In one especially memorable scene in 2000’s historical drama Vatel, King Louis XIV of France is depicted in the midst of the daily ritual known as the levee. The levee was conducted in the king’s suite at his awakening, and consisted of meeting with advisers and courtiers while valets and assorted servants prepared his toilet and daily garments.
Within this scene, which my students see as both amusing and disgusting, a servant is shown behind a curtain, literally, and I don’t know how to put this delicately, wiping the Sun King’s butt.
But thinking about my history students’ reactions, I find myself wondering why they would be disgusted. After all, don’t we on a daily basis genuflect and kiss the asses of the members of our royalty?
Just as the nobility in the time of Louis XIV we also don’t expect ours to pay taxes. You know, that’s the least we can do given all those millions of jobs they create with that wealth.
Beyond that we feel an unquenchable need to prostrate ourselves before them. Much of our culture is devoted to the worship and adoration of the wealthy. Cable and network television is crammed with reality shows depicting the idle rich in their mansions spending obscene fortunes on cars, jewelry, yachts, personal jets and fabulous vacations. And aren’t we just giddy about the latest Hollywood star’s ten million dollar wedding?
So why do we do it? The peasantry of the Third Estate didn’t know any better. The Enlightenment with its emphasis on natural rights and condemnations of the privileged had not yet arrived . But what’s our excuse?
Why do we pay a tattooed from head to toe football player with a salary that could maintain an entire region’s homeless shelters for a year?
Why are we so captivated by and enthralled with Wall Street hedge fund managers who steal fortunes with illegal insider information and endless scamming? These miscreants who wouldn’t piss on us if we were on fire.
Part of the answer lies in the power of myth. As entrenched is the ridiculousness that America is actually free and there is justice for all, is the nonsense that anyone can and should be rich. I see it in my student’s faces. Whenever we discuss class and economic inequality they resent when I attempt to counter with statistics, facts and reality. They each, to the student, believe they are going to be rich; and no one is going to dare tell them different.