Sunday, April 30, 2017

Loathe Your Fellow Man: From Hillbilly to Koch

Flipping back and forth between "Hillbilly Elegy" (J.D. Vance)  and "Dark Money" (Jane Mayer), I've had the sensation of flipping between two sides of the same coin.
Andrew Mellon

Admittedly, I'm only 3/4 of the way through Elegy but it's hard to understand why this has got such notice--its depiction of the personalities and values of backwoods Kentucky people has been done so often and better it cannot be any fresh insight, but coming out, as it did, in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, there must have been a swell of interest among readers and the educated about what could those ignorant, toothless people have been thinking when they voted for Trump. So Vance benefited from timing.
J.D. Vance

Elegy does detail with some clear eyed clarity the nature of these People of Walmart who have never held a job in their lives, or if they have only briefly when they did not show up for work, on time, at all or went off on hour long "breaks" when they were supposed to be working and then went on welfare, and spit venom at all the welfare cheats who were living off taxes on the wages of hard working people like themselves.
I certainly could see that at my office, as two women sat out front, reveling in Mr. Trump's victory, talking about how all the free loaders were going to get theirs now, as they let the phones go unanswered, wandered off to the kitchen for 40 minute "coffee breaks" and never bestirred themselves to solve a single problem for any patient but simply told the patient whatever the patient wanted it wasn't their job to provide an answer.  "Call back later," or "Call back Monday," was their favorite phrase, these hard working ladies who were so incensed at the welfare queens.
Hillbilly voters

What Vance documents in excruciating detail is how thoroughly incapable of productivity people from his hillbilly culture are. They are incapable of, not just work, but of creating functional families. His first real experience of learning basic values of discipline, persistence, effort came when he joined the Marines, where he acquired in 13 weeks of boot camp what should have been provided over the 18 years his family got drunk, pregnant, fought and crashed their cars. 

It doesn't seem to occur to him or to anyone in his sect the Marines are supported by the American taxpayer.

On the other side of the coin, the portrait of the venomous Koch brothers, who hold not just Hillbilly's in contempt but all mankind in contempt. This is one of those "You have no idea" experiences. The John Birch Society hardly compares to the Kochs' foundations.  They hate Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the EPA, the FDA, Congress, the IRS--even the FBI and the CIA, those institutions which protect their own wealth.
Richard Mellon Scaite

When Donald Trump's minions, Mnuchin and Cohn stepped out in front of the cameras to announce the new tax "plan" they blandly reported the only two deductions which the new tax code would retain were "charitable" deductions and interest on home mortgages.   
The home mortgage thing was pretty obvious--if you are trying to please the four home set, you don't want to gore that ox, and a lot industries will get behind that one, not just banking, but home builders, furniture manufacturers, the trades which electrify and add plumbing to the homes.  
Charles Koch

But the charitable deduction--oh, that's the way the 1% shields his wealth from the IRS--they can put the money into charitable trusts, still control it, and advertise their beneficence to the people. You can hardly walk past a public building in New York and not see David Koch's name engraved--from the Lincoln Center on down.
David Koch

On the few occasions I've been invited to mix with the ultra wealthy, I was struck by how fundamentally unhappy they looked.  Talking to the great grand daughter of one of the wealthiest men to have ever lived, an heiress who was cooking up the fish we had caught in a stream on her estate which was, in square miles, just a little smaller than the county I live in in New Hampshire, I could not miss the melancholy. 
This is America, not England

That twenty minutes we spent chatting by the water, as she put the fish on a grill, and I asked her about her childhood, we were just two people talking. She must have been forty something and I was 24, and she told me about learning to shoot and to fish and to cook fish.  She actually brightened, remembering all that.
She never asked me any questions about me.  
I thought at the time, she must have been conditioned to not ask about other people because that would open up the door to them asking questions about herself and her family. But, actually, later she seemed willing enough to talk about some aspects of her family and later she actually showed us a large parchment of her enormous family tree.
Eventually, I decided, she may simply not have had much interest in other people. She had two daughters and she was engaged with them, much as any mother. 
But she had that weekend four 20 something medical students her husband had invited up to the estate, and she seemed only passingly interested in any of them, as if they were passing loons, landing on her water, splashing about, amusing but not really worth much thought.

That may be the real sadness of Koch level wealth--the self absorption.
One of the greatest gifts medical school gave me was permission to ask people about themselves and that was never a natural thing for me. It actually requires a certain nerve, and some people are better at it than others. But if you ask people persistently enough, and unwind the onion layers delicately enough, you can experience one of the most satisfying rewards of human existence--you can actually see something, someone, new. 
Discovery is the ultimate joy.

But the sadness and the alienation of the Koch, upper one percent of the upper one per cent  personality is their own personal burden--the downstream results of their malevolence, not merely indifference, but real antipathy, the ultimate alienation toward their fellow man becomes a concern for us all.

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