Several months ago I spent a straight-backed evening in a room that reminded me of mopping my father’s floors. They were paneled with what I believe to be a wood-flavored linoleum, which is really a great surface to clean. If I were ten years younger and living in a Norman Rockwell painting, I imagine it would have also been the best place to play marbles. Resilient and impossibly smooth, linoleum is the 20th century’s greatest gift to flooring.
By some bizarre act of circumstance, I was invited to dinner with a handful of friends’ friends’ parents, who didn’t much resemble my friends. They were lawyers, or owners of something important; it doesn’t matter. We ate in their home, in a room whose floors had undoubtedly inspired the person who had painted my dad’s. These boards, however, had been cut, stained and shipped specifically with this floor in mind. There was a portrait hanging on the wall above me of a stern white man who stared dourly down at us. It seemed as though he had expected Tagg Romney to join him for dinner, but instead got a guy who had just spent the cab ride spit shining his nine dollar shoes with a loose napkin. You can understand his disappointment.
Rooms like this exude a gilded sort of condescension. The dim lights cast an elegant shadow across the table, one that had the effect of making my hosts look large and self-assured while making us irredeemably small. As a matter of fact, my hosts were not tall people. In a corner of their kitchen was a small step stool the duty of which was to help them reach the highest cupboard in the room, which was no more than six feet off the ground. My memory, however, sketches the contours of a pair of hulking figures, those that would not need a stool.
There was a silence, too, that pressed down on us — the heavy feeling that we were not meant to be there, and so should act as if we were not. For hours, I sat and listened, anxiously tugging on the sleeves of my jacket, hoping to give the tailored illusion that they were the appropriate length for my arms. In those silent moments, I remembered mopping those smooth linoleum floors with an alien sense of insignificance and shame. Under the weight of that impressive room, my memories buckled just a bit.
Wealth has a way of changing the shapes and sizes of the things around which it hovers. It’s this distortive quality, which I have a hard time putting precisely into words, that makes it just a bit harder to see things for what they are. It’s not unlike other social structures that color the way we see one another, but wealth manages to infiltrate quite a lot of our brains. It stands between part that sees and the part that processes, and seeps into the bits that remember too. That night I should have noticed how unremarkable this couple was, how ordinary the content of their conversation were and how similar their inner lives were to my own. Instead, because of the rarified distinction that financial success has, the space they built and the connotations of their lives inflated the image I gave them, and faded the one I gave myself.
I should not portray myself as only the recipient of this brand of condescension. As a benefactor of immense privilege relative to billions, I am prone to see those with less in a different set of terms as well. Their disprivilege defines the way in which I imagine their lives to be. Rather than means being a component part of their lives, as it is in mine, I interpret their experience as most directly shaped by the things they cannot access. This is all to say that wealth warps our perception to enlarge the lives of those who have it and contract the lives of those who do not.
Our current president won election, in part, on the claim that rich equated to genius. He was not the first to do so — Tagg’s dad had a similar pitch — but he was certainly the most explicit. Since taking office, he has filled his cabinet with a cohort whose primary unifying, and in some cases sole qualifying feature, is their prosperity. The combined worth of this cabinet is $14 billion, which for reference is greater than the GDP of 72 different nations. More than any administration in recent memory, this one has cited its wealth as evidence of its wisdom and virtue, and done so quite successfully.
The common claim that gets made in opposition tends to be that this represents a dangerous accumulation of interests and resources, and the positions were awarded as a form of indirect patronage. It’s a claim that others have made well enough elsewhere, and one you can find with the Google machine. The most interesting story here, I think, is how our individual perceptions of wealth both facilitates this phenomenon and makes it inherently dangerous.
In a democracy, the corporate capture of government relies in part on a certain amount of support from the public. In our case, we have facilitated this influence through the way that we treat wealth and perceive those with it. We have a tendency to attach a moral value, a largeness of image, to those things and people who signify material success. It’s a tendency that has its roots in the most banal of life experiences, dinners with people you don’t much like. But the ultimate effect is that we crowd the halls of power with one perspective and one unitary interest. There’s nothing at all wrong with being rich, but it’s hard to see the world through gold tinted glasses, especially if we’re all wearing them.
Rubin Danberg Biggs is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected] The Common Table appears alternate Mondays this semester.