Friday, August 10, 2007

A Comment on Manners v. Self-Awareness

I am, as usual, a little late on this, but I had to write something about a recent opinion piece by Peggy Noonan that has deservedly received quite a thorough mocking from many.

In this piece Noonan provides us with yet another example of how conservatives really feel about the average American. You see, not only do conservatives experience fear and loathing at the idea of having to interact with the common folk somewhere in cyberspace, but they also feel the need to fret about interactions with the struggling masses while shopping for clothes and handbags.

Peggy Noonan has recently taken to the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal of all places to inform the world that she is aware of and agrees that "We are living in the second great Gilded Age, a time of startling personal wealth." She then goes on to describe the signs of this Gilded Age, which has risen once more to envelope America from sea to shining sea:

In the West, the mansion after mansion with broad and rolling grounds; in the East, the apartments with foyers in which bowling teams could play....The Dow Jones Industrial Average has hit 14000. The wealthy live better than kings. There isn't a billionaire in East Hampton who wouldn't look down on tatty old Windsor Castle. We have a potential presidential candidate who noted to a friend that if he won the presidency the quality of his life would go down, not up.

And like so many others who have noted the rebirth of the Gilded Age in America, she realizes that there is something else to the story of so many billionaires scoffing at the Old World, aristocratic wealth and luxury of yore while they shit in solid gold toilets. Noonan notes that the "gap between rich and poor is great, and there is plenty of want, and also confusion."

And yet, as she contemplates these confusing, Dickensian times of growing disparity between those living better than kings and those who find themselves, day by day, sinking ever deeper into that abyss of want and epidemic financial insecurity, she can only turn back to the images of those spreading mansions and sky-rocketing stock markets:

What the superrich do for a living now often seems utterly incomprehensible, and has for at least a generation. There is no word for it, only an image. There's a big pile of coins on a table. The rich shove their hands in, raise them, and as the coins sift through their fingers it makes . . . a bigger pile of coins. Then they sift through it again and the pile gets bigger again.

You see, Ms. Noonan can't quite find the appropriate word to articulate exactly what it is that, if one could strip away the complex explanations of the world of global finance, the Market, ever increasing corporate profits, free trade, etc., could begin to explain how these billionaires were able to acquire these bigger and bigger piles of coins. Thus, she must rely on the imagery of the Gilded Age to convey her understanding and impression of how these billionaires have acquired so much.

I can understand her confusion. It certainly is hard to nail down exactly what these masters of the universe do because they wear so many hats and have their fingers in so many pies. Noonan correctly points out:

A general rule: If you are told what someone does for a living and it makes sense to you--orthodontist, store owner, professor--that means he's not rich. But if it's a man in a suit who does something that takes him five sentences to explain and still you walk away confused, and castigating yourself as to why you couldn't understand the central facts of the acquisition of wealth in the age you live in--well, chances are you just talked to a billionaire.

I can certainly sympathize with Noonan on this point. It's hard to give a specific job description to one of these billionaires who probably owns stock in a few multinational corporations that make their huge profits off of the cheap, third-world, slave-wage labor of 12 year olds in an impoverished Indian village, while at the same time owning stock in one or more of its subsidiaries in the United States that has grown its profit margins by outsourcing decent waged jobs with benefits and pensions to countries where the work can be done without basic minimum wage guarantees or labor and environmental laws and regulations. Such a billionaire is also likely to sit on one or more boards of any number of big corporations in which he is partly responsible for the financial and political maneuverings that are essential to things like vast mergers and acquisitions and the flow of finance through the world's markets as it enriches one billionaire after another, all the while sanctioning the dole out of vast sums of money in the form of campaign contributions to politicians and parties (on both sides of the aisle, to be sure) that will write and support legislation that greases the wheels for such financial gamesmanship (like taking a $20.00 bill out of the petty cash to buy some Xerox paper) and contributing even more sums to conservative and corporate friendly think tanks to support people (like Ms. Noonan herself) who write articles and papers on economic policy and in defense of the system that secures his wealth and who thus assist in providing a pseudo-intellectual and ideological cover for out of control free market, free trade, and globalization policies.

Up until this point, what Ms. Noonan is saying is making sense to me, but I lose her right after the first sentence of the previous paragraph. After Noonan remarks on the mysterious and inexplicable ways that billionaires amass such wealth she writes:

There are good things and bad in the Gilded Age, pluses and minuses. I write here of a minus. It has to do with our manners, the ones we show each other on the street. I think riches, or the pursuit of riches, has made us ruder. You'd think broad comfort would assuage certain hungers. It has not. It has sharpened them.

Yes, what outrages Noonan about this new Gilded Age with its rampant inequality and endemic financial insecurity and rising poverty juxtaposed, in her imagery, beside metaphorical billionaires rolling in their gold coins is...manners. Specifically what Noonan views as symbols of "the pushiness of the Gilded Age":

I walk into a shop on Madison Avenue daydreaming, trying to remember what it was I thought last week I should pick up, what was it . . .

"Hi! Let me help you find what you're looking for!" She is a saleswoman, cracking gum with intensity, about 25 years old, and she has made a beeline to her mark. That would be me....

In another shop, as soon as I walk in the door, "How are you today? How can I help you?" Those dread words.
"Oh, I'm sort of just looking."

"I like your bag!"

"Um, thanks." What they are forcing you to do is engage. If you engage--"Um, thanks"--you have a relationship. If you have a relationship, it's easier for them to turn you upside down and shake the coins from your pockets.

Of course she does concede that there are remnants of snobbishness in "the big stores (Macy's, Duane Reade drugstore), where [the sales people] ignore you" but obviously the biggest symbol of decaying manners and the boorish "pursuit of riches" are aggressive sales clerks who must do their part in sustaining the absolute wealth of the superrich by keeping the store's sales revenues at ever higher and higher levels because that is what their paycheck essentially depends on, if they are not working on commission, in which case a comparably insignificant amount of the profit from their sales is pretty much their paycheck.

After enduring such a traumatic experience, then walking out into the street only to be confronted by "the woman with the clipboard" who is concerned with the environment and is making Noonan feel a little uneasy, she ends her screed with an observation of another conspicuous image that has become all too common to our consumerist and money hungry society--the unrelenting use of the cellphone and blackberry:

It is possible that we are on the cellphone because we are lonely and hunger for connection, even of the shallowest kind; that we BlackBerry because we hope for a sense of control in a chaotic world; that we are frightened of stillness and must interrupt conversations; that we are desperate to make the sale in the highly competitive environment of the Banana Republic on 86th Street and must aggressively pursue customers.

Could it really be that a Gilded Age dominated by billionaires and the superrich whose vast wealth depends on a system that, by its very nature and design, creates and feeds off endemic financial insecurity, rising gaps between the rich and the rest of society, undermining of the middle classes, "plenty of want, and also confusion," and consumerist, workaholic, and get ahead at whatever cost cultural imperatives gone mad might make people "hunger for connection" or "a sense of control in a chaotic world"?

Of course not, Noonan only brings this up so she can be dismissive of this possibility and instead ends with this stunning insight:

It's also possible we have grown more boorish. I think it's that one. Many things thrive in the age of everything, including bad manners.

For a second there it looked as if Ms. Noonan was going to fall into the abyss of a little self awareness and delve into the possibility that the biggest "minus" of this second great Gilded Age might be the apt observation that, no matter what the specific explanation, at the bottom of "the utterly incomprehensible" nature of "what the superrich do for a living" lay pure, unadulterated greed and that a society whose economic, cultural and social institutions have come to be dominated by greed is just not good for anyone. But, being the true conservative that she is, Noonan took one look at that abyss and turned right back around to gaze in enchanted bewilderment at the billionaires and scoff at the sales clerks and their boorish manners.


Anonymous said...

well in my humble opinion Ms Noonan sounds like a snooty obtuse tight ass.
Who seems like the kind of person who looks for things to complain about. One of those kind who is impossible to please. You know the kind who hates when a sales person asks if they can be of assistance, like she mentioned in her article..but then complains to the store manager because no one was there in the department to assist her. Obviously, she is another one of those annoying windbags that can't make up her mind, and in the end, is too cheap to buy anything anyway.
So,today the temperature just got hotter in her home town, because she opened her mouth to breathe. said...

HAHAHAHA! That was such a laugh! You know me, I'm ,like, the # 1 person to try to make excuses and explanations for the rich and the rich and famous. But to be honest, the fact that Noonan (in her comfortable and truly useless but cushy existance in this world) could declare that we are in our Second Golden Age is ridiculous. I'm no scholar but I'm actually seeing a sort of return toward the Peasant/Noble era in economics. Our gap between rich and poor gets larger over decades no matter how it may seemingly appear that everybody in America is "Rolling on Dubs." But for her to actually write an article on the matter makes me think two things: 1 Umm, I'm sorry are you someone important that we should be listening to? and 2 They already declared the 20th and 21st centuries The Age of Technology. Noonan, didn't you get that memo? Right now I don't give two shits about what a lot of our politicians, journalists, and reporters have to say - I feel like I'm on a game show and it's called "Let's Distract You From What's Important!!!" The show starts and I'm a contestant who has to duck, dodge, and climb over every nonsensical, tedious and ultimately pointless thing the host throws at me in order to win.
Does Ms Noonan's feelings and words even matter in the long run?
~Mad Lilith

Eric said...

Are we saying that Ms Noonan's statement that we, as a culture, appear to have gotten ruder and more boorish is incorrect? I understand that it is ludicrous to say that the worst thing about our present age is our manners,and since I did not read her actual article, I an not be certain, but I did not think I saw anything that said she was making that claim. If she were, than she is shallow or blind.

For me, I agree that we have become rude and boorish and my status in this "Gilded Age" is somewhere around, 'lucky ot be able to live from pay check to pay check.' I find this rudeness is visible at all income strata.

I must protest your contention that conservatives don't care for the average American. I a aware that many conservative public figures are that way, but I know quite a few average conservative Americans and they almost seem "liberal" when it comes to their dealings with their fellow man.

One question: since it appears that you contend that big business, corporations, etc. are evils fit for destruction, what do you propose be done? Do we outlaw businesses with more than 50 employees?