let them eat cake

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Dec 04, 2006

Great post by Anthony Esolen on how the poor are all-too-adept at learning the irresponsibility of the rich, yet lack the rich man's means of insulating himself from the consequences.

The rich can afford their vices, for a time anyway; the poor have no such margin for comfort. They are, in fact, endangered by the vices of the rich, in more ways than one. That's because the rich set the example for the poor. Their vices attain celebrity; a Casanova or a Don Juan sets the petty rakes of a nation to school. Now the rich can buy their way out of entanglements. They can raise a bastard child, or bribe an offended lady at court.

There's a "fashionable cruelty defended in the coffee shop," says Esolen, and the words that follow he addresses to the elites who are so quick to find clever reasons why those who burden them don't have a life worthy of living:

If you see a young man from one of our own Esquiline districts, with pants sagging two feet beneath his torso and face studded with pins and trinkets, looking for all the world as if only his lack of ambition prevents him from slipping a knife into someone's back, you should consider him an excellent student. He has learned the slack self-gratification that the rich and the middle class have taught. We should not say, "There but for the grace of God go I." We should say, "There are my vices, walking."

Esolen's remarks put me in mind of passages from two very different authors. The first is a scene of bright bitter irony in Tom Wolfe's novel A Man in Full. In one passage we're shown an aerobics class at a five-star health club in which the middle-aged white divorcee (whose rich husband dumped her for a trophy wife) is desperate to reverse the toll of years and make herself re-marriageable. The aerobics instructor enjoys the aspect of self-torture to which the women submit, and rubs it in by having them execute sexually suggestive contortions to the music (and lyrics) of the rap artist Doctor Rammer Doc Doc. And they do. In a characteristically Wolfian twist, the daughters of privilege pay, and pay a lot, to subject themselves to humiliations concocted by a black male prison culture that gloats over violent sexual degradation. Yet, as Wolfe doesn't fail to notice, the prison culture is itself nothing more than the professed hedonism of the liberal elite taken to its logical extreme and stripped of illusion. The entertainment execs that market the prison-spawned rap complete the cycle by channeling the effluent of the sewer, as it were, back into society's milk supply. In the person of the menopausal divorcee panting at her health club, the Ivy League law school philosophy of untrammeled pleasure has come full circle.

The second connection suggested by Esolen's post is a sonnet by Hilaire Belloc called "The Poor of London," composed around the turn of the 20th century. If the notion of a ferocious prayer is not a contradiction in terms, this is it:

Almighty God, whose justice like the sun
Shall coruscate along the floors of Heaven,
Raising what's low, perfecting what's undone,
Breaking the proud and making odd things even,
The poor of Jesus Christ along the street
In your rain sodden, in your snows unshod,
They have nor hearth, nor sword, nor human meat,
Nor even the bread of men: Almighty God.

The poor of Jesus Christ whom no man hears
Have waited on your vengeance much too long.
Wipe out not tears but blood: our eyes bleed tears.
Come smite our damn├Ęd sophistries so strong
That thy rude hammer battering this rude wrong
Ring down the abyss of twice ten thousand years.

Belloc's imagination was caught by the material deprivations of the poor. Yet not only by the bread of men do men live, and we have no reason to think that today's poor Londoner -- such as the young man whom Esolen offers for our consideration -- would be short of shoes or a meal. What he has been deprived of is a notion of the dignity of the human person. Put simply, no one has shown him a reason to be good. And why not? Because those in a position to teach him are unwilling to change their own lives in conformity with their precepts -- which would cost them even more discomfort than alms would have cost the bankers of late Victorian London. Rather than take a step down that route, they content themselves with the "rude wrong" of waving the white flag, and the day belongs to Doctor Rammer Doc Doc.

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