Wealth and All That Glitters

The generation of baby boomers gave rise to a stable of cultural heroes who became multimillionaires. They were actors, writers, musicians and some of those took part in protest. There was one major difference about this stable that set them apart from the rest of us during that era of protest, and that was they became very, very rich, often on the left’s dime, to where they had more in common with the few and the wealthy than the rest of us who had to pay bills and make ends meet. We didn’t have a choice of whether to show up to work. We were free in a Dickensian way, in that we were free to starve if we chose. Someone on the left noted a few years ago, making an observation of one celebrity (a movie star) from the stable, that a person of extreme wealth could show up at a protest, possibly get arrested, and leave as that person had come, in a limousine. Very few who went to the barricades during the civil rights and antiwar movements got to come and go via limousine. It’s not that the left didn’t benefit by the largess of wealthy donors and celebrities, it’s just that most of those on the left didn’t have much in common with them besides principles, but principles are easy to defend in extreme comfort.

Abbie Hoffman, protester and a founder of the Yippies, was an exception. He never made anything approaching wealth, but according to his major biographer (For The Hell Of It: The Life And Times Of Abbie Hoffman, 1998), he made a six figure yearly income in the 1980s and gave a good share of that money away. With good reason, in addition to bipolar issues, Abbie was profoundly distressed at the end of his life at how right wing this society had become.

The limousine equation set stars apart from the rest of us. Their skin in the game was not subject to the same searing as ours because they could afford all the legal representation they needed and were assured of never having to pay any serious price for their actions. If they spent a day or two in a jail cell, they would come out even more popular.

There were superstars like Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, and lesser stars like Phil Ochs, who took major risks during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam antiwar movement, but most of the stable came out for liberal political candidates and liberal causes and never took the risks that could have put them even remotely in harm’s way. Pete Seeger is notable for his resistance to McCarthyism, which altered the trajectory of his career. He stood out for never having compromised his principles for money.

David Crosby made an observation in the movie Echo in the Canyon (2018), and I paraphrase here, about how youth and lots of money and fame lead to some predictable outcomes.

The left is probably drawn to celebrity in much the same way we’re drawn to all that glitters.

Singer/songwriter Carly Simon recounts her years of stardom and some issues and personalities with whom she has dealt. She is candid, and especially candid when she addresses issues such as the #MeToo movement (“Carly Simon on turning down Donald Trump: ‘I thought he was kind of repulsive,’” Guardian, October 31, 2019). Simon talks about abuse, relationships, Donald Trump, and the #MeToo movement and maintains a balance unusual among celebrity.

Despite abuse, both physical and financial, Simon is one of the few who will honestly discuss the #MeToo movement:

And yet she has gnawing doubts about the #MeToo movement. “I welcome it and now I hope that it will go back to a position where things will be normalised,” she says. “Not that I want anybody to shut up or to not tell it like it is, but it also feels a little bit unnatural for me that men can’t say a flattering thing to a woman without there being a reckoning.

“I’m a woman and I’ve been subject to that and there was the casting couch in a number of cases in my life that I was harmed by. But I think at this point it’s just dangerous for men to act like men. Not that the men who go overboard and disrespect a woman are acting like men. You know what I mean.”

Imagine men routinely flattering other men. Women flatter others routinely and naturally when it’s merited.

I don’t agree with Simon’s take on Bill Clinton (she wants people to give Clinton a break at this point) and his absence from the 2020 presidential campaign, but her assessment of the #MeToo movement provides insight from a person who has been on the frontline of celebrity, dealt with both Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump, and survived to speak about issues intelligently and remain removed from the realm of the politically correct. When Trump made a move on Simon, she astutely “turned down the offer… because I thought he was kind of repulsive.” That sort of sums up what many of those who still hang onto their sanity feel about the man.

The class of wealth and power that has allowed the ascendency of Trump to the world’s most powerful politcal office has no qualms whatsoever about exerting the influence of their money and social position. That class is willing to let the planet burn in ruins in service to their insane lust. Income inequality is at its highest level since the Census Bureau began tracking income in the US five decades ago (“Income inequality in America is the highest it’s been since Census Bureau started tracking it, data shows,” Washington Post, September 26, 2019).

Perhaps there will always be tension between those with lots of money who hold on to left or liberal beliefs and the rest of us who had to show up at work the next day. Only a very few who hold radical beliefs about war and peace and a just society are supported by community. The Plowshares movement against nuclear arms is that kind of community. Their members, facing draconian prison sentences for acts of conscience, have been able to remain sane and reject the trappings of the glitter that is all around us.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).