Recently, scientists conducted a series of twelve experiments, and discovered something that didn’t exactly knock me off my chair: rich people have less empathy than you or me! We 99% “…just show more empathy, more prosocial behavior, more compassion, no matter how you look at it.” Put another way, “upper-class rank perceptions trigger a focus away from the context toward the self….”
In other words, most rich people are selfish bastards. While watching a video about children with cancer: “The results of the study showed that participants on the lower end of the spectrum, with less income and education, were more likely to report feeling compassion while watching… In addition, their heart rates slowed down…—a response that is associated with paying greater attention to the feelings and motivations of others.”
This lack of feeling toward others manifests itself in interesting ways: luxury car drivers are far more likely to cut off other drivers or speed past pedestrians who are trying to cross. Believe me, I know. I grew up in Encino, a wealthy L.A. enclave, and back then, it was the Cadillac drivers you had to look out for. Now, the Asshole Awards go to those in Beamers, Benzes, and Lexii. I can’t tell you how many times these One Percenters have given me the virtual finger, not letting me in and cutting me off as if spending $80k on a vehicle presumes some Constitutional right. To them (and I mean this in the nicest way possible): I hope you’re pitchforked by demons in Hell.
It’s been determined that members of the upper class have a harder time reading people’s emotions. “Upper-class people, in spite of all their advantages, suffer empathy deficits,” says Dr. Keltner, one of the scientists. “And there are enormous consequences.”  When everyone is kissing your ass twenty-four hours a day; when you never hear that one little word, “No”; when the world is there to do your bidding and you are its Creator, why should you care what anyone thinks? Wealth is a license for ill.
In one of the experiments, Dr. Keltner found that less affluent individuals are more likely to report feeling compassion towards others on a regular basis. For example, they are more likely to agree with statements such as, “I often notice people who need help,” and “It’s important to take care of people who are vulnerable.” How many times have you seen an Armani-clad exec clamber out of his Porsche and offer money to the homeless? I thought so. No, it’s usually people like you and me (struggling to emerge from my crumbling Saturn) because we can relate: there but for the grace of God. . .
Which brings us to this chicken-and-egg question: do people get rich because they are selfish, or do they become selfish after they get rich? I think the answer is Yes, and Yes. The desire to amass large stores of cash stems from an essentially “Me”-centric philosophy. Expressed as: screw everyone else, I am going to get mine. After you have the mansion and the Ferrari, the Trophy Wife and Robot Kids, why not toss some of that lucre toward the less fortunate: the sick, the aged, the homeless? Bill Gates finally ended up doing good, but it took decades (and perhaps Melinda?) to loosen the hand on his wallet.
Other philanthropists come from strange industrial backgrounds. It was not until after Andrew Carnegie had his workers killed by Pinkertons that he built all those lovely libraries. Henry Ford installed secret police in his plant before creating the Foundation that led to the genesis of Sesame Street.
Personal philanthropy makes the rich shudder. They would rather see their mother on the street than give one penny of aid. And when they do give, it comes with so many strictures and recriminations, so much judging and begrudging, that that mother ends up wishing she’d just signed up for a homeless shelter instead.
The rich make Silas Marner look like Legs Diamond. Because they can’t relate to The Rest Of Us, they give paltry tips and miserly gifts. Yet to themselves, they never fail to be generous. In their minds, they deserve their wealth, and luck plays absolutely no part in it. Not the trust fund left by mommy and daddy. Not the “lift all boats” family member who invents ketchup or opens a steel mill in China. Not the ex who happens to be Steven Spielberg.
There is an enormous disconnect between those cutting you off in their Benzes and you. Even if the One Percent started off poor, they will do everything to cast off the past, the jettisoned cargo including noses, names, and family. It’s inconvenient to look at someone and realize they once knew you as Sophie Goldberg who worked at the A&P. Far more glamorous to do the L.A. and pretend that life starts Now. And the newfound friends – the ass-kissers – see only that which is fabulous and not the cold hard truth: that this person has as much empathy as a toad.
Right now, 80% of America’s wealth is held by the top 20%. But if you ask these people, they will tell you that the distribution of wealth is equal . The good news (for them) is that they don’t concern themselves about starving children or the gravely ill. This unpleasantness dwells far away, in remote lands where their workers live; or in poor neighborhoods which they never enter, but is where the Help is from. Nice to know that our most powerful citizens (including Congress) essentially don’t give a damn. That might explain the GOP. It certainly explains The Romneys.
It occurred to me, today in the shower (locale for many soggy epiphanies) that we humans have set ourselves up to live the most unnatural lives possible. Caught between technology and imposed restraint, we are as far from Rousseau’s “Noble Savage” as we are from Saturn’s rings.
To wit: we get up in the morning and put on uncomfortable clothes. Women, to conform with society’s mores, regularly torture themselves with pantyhose and heels. We arrive at work and immediately shut down our true selves. Smile at those we hate. Nod vigorously at the boss’s new idea even though it reeks of stupidity. Listen thoughtfully as he/she insults us, giving a desultory “thank you” after being belittled.
Profess joy at camping in a cubicle, with its low-hanging beige “walls” and life-sapping florescent “sun.” None of our interactions at work is genuine: it’s just societal conditioning, based on the premise that we all are thrilled to be there and that serving as a capitalist cog is as good as it can get. We crow about being “team players” when we actually despise the team and would rather work alone. We pretend that a four-hour meeting is better than a trip to Hawaii; that our colleague droning about “process” is like Branagh performing Lear.
We gladly assist our own jailers: disapproving anyone who doesn’t conform (did you see the length of her skirt?!); volunteering to work overtime and cutting into the short hours we have where we can dare to be ourselves: at home.
All of our responses are mechanical, based on what we think we should do. I will attend that noxious party because it is expected. I won’t ram the Mercedes that just cut me off because that would intimate anger. I will pretend to listen to a crazy person because it is polite. I will bite my tongue a thousand times throughout the day, because if I really express my thoughts, I will be fired/arrested/shunned.
And the constructs that we’ve built to keep our True Selves in a box: great inhuman cities which have raped the natural world and robbed it of its splendor; exhaust-spewing cars meant to keep us in isolation – gridlocked on the freeways; following a predetermined path. Skyscrapers like the one in Sinclaire Lewis’s “Zenith” dwarf their creators, creating nexuses of worker bees who seldom go outside.
We don’t need technology to turn ourselves into robots. We’ve done it all by ourselves, for in order to survive (or buy pretty things that make us feel better about ourselves), we’ve adopted our “professional” persona, which means: no display of actual feeling; an exterior that spouts buzzwords and executes (i.e. “fires”) others because the uber-person (the company) is clearly uber alles.
In this world, we’re not really allowed to show compassion (oh, somebody’s fill-in-the-blank died, let’s send a card); a businessperson gives money to the homeless (is there something wrong with her?!); there’s a horrific accident on the freeway (let’s all stop and gawk).
Of course, society has always encouraged anti-human behavior: think Court Of Louis XIV or Hitler’s Germany. It is not a natural instinct to ritualize the drinking of chocolate or to engage in brutal genocide. Both require permission: a mass mindset that says this is OK and in fact, perfectly natural.
Technology tends to isolate further and leads to alienation. That friend you used to call on the phone? Easier to text or send an email. That relative you used to have over? Skype her on webcam instead. That lid you used to snap shut when you got up from your desk, the one that separated Work Life from Your Life? Forget it — it’s gone, replaced by the Android leash. Chaplin brilliantly captured what Marx called “the objectification of the subjective” in his seminal Modern Times. Now factory workers can’t even be dehumanized, since they’ve largely been replaced by robots.
Even Art has evolved from Naturalism (the depiction of real things) to the highly abstract. Is this a progression, or another nullification of the physical world? We know that movies used to contain characters and dialog; they still do – minimally – but now they’re about monsters, aliens, and disasters courtesy of ILM. Music, with the evolution of synthesizers, has been artificial for decades, but now even singing is unnatural, tweaked by Auto-Tune. Thankfully, there are still acoustic instruments, and orchestras that play them.
Writing may be the art least affected by the Unnatural: someone sits down and fills up a page with words, and those words often express real emotion and thoughts, stripped of social PC. Whether they’re disseminated between covers or on a Kindle does not change the intimacy of the medium. Updike is still Updike, and his prose (“The great thing about the dead, they make space.”) conveys truth whatever the form.
Look around at the world we’ve created. It’s finite, confining, concrete. We’ve subjected every species to our mastery, and we’ve put them in cages too. Even our “rebellion” is choreographed, as with flash mobs and performance art.
The natural world is shrinking. It’s being paved over, burnt, and polluted out of existence. Soon the tribes that are living in Nature will lose their habitat and be paved over too.
You could say that nobody wants this modern world – except for those who exploit it. No one really wants to put on heels, a feigned smile, and a Blackberry, to march inside an environment poisoned by the fake . Yet we do it, day after day. We don’t pause to question: “Do I have to agree with that asshole just ‘cause he’s the boss? “ “Do I have to pretend to like that woman even though she’s screwed me over?” “Do I need to nod complacently when that guy is taken away, never to be seen again?”
Solzhenitsyn said: “If one is forever cautious, can one remain a human being? ” Our collective caution has become a prison where we deny our natural personhood, and with it, everyone else’s.
American exceptionalism is defined by many factors, some of them not so great. No one would point to the nation’s millions of illegal drug users and smile with civic pride. Yet there is another increasingly unhidden addiction – to prescription painkillers – that is killing our nation slowly. Did you know that the U.S. consumes 80% of the world’s opiods, and 99% of hydrocodone, the active ingredient in Vicodin? That OD’s from Vicodin and its pals kill more people than auto accidents in seventeen states? The sheer numbers are staggering: 131 million doses of Vicodin are prescribed every year; in 2001, U.S. sales of OxyContin exceeded $1 billion.
Elizabeth Wurtzel, in what seems like an affectionate paen to a bygone era, wrote Prozac Nation in ’94. Forget SSRIs. The odds are higher that someone you know – your boss, co-worker, spouse, mom – is hooked on opiates, and your doctor is playing pusher.
Here’s how it goes: we’ve all experienced pain at some point in our lives. When I broke my ankle in ‘98, I tried to take a Vicodin but the medication made me so ill that I lay down on the floor, not knowing how to get up (in a full fiberglass cast). Flash forward to 2010, when, after breast cancer surgery, I was prescribed the ubiquitous V. This time, the pill was my friend. I would count down the minutes until I could take the next one, my surgical site alive with pain. I went through two prescriptions, but, being a rare American drug hater, stopped and never looked back. Some people are not so fortunate.
There are stories upon stories of patients experiencing pain, getting the V. from Doctor, then realizing that if they get that “fuzzy warm” feeling after one pill, how much better will they feel after two? Twenty? The allure of the drug is such that some addicts end up taking 75 pills a day. And why is that? Because “opioids are essentially legal heroine.” And instead of getting a fix in the street, Americans feel so much better with a neatly packaged pharmacy bottle.
Of course, Vicodin and its cousin Percocet are mere dwarves when compared to the Sauron of the field: OxyContin. Introduced by Purdue Pharma in 1996, the drug maker initially told doctors that Oxy didn’t produce much euphoria, and that withdrawal wasn’t especially rough. Bullshit. In 2007, Purdue ended up paying $634 million in fines for felony and misdemeanor misbranding. Oops!
Don’t think this enormous sum compensated for the mayhem left in Oxy’s wake. Whole communities – even states – have been leveled by its scythe, espeically in rural areas. Nearly every family in eastern Kentucky has been touched by prescription-drug addiction and death.
Oxy abuse starts off like Vicodin, but with a bite: Oxycodone is approximately 1.5–2 times as potent as morphine when administered orally. A woman named “Cheryl” reports that she became a full-blown addict in a week, started crushing and inhaling the pills, then, upon running out, spent days vomiting and dry heaving. It wasn’t until she woke up in the hospital (her heart had stopped in the ambulance) that she could fully appreciate the insidious nature – and addictive allure — of “hillbilly heroin.”  Another addict who started out with legitimate back pain got up to 240mg of Oxy a day by scoring prescriptions from his internist, pain management doctor, and surgeon. He ended up detoxing in a psychiatric hospital for 3.5 days.
But he was one of the lucky ones. Accidental overdoses involving Vicodin and Oxy rose by nearly 115 percent in just the four years between 2001 and 2005. They have taken to their grave teens, and many “ordinary” Americans who got hooked before they had time to process what was happening.
Some states operate as “pill mills” for others, as in the case of Florida, which supplied so much Oxy to Appalachia that it was known as the “flamingo express.” In 2011, Florida doctors prescribed 10 times more oxycodone than those in the rest of the states combined. Governor Rick Scott (R) at first opposed shutting down the pill mills, but things got so bad that regulation was finally passed in March 2011. Of course, the drug suppliers just pick up and move elsewhere. Purdue, which wrought this evil upon the land, has tried to prevent Oxy users from crushing and snorting the pills by adding additional binders but it’s not known how effective this is. In the meantime, Oxy is considered a “gateway” drug to heroin, and you know why? Cause smack is cheaper.
The moral of the story – and it’s a microcosm of U.S. business practice — is that Big Pharma like Purdue will lie and cheat to get their product on the market, and if thousands die in the process, oh well, they can just pay a fine. Of course, if you or I commit a homicide, we will be put away for life (at the least) but we apparently don’t have the level of “personhood” granted to rich corporations.
So next time you have pain, and your doctor hands you that V. prescription, think before you take the first pill. This stuff is not child’s play. It is a semi-synthetic opiate, produces the same euphoria as heroin before the elation fades and the hell of being hooked crawls into its place. William S. Borroughs said it best: “Junk is the ideal product… the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy.” Something Purdue knows all too well.
 Ibid Lewis Nelson , on FDA panel to revise Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy of prescription drugs
For all you youngsters out there (those below the age of fifty) permit me to supply a primer on what life was like Before The Internet –before, in fact, the dissemination of the very PC itself!
I know, it seems fake and blasphemous that there ever was such a time. But let me assure you, not only were there no PCs, there were not even hand-held calculators, video cameras the size of a mouse, or X-Box. It was a grim period indeed.
Before the PC (I’ll mark its evolution as 1984, since that’s when Ridley Scott directed that really cool Apple commercial and Orwell predicted we’d all be slaves to futuristic HDTVs). In that Magical Year, Apple unveiled the Machine For The Rest Of Us: the Mac. I took one look at this beige box with the smiling face, loaded with its 128k of memory; lacking something we call a “hard drive” and employing what was known as “floppy disks,” and I said to myself: I’ve got to have one!
Prior to this, I’d made due with the Apple IIe, where you’d use a Z80 card and WordStar to accomplish something that resembled writing, but you had to embed formatting into the text.( ^PB for bold, anyone?). WYSIWYG? What?!
For writers, even this was better than our B.P.C. tools: antediluvian devices known as “pen and paper”, and a machine called a typewriter which, miracle of miracles, could correct its own mistakes! (I’m talking the IBM Selectric II here). There were even older typewriters which required no discernable source of power! Undoubtedly, they were brought to earth by ancient aliens.
B.P.C., revising your work was a bitch. We had none of this Spell Check crap, Cut and Paste, or Delete. We earned our 2 cents a word, people!
Back in this pre-Colombian age, you had to know how to add, since there wasn’t an Excel yet. You couldn’t really centralize information, since databases were something that belonged to punch cards or ahead-of-their-time geeks who had funny haircuts but went on to become richer than you.
Yet all of this pales compared to the true Dark Ages: the pre-Internet Paleozoic. Imagine a time, youngsters, when you would have to call your friends, not just send them a text or email! When the US Post Office was not in its present tottering state, since actual letters (involving paper & envelopes) were used, affixed with actual stamps! If you wanted to meet up with someone, you had no choice — you had to go for the phone! And not a Smart one, no: one with a rotary dial, not all gussied-up with apps and GPS and games. What’s more, it often hung on a wall!!
Research was accomplished by going to a place called a “library.” There, something called physical books resided, and you would actually have to find them amidst a riot of sagging shelves! Crazy huh?
Photos were taken on film (and yes I was around before color photos), developed, then assembled into scrapbooks (and not like the ones on Pinterest, either).
If you wanted to see a movie, you went to a movie theatre. None of this streaming BS. You wanted to see what was playing? Pick up a friggin’ newspaper and find out.
To keep up with friends from high school, you didn’t have a Classmates.com or Facebook. You had to know somebody who knew somebody who knew that little Mikey Glickman was now a powerhouse realtor with listings all over the Valley. Too bad he ended up bankrupt.
In the event of an earthquake (I live in L.A.), you didn’t bring up CNN on your iPad. You ran into the street and yelled, “Jesus, that must have been a 6!” since your windows were shaking and Dad had taken the trouble to usher you downstairs.
If you had something pithy to say, you didn’t grab your phone and Tweet. You spoke it, in words, before other live human beings who would either laugh or not, depending on their level of politeness. It was like theatre versus writing the play.
You had the need to buy something? You got your ass in your car (or Mom’s car) and drove to the store.
You wanted to get some exercise? You walked out the door and played with the kids in the street. None of this “I’m pretending to be Luke fighting Darth Vader” crap on this new-fangled XBOX Kinect!
You had an itch to see naked women? Pick up a goddamn Playboy. You wanted to see naked men? OK, that was a little bit trickier. You missed being scammed? Talk to a telemarketer – they were just as good as phishers.
In essence, all things were possible in the B.P.C. world: it was just more inconvenient, and you had to talk to people. But we did manage to soldier on without Google, Facebook, and Apple. Do I long for this simpler time? Cry over my old Bic ballpoint? Hell no! My business is software and I use virtually every major site to stay connected and get information.
But it is nice to know that, in the event of a Mayan Meltdown, I have the proto-knowledge to live a life free from AC or batteries. While you Millennials are crying over your iPhones, I will be stealing your food and writing my post-Apocalyptic journal with nothing more than a pen. I will be your Katniss Everdeen, with my mind serving as bow.
I am the dinosaur who will inherit the earth.
Since today is Good Friday (and I’m not sure what’s so good about it, since it was the day that Jesus was crucified), I’d like to devote a few paragraphs to an appreciation of the Man Himself (out of respect to Christians, I will capitalize His name, though I don’t believe in his His divinity. If I did, I would be a Jew For Jesus, and I really don’t like them. Make up your mind already!)
The quotes attributed to Jesus are profound. He truly was The Prince Of Peace, for He said: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;” (Matthew 5:43-44). This is a pretty far cry from the Old Testament “Eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
In fact, Jesus responded to this Mosaic law in His Sermon On The Mount: “but I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” (Matthew 5:38-48).
He propounded loving kindness to our fellow human beings: “Do not return evil for evil. Avenge not yourselves, but rather give way to wrath; for it is written, vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord. Therefore if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he thirsts, give him drink: for in so doing you shall heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)
He may have been the first anti-materialist hippy. Besides driving the moneylenders from the Temple, He said: “For what shall it profit a man, if he gaineth the whole world, and loseth his own soul? (Mark 8:34-37). Jamie Dimon, take note! Here, He seems to take on the dominant credo of America: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust does corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”(Matthew 6:19-21). Are you listening, Kerry Killinger?! (former CEO of Washington Mutual). Prepare now for not being served ice water in Hell!
Jesus was well aware of those who require acclamation whenever they give to charity. Like, having a wing named after yourself at a hospital or museum. These are his words on the subject: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”
“So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. “
“But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:4-14). In this age of self-aggrandizement, this seems to conflict with the ethos of everyone wanting to have their name up in lights (or to star in their own reality show).
Here’s a saying from Jesus which I think He addressed directly to His fellow Jews: “And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:27). He clearly knew of our propensity to dwell and feel guilt. If he truly was the Son of God, then he saw a future where our people would be on Prozac, getting pre-ulcers, and worrying about the stock market. If He came back today, I think He’d wag a finger and say: Just stop already!
So in a nutshell, here are Jesus’ teachings: love one another; put vengeance aside; help the poor; don’t seek worldly glory or revel in material things. (I am skipping the ones that proselytize, and yes, there are many).
How then did this eminent Rabbi, with His pure message of Love, get messed up with the Church that followed? A Church that went and invaded the East (Crusades), sacked a Christian city (Constantinople in The 4th Crusade) , indulged in torture and murder for “blasphemy” (The Inquisition), burned perceived heretics alive in their houses (the Albigensians), broke with another Christian Church (The Great Schism of 1054), threatened everyone with Hellfire (anything by James Joyce), installed a representative of God on Earth (guess who) and poisoned American minds with a brand of ignorance that hasn’t been seen since the Luddites (1811-1812).
Where then is the disconnect? How did Jesus’ original message become so grossly perverted? How did “do unto others” lead to a Rick Santorum or a Pat Buchanan? And Vatican complicity in the Holocaust?
It all comes down to the one thing that influences life on earth: the imperfectability of Man. Given a great gift, perhaps from beyond – the gentle teachings of Jesus – we manage to contort it into a justification for war, murder, persecution, “good” behavior, and no contraceptives for you! Martin Luther’s posting of his treatises in 1518 has not, alas, done a lot to straighten things out. Protestants (Baptists, it seems, in particular) still distort the Word of their Lord into a mandate for hate. Those of other faiths are considered Untermenschen – and must be thrown into Guantanamo. We Jews – the traditional scapegoats of everyone – are still regarded with suspicion, thanks to Medieval myths about using the blood of Christian children for Passover matzo (I’ll pass) and our general intractability as we still wait for the Messiah. Don’t worry, He’ll come – sit down and have a gefilte. . .
So Happy Good Friday, everyone! (oxymoron?). Over this Easter Holiday, let’s please remember the spiritual essence of Jesus, and what He was trying to say. For three days, let’s try to live by St. Paul’s precept: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity (love).” Peace.