Kathleen Harriman Mortimer died on February 17th. A nonagenarian as was her late father W. Averell Harriman at his passing; she was born to great railroad wealth and married to a Standard Oil heir. As such, she lived a rarified life unimaginable to the still impoverished underclass of which Michael Harrington wrote in his 1960s classic, The Other America, and vastly different from the one experienced by almost everyone else. Kathy Mortimer never had to meet (much less miss) a home mortgage payment, fret about a child’s college tuition, consider how much gas a car trip might require or live in the fear of some unexpected medical bill. Perhaps her situation is best summed up in a memorable line from an episode of Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abby. Distant relative and working lawyer Mathew Crawly tells the dowager Violet about something he can accomplish over the weekend. Clueless about the working (real) world, she gives him a puzzled look and asks, what’s a weekend? What most of us consider normal life is seen, if even noted, by such dowagers past and present as some sort of alien unreality. They reside, or so they might believe, on some other planet than ours.
All of this is not to suggest that Mortimer lived a useless or uncaring life — in fact it was an interesting and, for someone of her station, at times an unconventional one. The Times obituary noted that she was part of a tightly knit society in which people were separated by far fewer than six degrees. But all I could think of in reading of her death and the privileged life she led was how sharply it contrasted with and how far she was separated from the concurrently being reported people gathered on streets and squares across the Middle East. Perhaps even more so I thought of the potential powder keg upon which we sit in this country. Despotism is not restricted to harsh and violent dictatorships. It can be equally repressive, though obviously in a very different way, when the disparity between the very few who have everything and the many who essentially live on rations — dolled out or meagerly earned — is becoming the norm not the exception in our dream deprived America.
Nothing illustrates this disparity more than the much quoted but still shocking statistic that, as of 2009, CEO pay was 263 times that of the company’s employees. If young people in far away Egypt have been empowered by information and social networking, what makes one think all those deprived or undervalued people unfamiliar to the Kathy Mortimer’s in our own country will forever sit silently by in the face of this glaring disparity. Doesn’t it stand to reason that our unemployed, underemployed and relatively underpaid, especially the tech savvy young among them, will reach similar conclusions about their own seemingly powerless lives?
While labor protests are hardly new in America, it’s not a stretch to believe that the current demonstrations in Madison Wisconsin may well foretell something more profound and widespread to come. At the moment, demagogues of the right are trying to play up an alleged unfair disparity between the salaries and benefits of public and private workers. It’s a divide and conquer strategy that has become standard to their playbook, thus far having succeeded in convincing working folks that, for example, lower taxes for the wealthy are actually to their benefit — perhaps the most blatant illusion pulled off since Houdini.
The Saudi monarchy is terrified about what thoughts the revolutionaries in Cairo might put into the minds of their population. Our often personally well-healed politician deficit hawks might do well to consider how their proposed cuts in social programming will negatively affect a generation to whom a Google search is second nature and connectivity a way of everyday life. The watershed civil rights movement and the protests against the Viet Nam War that effectively brought down Lyndon Johnson’s presidency took place without any of the informational or communicative tools that exist today. When things go terribly wrong, even if in a democracy, the word gets out and change not delivered is taken.
When Warren Buffet and Bill Gates initiated their Giving Pledge, they weren’t simply asking fellow billionaires to follow their example of extreme philanthropy. Interestingly, meant or not, these especially smart men (each with personal fortunes that dwarf those of the Harriman’s and the Mortimer’s) were acknowledging and sending a not so subtle message to their counterparts that the disparity between the very rich and everyone else could not forever endure in the world that is taking shape. It’s no wonder Mark Zukerberg (the newbie billionaire) was quick to sign on. He knows that, while his FaceBookers may originally have been satisfied with knowing which friends were doing what and when across a college campus, the current crowd wants to know what we’re all doing — what is being done for or to us — and, most importantly, why. That knowledge alone, as recent weeks have shown, has consequences.
The mantra of getting government out of our lives and the focus of those impassioned deficit hawks on social programming translates into policies that largely disadvantage those with less, not more. To compound the error of an essentially misguided and heartless approach is what seems to be a frontal attack on labor in general and on public employees in particular. Somehow this group that includes the people doing the grunt work of teaching our children, protecting our domestic peace and cleaning up our trash is being scapegoated, personally responsible for our national debt and problems. Just break the blood-sucking unions and promote a more business-friendly environment and all will be good.
Aided and abetted by an ideologically right Supreme Court majority, corporations have been given citizen status while real citizens are being shafted by politicians financed by, yes, the very same corporations. And the companies that benefit most are exactly those whose CEOs are raking in millions while workers salaries are held in check to keep profits high (justifying those unseemly rewards for the top). Wall Street has recovered, and then some, while bright and able recent college graduates are struggling to find jobs and unemployed 50s are coming to grips with unwanted, very early and untimely retirement.
There was a disconnect between the life story of Kathy Mortimer and the news from both Cairo and Madison. It was the gulf between the castle and the street. Don’t get me wrong, this is not some kind of socialist rant nor is it a call for class warfare. The rich are not bad because of their wealth and people are not de facto noble just because they have less or little. To be sure there are value judgments to be made, but that’s not at issue or the point. Dictatorships can’t stand in the world in which we now live — all are likely to fall or be drastically reformed — but neither can the current economic gulf between citizens in a democracy. Presidents, governors, mayors and legislators may be narrowly focused on their budgets, but they seem to be missing the real problem. It’s not even a topic of conversation. And you thought people like Kathy Mortimer with inherited wealth were out of touch.