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Seeking Higher Ground: Lives of the rich and infamous

Locations: Columns Published

By Nicolette Toussaint 

I don’t “get” this country’s fascination with the rich and famous. Years ago, I spent a summer living with former in-laws at the top of Coldwater Canyon above Beverly Hills. On our outings, my beloved mother-in-law would elbow me and eagerly whisper, “Look, that’s Warren Beatty!”

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Or whoever.

I couldn’t care less then. I still don’t now. It’s easy for me to obey the Aspen etiquette that calls for leaving celebs unrecognized and undisturbed, because, frankly, I’m not impressed.

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After working for more than a decade in big-city public relations, I of course understand that the cult of celebrity is real, that if you want attention, few strategies work better than a celebrity endorsement. But I’m genuinely put-off by name-dropping. I wouldn’t cross the street to meet Kim Kardashian, who seems to be famous mostly for being famous and pretty… shallow!

That’s the rub. Popular culture’s fascination with the rich and famous extols shallowness. It celebrates exactly the wrong things: personal aggrandizement, conspicuous consumption, gold-plated greed. Too often, when media focuses on the rich, it’s also focusing on the infamous — people who profited by exploiting those less powerful, by damaging the shared resources of the earth or stealing from future generations.

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Evidence of that is all around us: The West is riddled with thousands of abandoned mines, like the Gold King, poised to spew toxins into our rivers, even though those who profited from them have long since died. Computers are indispensible, but avalanches of toxic e-waste, the “effluent of the affluent,” are poisoning families in India, China and Lagos. Cheap, fashionable clothing is fun, but quite likely to have been produced by kids who are little more than slaves. (According to UNICEF, an estimated 158 million children worldwide, aged 5 to 14, are engaged in child labor, not counting domestic service. While kids work in mines, on farms and in brothels, a surprisingly high percentage of them produce textiles and clothing.)

While I can list a few billionaires who arguably earned their fortunes by doing something that benefitted mankind, and add others who later contributed megabucks to making the world a place where our children’s children’s children will want to live, that list is not long: Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, creators of the “Giving Pledge” which encourages the wealthy to give half of their net worth to philanthropy definitely make the list. Nationally, perhaps David Rockefeller, Eli Broad, George Soros, Ted Turner, Oprah and Michael Bloomberg would merit inclusion. Locally, philanthropist Jim Calaway makes the grade.

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None of us is without sin, and I don’t mean to pick apart how these philanthropists made their money in the first place. I too have benefitted from the system: from being white, from being born in the U.S., from educated parents, from ancestors who emigrated here largely prior to 1800.

But I hold out the hope of change, of redemption, maybe even a survivable planet for coming generations. And I think that begins with celebrating the right things.

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In a recent TED talk, Pope Francis said, “there is this habit, by people who call themselves ‘respectable,’ of not taking care of others, leaving behind thousands of human beings, or entire populations, on the side of the road… How wonderful would it be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion…”

That hit home. I seldom want to read news about the astonishing medical advances being made — gene therapy that reverses blindness, bionic limbs, brain-implanted sensors that prevent seizures — because I fear that these therapies will be reserved for the wealthy and further widen the gap between the rich and poor. (Given the “health care” bills recently put forth in this country, which define “access” mostly in terms of ability to pay, that future may be only a year or so distant.)

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Pope Francis called for us to overcome what he called a “culture of waste.” He applied that term not only to food and goods but primarily to “the people who are cast aside by our techno-economic systems which, without even realizing it, are now putting products at their core, instead of people.”

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has similarly said, “The stark economic inequalities of today’s world… are not only morally wrong, but sources of many practical problems, including war, sectarian violence, and the social tensions created by large-scale economic migration.” His conclusion: “Wealth should serve humanity, and not vice-versa.”

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Maybe we could start by lionizing wealth that serves humanity, rather than mere ego?