the second sentence of this quotation (which, by the way, he never said to Ernest Hemingway):

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different. The only way I can describe young Anson Hunter is to approach him as if he were a foreigner and cling stubbornly to my point of view. If I accept his for a moment I am lost—I have nothing to show but a preposterous movie.

We learn how the very wealthy develop their sense of superiority as we watch Anson grow up. The narrator informs us that

Anson’s first sense of his superiority came to him when he realized the half-grudging American deference that was paid to him in the Connecticut village. The parents of the boys he played with always inquired after his father and mother, and were vaguely excited when their own children were asked to the Hunters’ house. He accepted this as the natural state of things, and a sort of impatience with all groups of which he was not the center—in money, in position, in authority—remained with him for the rest of his life. He disdained to struggle with other boys for precedence—he expected it to be given him freely, and when it wasn’t he withdrew into his family.

Some of Romney’s tone deaf comments about the poor and NASCAR fans in cheap ponchos and Pittsburg cookie makers and financially strapped college students arise from this insularity.  I said in a past post that if Romney were like Richard Cory in the E. A. Robinson poem— if he “was always human when he talked”—then he might already be president. But the wealth that insulated him from society seems to have made it very difficult for him to relate to people. Fitzgerald is right: he does seem like a foreigner.

Now, the hero of Fitzgerald’s short story is more Kennedy than Romney in that he has a double personality, one which is regal, the other crude.  (Kennedy’s intern/mistress used to call him “the Great Compartmentaliser.”) He will be the responsible head of his firm during the day and an ugly drunk at night. But he is like Romney in his chilling lack of empathy when it comes to getting his way.

At one point in the story, Anson, taking his patriarchal duties very seriously, decides it is his responsibility to break up an affair between his aunt and her lover. He does this, he says, to save the honor of his uncle, but there is no clear sense that he cares for this uncle. In some ways, he seems more driven by an emptiness inside, which finds refuge in following the proper forms. Also, there is a power trip involved: he breaks up the relationship because he can.

He succeeds but the man, genuinely in love with Anson’s aunt, commits suicide.

The political question is whether these traits would get in the way of Romney being a good president. People warmed up to George W. Bush and we are still paying for his wars, his deficits, and his recession. In some ways, it’s better to have someone like Romney or Obama (detached in his own way) who can take a clear look at problems. Romney made cold-blooded decisions at Bain Capital (profitable ones as well) as he decided which companies would survive and which not. Sometimes presidents have to make cold-blooded decisions.

But what worries me about Romney is that, like Anson and unlike Obama, he can’t see how people outside his own circle operate. Repealing Obamacare with nothing to replace it with is to set at naught the 50 million people in the country without health insurance. Embracing the Ayn Randian budget of Congressman Paul Ryan–tax cuts for the wealthy, budget cuts for everyone else–means he only cares about those who can advance him. If his constant lying is simply him executing a business plan—the tangible benefits outweigh the moral costs—then it’s not surprising that he appears robotic.

Fitzgerald, however, wouldn’t see him as robot. Just as one of the super rich. If we elect him as president, will be find ourselves inside “a preposterous movie”?

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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