Did you know Reagan and Dickens almost share the same birthday?
One day apart: Dickens –and his readers– celebrate his 200th birthday this week. Reagan –and his disciples– celebrate his 101st.
Perhaps I’m forcing the irony, but the forces of Nature beat me to the punch here. How wickedly appropriate, equal parts amusing and appalling, that two of the more talked-about human beings of the last two centuries have milestones one year (and one day) apart. It would have been too much, even for ironists, and nihilists for that matter, if St. Ronnie happened to have his 100th the same year as Dickens has his 200th. Small blessings and all that.
And yet, how oddly fitting that we are forced to confront the legacies of two men who could not have possibly been more different, both in their causes and effects.
Dickens, aside from his superhuman productivity and a literary canon that scarcely needs to be commented upon, was the rarest of artists (and human beings) who utilized his prestige to influence the greater good. Driven by his own humble beginnings and torched by a ceaseless drive for justice and equity, he used the power of his pen to account for the forgotten and take the usurpers into account. His depictions of the impoverished did more to change the world than any number of politicians (no matter how well-meaning) ever could. That is the not-so-secret dominion of Art as an arbiter of change, an impetus for our collective evolution. Dickens, in short, was a man who attained riches but never lost his soul. He was unwilling –unable, really– to turn his back on reality and tune out the mostly silent screams of the lower castes who were brought into this world without half a chance. His novels are evidence for the distance we’ve travelled, and function as an unsavory reminder of how little we’ve managed to do.
And then there is Reagan, the actor who made a fortune making awful movies and parlayed that into a career that put his acting ability to the summit of its purpose, circa second-half century America. Rich, he became a lot richer turning his back, opportunistically, gleefully on his past, transmuting from an admirer of FDR to a true believer who hit the trail for the repugnant Barry Goldwater. From a man who saw the country ravaged by the Great Depression, and therefore endorsed the New Deal, he subsequently did more than any president to undo the legislation that helped stave off a genuine apocalypse and helped solidify the middle-class for decades.
You know what happened next: the actor started reading his scripts before rabid fans instead of imbecilic directors and he made moves instead of movies. The movement, not-so-fondly recalled as The Reagan Revolution, built its momentum on a shameful villification of America’s poor and lionized (some would say fetishized) the wealthiest percentile and turned them into folk heroes. Because Michael Douglas turned in such an effulgent performance (in a rather mush-mouthed, typically ham-fisted Oliver Stone screenplay), few people –then; now– understood that Gordon Gekko was not “merely” a bad guy; he was a sociopath. In less than two terms, Reaganomics and Wall Street vandalism laid waste to the working class and put us on a path where the richest of the rich were entitled, by Divine Right, to pay ever-less taxes even as young pillagers in training, like Mitt Romney, perfected the business acumen of bankrupting companies for profit into a repugnant performance art.
You know what happened next: 2008 and the cratered economy Obama inherited.
And America, where we read tributes to Dickens’ works but not the conditions that inspired them, and a clown shoes clusterfuck of weasels, egomaniacs and moral zombies all of whom invoke Reagan and pimp for his posthumous blessing the way Oliver Twist coveted that extra portion of gruel.
The Money Dread*
Like everyone else I know, I grew up—really grew up, if I’ve ever actually grown up—in the Reagan 80’s. Take my childhood, please. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad. During the extreme periods of boom and busted, pro and convicts, the majority in the middle seldom feel the pain, they rarely see the cocked fists and hoisted heels. It’s the people on the poles, the haves and haven’ts, who taste the changes the have lesses can afford to ignore.
But now, after the 90’s—on the verge of oblivion, as always—we have anti-inflation. We’ve got more money than we know what to do with; we’ve gotten so good at counting it we need to make more just to keep up, we keep making it so that we will still have something to do. Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money—someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the ass so that anonymous, ancient bored members can pulverize their portfolios). In other words, working where I work, with neither the best nor the brightest bulbs in the professional firmament, I can see for myself that this has nothing to do with talent, necessarily. It’s about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough manpower so that nothing else matters. Quality? Integrity? Originality? Nice, all, but they’ve got nothing on the numbers. When you’re big enough, you don’t have to beat anyone up, your rep precedes you and quells all contenders. You don’t have to fight anymore. Safety in numbers, sure, but there’s more at stake than simply survival—people are trying to make money.
Look: I’m not unaware of the wealth our deal cutters are creating, and I’m not unappreciative when they sign my paychecks. In the 80’s, or any other time, you had the fat-walleted fuckheads trying to multiply their millions by any means necessary; they didn’t just disregard the reality of putting their foot on nameless faces to divide and conquer, they reveled in it. It wasn’t personal, it was strictly business—and it wasn’t their fault they excelled at it, it isn’t their fault they were born into this. The only responsibility they had was to ensure that all this affluence they had no part in amassing stayed safely outside the reaches of normal, taxpaying proletariat.
Let’s face it: it’s not as though the five or six folks who actually flip the switches and decide who gets what (after, of course, they’ve had theirs) ever consented to this sudden, and by all accounts inexplicable, turn of events. They certainly didn’t plan it this way. And you can be certain they don’t condone it or in any way seek to keep it around if they can help it. But that’s the thing: they can’t help it. They never saw it coming. I definitely didn’t see it coming: who could possibly have predicted this? The guys that—if they were lucky—were going to be chain restaurant managers and counter-jockeys at Radio Shack suddenly had the keys to the kingdom, because they understood how the world-wide-web worked.
But I’m willing to bet some of the money I’m supposedly worth that these unsettled old sons of bitches are very interested in redirecting wealth back into the hoary hands of those used to handling it. How, they must stay awake during the day worrying, can this country continue to run right when so many regular people start getting involved? It happened before, in the 20’s, and if they had to eliminate alcohol for a few years then maybe it’s time to start confiscating computers.
Still, I can’t shake the suspicion that these visionaries are doing many of us a disservice by manufacturing this much money, for making it so easy. Everyone loves their job these days, and it’s for all the wrong reasons. It’s all about the money. The money this and the money that. You lose money to make money, you make money to make money, you take money to make money, you make up anything—to make money. Right now, as the new century sucks in its gut for the changing of the guard, unearned money hangs heavy in the air like encouraging ozone: a soft rain’s gonna fall eventually, inevitably, and everyone will wonder why they’re soaking wet and insolvent.
*excerpted from the novel Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere