Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Self-Indulgence of the Rich, Powerful and Famous

There seems to be a point in every dictator's life when his biggest worry is whether his toilets should merely be gold-plated or if they should be solid gold - cases in point include Moammar Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran, the Emir of Kuwait, and I'm sure there is no shortage of gold-plated potties in Saudi Arabia. But as Donald Trump and many others can assure you the gilded life isn't just for dictators. And as Michael Jackson might have argued, who says you can't take it with you? Nothing in this is new - gold isn't a particularly attractive metal when used ostentatiously, it's not a practical metal due to its softness and weight, but it's expensive, so screw that "King Midas" allegory and "gild me up".

The fundamental issue is that when they have accumulated so much wealth (by whatever means) that how they spend the money simply doesn't matter any more, and whether or not the money is technically theirs to spend, some people will find absurd, self-indulgent ways to squander the money, whether to satisfy their troubled senses of self-worth, to flaunt their riches, or to selfishly indulge their eccentricities. There's a non-pathological part of this that is human nature ("keeping up with", or perhaps one step ahead of, the Joneses), as humans by nature seem to be materialistic and tend to like things that are shiny and expensive. But there's pathology at play as well. ("I can't simply have tigers - they must be white tigers." "The 'Elephant Man's' skeleton is for sale, you say? How much would it cost to buy it, and is it gold-plated... yet?" "You say that I can choose between a $20,000 toilet seat that plays music, automatically sends cleansing jets of water to my delicate areas then gently blows them try, perfumes the room in case I have guests whose leavings actually stink, and maintains itself at a comfortable temperature such that my cheeks will never be cold, or $6 million for a solid gold toilet seat that is icy cold and would make even a commercial airplane lavatory seem inviting.... What's the upside of the cheap one, again?")

I would like to say that this is simply the quaint way that the ultra-rich live their lives and spend their (or their country's, or their shareholders', or your) money on expensive self-indulgence that creates a bizarre form of trickle-down to the vendors of the absurdly overpriced trinkets. But as you know, when you look at the people who live in this manner their eccentricities and self-indulgence very often extend into the rest of their lives (with the notable exception of Donald Trump who is a billionaire and is the bravest, kindest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known). Reading about the manner in which Gadhafi came on to women is creepy, and his apparent regard for Condoleezza Rice as if she were a gold-plated toilet seat with diamonds is perhaps creepier. Michael Jackson's sleepovers, whatever happened? Creepy. Sex scandals in the Catholic Church (distinguished, unfortunately, by the size of the church, not by the nature of the scandal)? Penn State? How creepy can you get.

Speaking of Penn State, I read somebody rationalizing Joe Paterno's apparent indifference to Jerry Sandusky's reported conduct, with "He was so focused on football, he probably forgot about it." Because, yeah, when you hear something like that about somebody you work with, it's in one ear, out the other. Apologists, it seems, are easy to find. It reminds me of the saying, "All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." Except that in most situations to which that phrase would apply, if you do nothing you're not a good man.

Moamar Gadhafi was not a good man, and it would seem fair to say that his sons were the rotten fruit of the poisonous tree. One particularly horrible story involves one of his son's (the one presciently named Hannibal) nannies, horribly burned as a punishment for refusing to beat one of Gadhafi's grandchildren. There was a good man in the household, but it would seem only one:
Eventually, a guard found her and took her to a hospital, where she received some treatment.

But when Aline Gadhafi [Moamar's daughter-in-law] found out about the kind actions of her co-worker, he was threatened with imprisonment, if he dared to help her again.
Here's the thing: the guard who tried to help the woman knew that he was putting his job at risk, and perhaps risking a much more serious consequence, when he chose to help the woman. But people who have fame, power, money and celebrity are typically surrounded by sycophants and enablers. Even in the case of a Gadhafi, there were people who could have stepped in and said, "That's over the top." Some of the statements made by Gadhafi or, for another dictator who seemed to be deep in denial up to the end, Nicolae Ceausescu, indicate that his sycophants kept him in a bubble, "protecting him" from a truth that he would have seen had he simply been willing to open his eyes. They did nothing because it profited them to do nothing. In the case of a Jackson or Sandusky, you don't have to fear imprisonment, torture or death - the worst that could have happened from taking appropriate action would have been a possible career setback. It's only if your profession is "hanger on," or "enabler in chief" that "outing" the boss (or even confronting him in private) becomes a significant problem, because the next pathetic celebrity will know that you can't be trusted to keep your mouth shut and your opinions to yourself, let alone to be complicit.

Whatever you think of Michael Jackson, he's an example of somebody who would have benefited on numerous occasions from a purging of the enablers in his life. "No, Michael, no matter how innocent, after the accusations made against you and your criminal prosecution, you can't have sleepovers with children. Even without the scandal, it's obvious that you have attachment and relationship issues you need to address, and this isn't healthy." "No, Michael, there is nothing more a cosmetic surgeon can do for you that differs from manipulation, and no ethical surgeon would operate given your body dysmorphic disorder, so if you insist on more surgery you're going to be overpaying a hack to mutilate your face." "No, Michael, even if you're in pain and can't sleep, it's not healthy to become dependent on propofol - if you need a surgical anesthetic to go to sleep, let's start addressing the actual physical, psychological and chemical dependency issues that underlie the problem." By all appearances, Jackson kept himself in a bubble similar to Gadhafi's. At some level he had to know he was surrounded by yes men, sycophants and enablers, but if you see the pathetic man who was so easily manipulated by Martin Bashir in his infamous interview, you have to deal with the astonishing reality that Jackson genuinely believed himself to be in some form of Neverland and that the interview would help the world recognize his normalcy.

Similarly, once Sandusky was shielded from criminal investigation on the times he was reportedly caught in the act, it seems that he pretty much took for granted that the protection would continue. His friends and colleagues who knew of the reports chose, "My friend, some kid... My colleague, a scandal for the football program..." and seemed to find it easy to make the wrong choice. Wrong, that is, from a human perspective. Right from the perspective of "What will keep me better positioned for my career, for making money, for keeping power and authority." And for an awful lot of people,1 that's all that counts.

Update: Although I don't want to focus unduly on Paterno and Sandusky, their story does share some lessons about human nature that help explain how rich, powerful and famous individuals and institutions can obtain and maintain support that seems blind to the facts. At LOG, there's considerable discussion of that aspect of human nature. Tod Kelly has posted a thoughtful essay about tribalism, and why people often engage in denial and defense of the indefensible, and the remarkable ability possessed by human beings to cling to opinions that fly completely in the face of known, obvious facts. He's correct, that the tribal aspects of human nature and our unwillingness to listen to people outside of our tribe is "part of the problem" when scandals such as those involving "Herman Cain, Bill Clinton, Joe Paterno, Rick Perry, or... Steve Garvey" break.

Mark Thompson reminds us that we don't have to be defined by our worst acts (or omissions), even if our poor choices end up tarnishing or overshadowing our achievements. I'll argue a bit with this point:
A week ago, this man’s remarkable loyalty to his institution was deemed one of his most admirable traits; today, that loyalty has quite rightly cost him his job and his legacy and, most importantly, has been shown to have had unthinkable consequences for innocent children. That is precisely what should scare us the most if things like this are ever to become less frequent.
Paterno was willing to risk a scandal when he passed along the report of Sandusky's alleged conduct. He did not cover up that act out of loyalty to his institution. But when his institution chose to cover it up, he was loyal to the cover-up, and turned a blind eye to compelling evidence that Sandusky's misconduct continued. The longer things were covered up, and the more that was covered up, the worse the consequences of the truth coming out - and hence the greater the need to perpetuate the cover-up. In retrospect, doing the right thing - making sure that there was a full police investigation of Sandusky - would have been the best thing for Paterno, his (nominal) supervisors and the football program. But instead they gambled on the possibility that the truth would not come out.

E.D. Kain collects and shares some wisdom about the outrage at Paterno, and shares some thoughts about the genesis of tribalism.
1. You can read that phrase in one of two ways; both are apt.


  1. On the subject of "Self-Indulgence", you might consider the fact that in CY 2011, the taxpayers of the US ponied up $1.4 billion, to indulge the Obama family - profligate use of other people's money that has not been seen since the time of Louis Quatorze, en la France.
    One might think of Obama as a "Sun King Wannabe".

    1. If I were an ignorant half-wit, foolish enough to rely upon the sources you confuse with news, I might share that sentiment.

      Fortunately for me, I am not.

    2. (My patience for that type of comment seems to decline when the entire family has gastroenteritis. ;-) )