Cheating at the Top

I have never understood the praised heaped on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short novel, The Great Gatsby. I wrote about this here some years back.

If there is only one “Great American Novel” – a nonsensical idea invented, I suspect, by Fitzgerald’s contemporaries who wanted to see the writing of fiction as a “manly” endeavor like war or boxing – it is, of course, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which nails one of the two core corruptions that underlie our supposedly perfect country.

But life in these United States and in our world as a whole is complex and multifaceted. No one book can do everything. Nor should it.

I’ve always thought Gatsby was a beautifully written book about corrupt and uninteresting people. I might like it better if I didn’t always have the feeling that both the author and the narrator admired Gatsby, who is Trump without the advantage of rich parents, though with better manners.

However, the recent college admissions scandal has changed my mind about one aspect of the book. If you overlook the romanticism about Gatsby and his “dreams” and focus on the corruption of the Gilded Age where a criminal can buy his way into a high society peopled by the likes of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, you do have an object lesson for our times.

This essay in The Atlantic by Caitlin Flanagan, a writer who once worked as a college admissions counselor for over-privileged kids, analyzes that scandal with the depth it deserves. She shows them as rich people, most of them white, who cheat and lie and commit all kinds of fraud to get what they think is their due, turned in by one of their own and the guy who set up the fraud scheme.

The part of Flanagan’s essay that makes it clear just how corrupt the upper class in our society has become is when she tells a story about how outraged these people get when some bit player – like an admissions counselor – doesn’t play along. Flanagan tells us actor Lori Loughlin and her husband, a designer, far from feeling ashamed about their actions, complained to the school about the counselor:

When a college counselor at their daughter’s high school realized something was suspicious about her admission to USC and asked the girl about it, the parents roared onto campus in such a rage that they almost blew up the whole scam.

This is entitlement and privilege on extreme display, and I doubt the fact that Loughlin and others are likely to be convicted and even sent to prison for a short term because of this will change anything.

Because right now we do have a society that favors those with money, no matter how they got it. A criminal who can cover their tracks is considered smart and behavior that would get me arrested (not to mention what might happen if I wasn’t white) is allowed and even fawned over so long as the person might be spreading that money around.

And it doesn’t matter if what they’re doing to make the money is crooked, meaningless, or a made-up endeavor. Most of the men involved in the scandal have the kind of useless investment, hedge fund, and corporate lawyer jobs that bring in lots of money and are destroying our society left and right. The women are heiresses or minor actresses or (probably) trophy wives. One of the kids caught up in this scandal has lost her makeup business, which makes me suspect that it wasn’t based on any more substance than her college application.

Mind you, the scandal is about those not quite rich enough to get their kids into college as legacies or by funding endowments. It’s the under-oligarchs we’re seeing here, not the people who really can buy everything.

The Gilded Age rides again. Our time differs from Fitzgerald’s, but the core corruption is still there.

Way past time we did something about it, something more than sending a few bad actors (pun intended) to jail.



Cheating at the Top — 12 Comments

  1. The idea that somehow the lives of these privileged people is more full of “grace”, as if they were performing a gracious life, than those who are just trundling along trying to survive and perhaps do the odd bit of good here and there, galled me when I was a teenager and didn’t have the life-experience or the vocabulary to explain it. The only other analog I can think of is Ashley Wilkes’s sorrow at the passing of a beautiful lifestyle… built on the backs of suffering, pain and death. And he has the grace to know that that passing is not only inevitable but right.

    Gatsby, not so much.

    • Maybe that’s my core problem with the book: It has never occurred to me to believe that the privileged had those lives of grace, or that they were people to be admired or their wealth something to strive for. If I am a romantic about any group of human beings, it’s probably artists of all kinds. And maybe philosophers, inventors, and those that push the edges of knowledge. I know many of them are also terrible people, but at least they’re trying to do something worth doing.

      And any so-called gracious life that’s built on the suffering of others has a fatal flaw at its heart.

      Money? It’s just a means to an end. And as long as you have enough to pay the bills and enjoy yourself, what more do you need? (Too many people don’t have enough to pay the bills.) Never have understood why anyone cares about the extreme levels of wealth.

  2. Fitzgerald didn’t admire Gatsby. Like his the milieu in which Fitzgerald placed him and his narrator, Gatsby was fascinated by this all-American character, but unlike the milieu, Gatsby’s narrator and creator also looked upon him with compassionate eyes.*

    The US as whole hasn’t gotten over its fascination with gangsters and thugs, while its capacity for compassion for anyone has become even more shrunken.


    * The original cover of The Great Gatsby included two great big eyes.

    • Maybe I am misreading his compassion as admiration, but I think there could have been some condemnation along with the compassion. Nick wants to be part of that society even as he knows its flaws. I always figured Fitzgerald did too.

      • Fitzgerald was a snob, at least in his earlier years. He was proud of his lineage — which was certainly not that of Gatsby – Jimmy Gatz’s sod breaker North Dakota farmer. But by the time he wrote this sad story, he’d changed in many ways — though not in feeling entitled to everything that his wife experienced, said and wrote, of course — seeing it as HIS property, not hers, as HE WAS THE WRITER. I think he may have gotten over that by his sad end too, though.

  3. Also — it’s really important to keep in mind, this wasn’t Warner and Twain’s Gilded Age, but the Modern Age: Prohibition and the Roaring Twenties. Though it can be argued coherently that in many signficant aspects, the Twenties were the next generational incarnation of the Gilded Age, as is this one. Ages of non-regulation, non-curtailed corruption and crime, in which a small minority becomes obscenely bloated wealthy while the majority suffer more and more, always share these characteristics.

    The only thing that puts an end to them, it seems, is a series of disasters that make the sufferings of the rest beyond bearing, while there is no chance for the so-called middle to get ahead, but only fall, due to the unregulated, non-competitive playing ground.

    • This is a good point. I keep conflating the Gilded Age and the 20s, and I know better.

      And looking at that history and then looking at the way this country starting moving in the 1980s that led to the current levels of inequality lays a good groundwork for where we’re going to end up in a few years if something doesn’t change dramatically.

  4. This is a very old attitude indeed. Last night I was reading about Stendahl’s essay about love — it came out in the early 19th century. He insists that love is not really possible for poor people, or even a well-off bourgeois. Only the idle rich could truly feel the genuine emotion; everyone else was just doing thinly disguised prostitution in bed. Real love was only for the one percent.

    • Right. Real love is only among those who marry to cement alliances.

      This elitist nonsense that the very rich and powerful are somehow better than the rest of us makes me want to throw things (and I’ll let your imaginations conjure up the things I want to throw).

      I found this quote from Fitzgerald just now:

      “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different. ”

      He is probably right about how those people think, but they are wrong.

      I also recall that someone said in response to him saying the rich were different from the rest of us, “Yes. They have more money.” I’d like to think that was Dashiell Hammett.

      • It was Hemingway, in conversation with Fitz.

        Don’t forget what else Fitzgerald said about the rich, how they break things and just keep on their merry way. This was in The Great Gatsby too — and it wasn’t admiring.