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Let’s feel sorry for the stinking rich

A few weeks ago, a super-rich wealthy venture capitalist, Tom Perkins from San Francisco, wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), in which he compared criticism of America’s ultra-rich to the nazis’ treatment of the jews.

Following his apology, the WSJ wrote that the uproar kind of proved his point, saying; “Maybe the critics are afraid that Mr Perkins is on to something?”. Strikes me it was just a very stupid comparison to make, but apparently this siege mentality is quite common among the 0.1% of those who constitute the extremely wealthy.

Josh Marshall, an American journalist, writes; “The extremely wealthy are objectively far wealthier, far more politically powerful and find a far more indulgent political class than at any time in almost a century.” So why are they touchier about criticiam than ever?

A possible theory is that, the more insulated your life is, the more cushioned you are by flunkeys and lackeys, the more awful any slight intrusion into your comfort might appear. The closer to perfect everything is for you, the more intensely you will feel it when something isn’t spot-on.

So, obviously, it is great that this curious psychology applies only to the highly privileged and that the rest of us can feel morally superior. This helps to explain the unacceptable missile-throwing of supermodels when a PA causes them displeasure, or when a film star attacks a concierge for upsetting them. But what about when you feel cross about slow payers in the supermarket in front of you, or frustrated by less than rapid broadband? Aren’t you doing something similar to those spoiled brats?

Perhaps the case of Tom Perkins is just an extreme example of how we all feel at times. In his routine, titled, “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy”, comedian, Louis CK, recalls an airline passenger complaining that the in-flight wi-fi wasn’t working and he comments; “But you’re sitting in a chair in the sky.” The more amazing things get, the less it takes to make you dissatisfied.

When it comes to serious social issues, our thinking can be distorted by similar patterns of thought. We are currently living in the most peaceful era since humanity started, but it does not feel like that, because, as Steven Pinker says in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature; “the decline of violent behaviour has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence and often the attitudes are in the lead.”

Something like workplace bullying might strike us as beyond the pale, but it stands out, partly, because aggressive behaviour in general has become rare (passive aggressive behaviour is obviously rampant) compared to other eras. In something like this, high standards are a good thing. When it comes to slow broadband, however, it is probably best to lower your expectations, but in both cases it is the excellence of the wider picture that makes the flaw look so bad.

If your context is more privileged than that of almost any person in history, perhaps, just perhaps, you can’t see how deranged it is to compare your critics to Hitler.

Nigel Phillips


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