With or without the recent film, the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel The Great Gatsby are very much with us, and the America he portrays is as obscene and decadent as Howard Stern's new $52 million mansion.
Stern, a boorish vulgarian and Gatsby, a delusional romantic, lives in the same worldly mansion -- a manifest symbol of the "purposeless splendor" of their lives, and more largely, of the materialistic corruption of the American Dream.
Many critics say The Great Gatsby is mainly about debunking the mantra that anyone can make good in this country if he just works hard enough. Fitzgerald also seems to imply that the rich often degrade and exploit the hardest working among us. ".... They (the rich) smash up things and creatures and then retreat back into their money.... and let other people clean up the mess they made."
No rational argument could be made that the richest people in our country today are the hardest working, the smartest, or, by any measure of fairness, the most deserving. No. They're rich because the system is rigged.
Over the past 30 years, approximately 88 percent of the country's entire economy income went to the top 1 percent (often referred to as the Gatsby curve). The top 0.01 percent made out even better. Their average income of just less than $4 million skyrocketed to $35 million. There's more inequality in America today than in nearly all industrialized democracies. How did we get here? By the best-laid plans money can buy.
Big money is buying our government and it's buying public opinion. It's taking over state and local governments -- gerrymandering districts, purging voter rolls and systematically suppressing votes in national elections. It grooms and bankrolls political candidates, buys up the media and manipulates the message. (The ads airing in West Virginia are financed by outside money, and our recently elected attorney general, a new arrival to the state, was favored by moneyed interests.) Simply put, the wealthy are controlling and managing "we the people" by preying on our fears and turning us on each other.
Nativism and racism are roiling across the country. Hateful rhetoric divides us into moochers and makers, "real Americans" and "the other." The most shameful of all is our heartless contempt for the poor. But, not surprisingly, rage against the powerless is good for business. Corporations profit handsomely from those reviled "illegals" who are often too scared to report that they aren't getting paid. Walmart, Tyson, et al. pay many workers so little that they qualify for food subsidies. This allows double profit for the corporations and leaves "hardworking taxpayers" to subsidize those "do-nothing losers who live off welfare." Classic strategy of the powerful.
Our socioeconomic divide today is so palpable that the wealthy never have to come in contact with anyone who isn't. Charles Koch, worth upwards of $40 billion, unabashedly asserts that the poor are the obstacle to economic growth, and the only answer is to get rid of minimum wage. Koch will never have to look into the faces of the 27 percent of West Virginia's children growing up in poverty, nor into the faces of the many hungry and homeless who would be denied food with the block grant cuts proposed in Congress.
In the 1920s, the enormous disparity between the haves and the have-nots also created hatred and division, fueling a nationwide re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan. The top income earners exploited the rest and were never held accountable. They built their mansions, indulged their appetites and thought themselves worthy of their station. The Great Depression was soon to follow.
The American dream rooted in materialism is doomed from the start. Gatsby, faithful to the dream to the end, was found floating in his swimming pool -- a rich and soulless man.
Knapp, a retired teacher, is a member of the activist women's group Seneca 2.