Among the Rich
Lost Confidence, Welling Shame
I stepped back into Manhattan and Brooklyn last week, down to the city from my life in the deep upstate woods. I was revisiting the world of privilege that had ousted me in 2021, and that had been so confident and even smug right up until and into the “pandemic.”
It’s haunting, what that world seems like now.
I know some readers must be thinking, Why have compassion for, why even bother with the fates of, wealthy liberal elites — those who aligned for the past three years with a million lies, and who only grew wealthier and more status-secure as a result of the depredations of the recent past?
I hear you.
But I feel the need, as a witness to this dark time, nonetheless to describe what I saw. When an empire’s elites lose confidence or all sense of purpose, history reveals that it is hard for that empire to survive. And the collapse of confidence I saw, may show a movement in the life of the nation away at least from the complete madness and denial that has gripped this world since 2020.
Brian and I attended an evening gathering of New York City thought leaders, and old-school society leaders. It was in a private home, and convened by the same glamorous group that had dis-invited me from its “list”, due to my naughty vaccine status, in 2021.
I felt that it was important to show up now, and see what had happened to this world in the meantime.
I felt myself step back in time, to pre-2020. There was the familiar swish of the cab that let Brian and me off at an elegant corner on the Upper East Side. There were the obsequious doormen on either side of us, gesturing us forward, into the marvel of the intact Art Deco elevator. They did so with a theatrical servility that I now understand, after my three years in exile in “the other America”, to be purely gestural, and in fact to be deeply ironic.
There was the doorman standing inside the elevator, whose entire job involved pressing the ancient buttons — a flagrant display of conspicuous consumption. There was the door of the elevator opening directly into a penthouse, rather than into a hallway lined with apartments. That private-elevator marker, like a “Park Avenue Classic Six” apartment, or a dedicated parking space in the garage, is a sought-after status symbol, in a city that has little physical space in which to display variations on wealth.
There was the white-on-white-with-beige-notes interior (2016 trend). There was the fantastic backdrop of bookcases, replete with ladders, that lined a study all the way up to the eleven-foot ceilings. (Were the Victorian sets of matching kidskin volumes at the uppermost levels — decorative?) There is the Miro mobile, swaying gently in a corner of the living room, just past the gleaming baby grand piano. There was the Rothko-like art and the Rauschenberg-like art, or maybe they were Rothkos and Rauschenbergs. One painting — with a provocative social-justice message — I recognized from its having been in the Whitney museum catalogue.
There were the staffers in black pants and white shirts — actors and painters by day — passing trays of small circles of white bread with tiny dollops of sour cream, all topped with pearly black caviar. There were the folding gilt chairs, unchanged in these settings since the 1930s.
But everything felt different. In the “before” world — before 2020, before “lockdowns” and “masking” and “mandates” — there was a robust, fairly healthy city outside of these gatherings. It was a city that these people felt that they influenced, cared for and even led. There were schools educating children adequately, and businesses employing people freely, and trains moving people to cultural events and family gatherings and museums and libraries, all showcasing an intact American culture.
The same group now no doubt had the same access as before, the same resources, the same networks. But now, they were lords and ladies of a dungheap. The society and culture outside this elegant interior, had collapsed.
Outside, now, graffiti defaced neighborhood after neighborhood; the New York City police have stopped ticketing people “tagging” buildings. Outside, a Columbia University student was attacked while posting flyers relating to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and Columbia University briefly closed in response to duelling protests. The light of peaceful free expression is being extinguished. Outside, in far Brooklyn, as Brian documented last week, lines of hungry Americans, patiently waiting, stretched a mile long outside of a church dispensing free food. Outside, random acts of violence take place in the subway system every day — a man last month was slashed in the head with a boxcutter.
But over and above the collapse of civility and of safety was a sense among the elites of what felt like defeat. They did not manage to lead their nation through a crisis with integrity, or even with basic facts at their disposal; and now, in that assemblage, it felt as if there was among them a sense of loss of purpose, if not outright shame.
Perhaps it was because this group had been taken in so thoroughly, and was now slowly waking up to that reality. Maybe people even in “that world” are becoming aware of the fact that they stayed indoors for 14 months with no reason, that they missed Thanksgivings and Hannukahs with family for no reason, and that they “masked” and imposed masks on their visiting grandchildren, for no reason. Maybe there was a sense of dispiritedness and even of depression, in that room, because perhaps even they know now that they took something into their bodies that can hurt or someday kill them.
That is what it felt like. A bonfire that had been mighty, that had flung its radiance across the globe, was dying. It felt like embers of an old fire collapsing in upon themselves and going cindery.
Whatever these people had been through in the last three years had aged them. It felt in that room as if a group who had been the proudest people on earth — the thought leaders of New York City — had now just stopped trying.
Ladies-who-lunched, who had been the cynosure of urbane fashion — who had until recently dressed for every outing to outdo one another, and to champion their favorite designers — were dressed now not even in fashion; indeed “fashion” seemed no longer to exist. Before 2020, these ladies would have been in chic black cocktail dresses, or red frocks with low backs, or eggshell-white dresses with asymmetrical hemlines and dustings of crystals and gauze overlays. And in heels, heels, heels.
Now, the same ladies were mostly dressed in a post-Marxist-meets-suburban-shopper uniform. They were wearing, and they have been wearing, in the several similar events which I attended recently — white sneakers after Labor Day. They wore comfy black slacks, and sweaters in boxy shapes and bland autumn shades. These ladies, once worshippers of fashion and style-setters themselves, were now indistinguishable from browsers in the food court of a mall.
Ladies who had been “blonded” every month at the most select of salons — with a famous, signature rich-Upper-East-Side-lady blonding that New York Magazine had often discussed, with the coinage “buttery chunks” — now appeared to have thrown in the towel, and were sedately fully grey. Ladies who had once moved heaven and earth to defy age, now seemed settled into visibly aging.
This is not to judge or criticize them; you could say that there is something kind of lovely and down-to-earth in the putting-off of all of that effort. But it is a dramatic change in the culture of the women who once ran Manhattan, and it is a change in the direction of a relaxation of effort — a loss of conviction that “society” even exists in the same way — a ceasing to care.
The men, for their part — formerly Tom Wolfe’s “Masters of the Universe” — seemed similarly collapsed, and also into a different way of being than the one that had been theirs before 2020. These gatherings used to course with the competitiveness and rampant testosterone of this class of men. The hedge fund guys, the Wall Street guys, the private investors, used to be on the lookout aggressively to one-up each other, outdo one another, acquire one another’s knowledge, contacts, or women.
Now, they too seemed markedly aged. Rather than trying to top one another with their latest acquisition or achievement, these same former Alphas sat companionably side by side with one another, old men chatting. Pretty young women flickered by, passing glasses of wine. Almost no one glanced their way.
Above all it was subdued; rudderless. The great confidence, the great pride, was no more.
How could that be?
Maybe this had something to do with it:
This whole stratum had been bamboozled. And, shame of shames, they had been hoodwinked not by their own kind — not by cultural elites, or by thought leaders, or by financial Masters of the Universe, in the greatest city on earth; but rather, they were duped by Brooklyn-born parvenus like Dr Anthony Fauci; by rabid Newton, MA soccer moms, such as Dr Rochelle Walensky; by the monomaniacal Dr Rachel Levine, of Wakefield, MA, former Secretary of Health for Pennsylvania (wow!). These second-rate people had collapsed their magnificent world; may, they seemed slowly to be realizing, have killed their loved ones; and may already have imposed into their bodies the substance that could some day murder them.
Here is what is even weirder.
When I go these days to the New York City gatherings of the glamorous world that ousted me in 2021 (only a few such gatherings to date, and invited only by the intrepid) — people whom I do not even know — whom I have never met before — come up to me.
I say, “Hi, nice to meet you. My name is Naomi.”
And they say — before even introducing themselves: “My mom had a stroke.”
Or: “I have shingles now.”
Or: “I am going in next week for surgery.”
Literally, people to whom I have never been introduced, whose names I do not yet know, introduce themselves to me at ritzy, left-leaning New York City gatherings not with their names but with their symptoms, or with the injuries and illnesses and symptoms of their loved ones.
And these are the people on the formerly vaccine-worshipping, progressive “side” of the aisle. The side that thought we were all hateful once, and deranged.
They bring these hurts to me now as if — as if — what? As if I am an oracle? As if I have some help for them? As if we have already been in a long conversation about this, but only in their heads?
So much is left out — with these sudden sad declarations. I do not even know how to begin to understand them.
It is so, so tragic and weird. Perhaps this abrupt confessional is related to the sombre mood in the apartment I described above.
I knew this day would come, though. In 2021, people on the (evil, stupid, selfish) unvaccinated “side” would remind one another on social media, and in person, not to be too angry and not to give up completely on our delusional friends and loved ones and colleagues across the divide — people who were at that time being so very cruel and excluding to us — because some day they would need us; to care for them, and to help them to heal.
What do we conclude now?
That our help is needed.
That it is cleanup time.
That it is rebuilding time.
All we can do is prosecute the guilty, and bring information and comfort and aid to the sick, and fight so that what happened to us never again happens, and never happens to someone innocent.
All we can do is love, and wait, and bring what help we can.
And say how sorry we are for their, and for their families,’ losses.
And respond with greater kindness than was meted out to us.
And ask again what their names are.
And listen to their grief and hurt and fear.
And listen, and listen again.
To support my work and read more, please order Facing the Beast: Courage, Faith and Resistance in a New Dark Age
To support my work and read more, please order Facing the Beast: Courage, Faith and Resistance in a New Dark Age: https://www.amazon.com/Facing-Beast-Courage-Faith-Resistance/dp/1645022366
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