Sunday, December 18, 2016

One Hundred and Three

I awoke this morning, as I often do, with a phrase echoing in my mind: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. 

It seems a paradox at first; but even people simpleminded enough to think things must be either one or the other know it’s the simple truth. When times are good for some, it’s because they’re bad for others. In order for Charles Darnay to live, Sydney Carton must die; and it's a far, far better thing for the Marquis St. Evrémonde, the aristocrat whom Darnay becomes, that Carton die for him willingly. This seems a paradox because the truth is rarely simple.

Scott Fitzgerald is supposed to have said “The rich are different from you and me”, to which Hemingway is supposed to have retorted Yes, they have more money". They didn’t actually say these things (The truth, as usual, is more complicated); but if they had, it would have been a paradox not only because both were telling the truth, but because most people would regard both Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway as rich, yet they both seemingly regarded themselves as being different from the rich. It’s not a paradox because however rich the rich become, compared to most people, the rich never think of themselves as rich because they don’t compare themselves to most people. They compare themselves to people who are even richer than they are.

Whenever ordinary people complain that the rich become rich by stealing from others, the rich say their complaint is motivated by envy. This is a paradox because it’s the rich who are motivated by envy. They steal from others because they compare themselves to people who are even richer than they are, so they never have enough.

When ordinary people complain about the rich, they're motivated by common sense, not by envy. They know that when the rich steal from others, the whole society suffers, not just their immediate victims. But the rich don't regard themselves as members of the society they plunder. That's how they justify plundering it.    

But ordinary people seldom do complain when the rich steal from them, because they compare themselves to the rich just as the rich compare themselves to those who are even richer than they are. Ordinary people become willing accomplices to the crimes of the rich not even but especially when they are themselves the victims of those crimes, because they don't want to admit they're victims. We respect the strong and despise their victims.

Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, said Balzac, parce qu'il a été proprement fait. It’s no secret that great fortunes are founded on crime. But in order to commit a crime properly, so that he escapes punishment, a criminal must seduce his victim into becoming his willing accomplice. When everyone is a criminal, or wants to be, no one wants to see justice done.

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