Farewell to Sweet 1997, Back End of Effrontery

Ah, but these are strange times in which we live, to many reminiscent of the 20’s when, as F. Scott

Ah, but these are strange times in which we live, to many reminiscent of the 20’s when, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, if you wanted it to snow, you simply paid some money. Money and wealth, in other words, are all: godhead, trinity, the highest and only good, the sum of all things, the point of life, the measure of man. So be it, say I, adding only the mild opinion that connoisseurs of unintended consequences are going to have a field day in the future with this proposition.

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Wealth disparity has been much in the news recently. It is the economic divide between rich and poor that has claimed the bulk of what passes for media attention these days, but I would submit that those wishing, like English mystic Owen Glendower, to summon up the future’s monsters for a closer inspection, would be better advised to peer into another chasm. Namely: the growing gap between rich and rich. From these depths, I expect, is where we will see the retributive chimera of class warfare rise, and begin its slouching progress toward the New Jerusalem, sword in hand. Comes the slump, and this time I predict that the political class to be feared will be the once-rich. To achieve wildfire status, revolutions need a discontented middle class; whether that class is created bottom-up through socioeconomic ascendancy or top-down through perceived socioeconomic descent doesn’t matter.

Here’s what I mean. The papers recently reported that the 190 partners of Goldman, Sachs & Company will earn as much as $15 million apiece in 1997 profits. At these levels, the usual definers-size and cost of toys-of relative comparative advantage between persons cease to apply. Everyone can afford everything, more or less. Pure money envy, unrelated to life style, to standard of living, begins to operate. The gap between No. 190 on the list and No. 1 becomes more divisive and class-distinctive, and therefore potentially more explosive, than the heretofore gap between No. 190 and Joe Six-pack or the guy who may see his 401(k) “wealth” turn to smoke in a mutual fund roll-up; indeed the latter are likely to become allies. It bears thinking about.

One thing is certain, and that is that 1997 has been a great year, possibly the best ever, for Effrontery. Edward Gibbon said the vices responsible for the fall of Rome were Hypocrisy, Avarice and Ingratitude. Like the ice and fire Robert Frost mediated for his apocalypse, if forced to choose, I would add and select Effrontery. I use the word in the sense given by the late Robert Nisbet in Prejudices , a book that should lie on every civilized person’s night stand:

“Effrontery is gall; it is unblushing impudence. It is temerity … that springs from heedlessness, not of danger, but of ordinary decorum … Effrontery is the exhibiting for gain of the unbuttoned ego; it is the hypertrophy of brashness, and the embodiment of insolence. It is invariably associated with an individual’s sense of effortless superiority: arrogance at its zenith … No culture that is strong in appreciation of honor, rich in pietas and gravitas, is likely to experience much effrontery in high places. Retribution would be swift and sure. But in such a political order as exists in America at the present time, effrontery is bound to be rife and successful … Anthropologists speak of ‘shame cultures’ … but there may also be ‘shameless cultures,’ ones so lacking in capacity for shame that effrontery not only ceases to be offensive to a people but becomes actually welcome … It becomes steadily more difficult to think of any act or statement from anyone of whatever sphere and status in American society that is sufficiently offensive to taste and morals as to lead to that person’s self-removal in shame from the public forum.”

Amazingly, Nisbet published these words in 1983, before Donald Trump, before Barbara Walters and Madonna, before Bill Clinton, before Cindy Adams (of whose performance at the University Club let me just say that if the U.C. is a properly run club-which I have no way of knowing, not being a member-the member under whose auspices Ms. Adams was permitted to cross the threshold and thereafter flout and then publicly mock the club’s posted rules-as well as those of his/her fellow members who sought to remonstrate-should be obliged to resign forthwith.)

The greatest single act of individual Effrontery during the year has to have been Earl Spencer’s performance in Westminster Abbey. I found it incredible at the time that someone whose adultery-still a sin in the eyes of the church-let alone general second-ratedness was well known even then (I had read about his escapades in Tatler a couple of years before his sister bought the farm) should have been permitted to ascend the pulpit of England’s holy shrine, there to hector his betters on matters of moral and family responsibility of which his life and conduct to that point and since has evidenced not a trace.

If I have one wish for 1998, it is for the post-boom generation-the Earl’s-to shut up and listen. I am tired of these ignorant, uneducated, money-grubbing thirty- (and under) somethings, for whom process (getting the job) is everything, and substance (what you do when you’ve got the job) is nothing-an approach to life’s great businesses in which they evidently take their lead from our President, for whom flackery is the essence of politics, and the Bill of Rights a come-on to a Federal yard sale.

The withering-away of intergenerational respect and obligation that began in the 60’s (“Don’t trust anyone over 30!”) has gone too far. To know anything, to learn anything, has become superfluous. Education and schooling seem to have become, as I have written before, the least inconveniencing of ways in which to fill up the interval between status-driven puberty and Wall Street. All that is necessary today is a certain ability to take Black-Scholes options-pricing instructions from the Bloomberg screen.

This is a generation altogether without distinction or standards, whether you are talking about “NARKs,” Notionally Achieving Rich Kids (a particularly odious subspecies celebrated in the pages of something called Manhattan Vile ), or the junior literati, who sass their betters by the lights of a literary esthetic that seems to be: “If you’ve got nothing to say, say it loudly!” It is a youth culture capable of hailing a work of unmitigated bullbleep like The God of Small Things , 300 pages of Gabriel García Márquez meets The English Patient in Madras, as a masterpiece. And it may get worse.

Anyway, onward! May the road rise up to greet you. May the earth open and swallow up Howard Rubenstein, the Prince of Swine, everyone in the White House and others, who know who they are. Happy New Year.

Farewell to Sweet 1997, Back End of Effrontery