A few weeks ago, the friend of a friend called me a bigot in a Facebook thread. Obviously this little jibe has stuck in my throat because almost two months later it's still bothering me. This happened in a discussion about THIS ARTICLE, which describes Mitt Romney's charitable acts. Don't get me wrong: I am grateful that he is one of those charitable sorts of ridiculously wealthy men. More ridiculously wealthy men should be like him.
But I don't think the fact that he is ready and willing to help those less fortunate than him (all 99% of America) negates the other fact: he is filthy rich. It was that term, in fact, that caused the "bigot" label to be stuck on me. In my comment, I was trying to point out a contrast I've actually previously written about: the difference between sympathy and empathy. Of course Mitt can sympathize with those of us who have actually had to worry about how we'll make our mortage payments or manage to pay off that looming medical bill. He probably feels sorry for us. He can (and does!) reach into his pocket and help people out. But he will never, ever be able to empathize. He will never be able to know how it feels to be filled with the terror of a very-real prospect of losing everything. Or even the less-dramatic moments, like when losing $100 feels like the end of the world . The sting of a dentist's bill or the derailment that happens when a car breaks down or the washing machine needs to be replaced.
He can have sympathy for us poor working schmucks but he will never have empathy because he has never been in our shoes.
"But does that mean that only a person from a working-class upbringing would make a good president?" my friend asked. (I imagine she was trying to smooth out the bigoted wrinkles.) Of course not. There is an argument to be made about a man who runs his business so well that he's achieved that sort of wealth. A brilliant financial mind is something our country obviously desperately needs. And really, we don't want someone ordinary to be our president. We want someone extraordinary, right?
"But does his wealth mean he can't relate to average Americans?" she pushed me further. (Can you tell she is a teacher?) Most of me immediately says yes, it does. The problems and troubles of an average American have never been his problems and troubles, so how can he know how to help? Of course, that's not allowing for the power of either sympathy or imagination, which is what the very smallest part of my response builds on, the part that says no, his wealth doesn't keep him from relating because we are all, wealthy or not, still human beings.
To my mind, that article extolling Romney's financial graciousness is an attempt to make him seem like he's more like me. More like your average American, willing to step in and help out his neighbor. All of which makes me think, really? Really? Mitt Romney (and, frankly, nearly any politician I can imagine) is nothing like me. If I had any extra, I'd be willing to put down money on the fact that he's never wondered about his worth when he's looked at the contrast between himself and others. (I've been known to feel like wealthy people must be more deserving of the abundance they have, as if financial status is proof that all of life is us playing a big round of sibling rivalry, with God giving the most to the people he loves best. Even though I don't really think it works that way. Usually.) He hasn't agonized over how to pay for college for his kids or worried that the pressure to get good grades (and thus qualify for scholarships) might be breaking them with unforseen consequences. He's never gotten a stomach ache over spending too much at Walmart.
Or probably even shopped at Walmart.
The solutions to my problems are things like "maybe I should go back to work full time" or "what expenses can I cut from _____ so I can pay for _______?" The solutions to his problems are things like "the cabin on the Canadian shores of Lake Huron" and "let's just build an elevator for all the cars." How could a person like that ever relate to me?
I stand by my label of "filthy rich," however, and its implications that it is somehow morally wrong for a person to be wealthy. I do that within the context of the label that stranger gave me: bigotry. A bigoted person is one who is "biased beforehand" or, in other words, makes a decision based on a lack of knowledge; the bigoted are "obstinately and blindly attached or unreasonably devoted to some creed, opinion, or party" and are "intolerant towards other groups." (At least, that's the part of the OED definition that applies.) Another good definition is this one: "a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance" (from Merriam Webster). Calling the term "filthy rich" bigoted is implying that the wealthy are a racial or ethnic group that needs protection from hatred or intolerance. I suppose I missed the politically-correct meeting wherein we all decided that the wealthy are a minority group? Or that my bitterness about not being in with the wealthy means I have hatred for them?
But deeper and more important than political correctness is that I am not basing my "filthy rich" label on a lack of knowledge. In my own life experiences I have met plenty of wealthy people who believe their wealth makes them better than others. They spend on themselves without regard for others. I'm also not blindly attached to that knowledge, as I'll readily admit I know a few wealthy people who don't let it go to their heads and who do good things with their money. Does that make me intolerant towards the wealthy? Perhaps, but I don't think so, and here's why: it isn't such a clean dividing line between wealthy and poor. Mitt Romney might be the candidate with gobs of money, but the 80% of us Americans who don't live below or very near to the poverty line are also complicit. I don't have an elevator for my cars, but I am still filthy rich. I have an air-conditioned home with food in the cupboards. My children all have shoes and sweatshirts and toothbrushes. We have a computer and a TV and cell phones, a health insurance plan and a green and grassy yard with shade trees and flowers and birds, while 20% of our population doesn't, and then when you stop to consider the rest of the entire world it all just seems impossibly screwed up.
I don't know what the answer is to our financial problems. I know I believe in working for what you need (a fishing pole instead of a fish), not getting government handouts. I also believe it is immoral that people are struggling with poverty and homelessness and hunger while others live the fabulous life. Maybe it isn't a problem that can be solved by humanity. I am hopeful that, despite their wealth and how it makes them unable to relate to the average American, politicians might figure something out. But I also know this without question:
We are (almost) all of us filthy rich.