Alice (Walton, that is) and I have more in common than (I assume) she thinks we do

autoWell, now, that’s a pretty judgmental way to start a post. I don’t mean any disrespect or judgment. She’s my favorite billionaire because I’ve seen her wonderful art museum, and I’m one communication link from her–I know someone who’s had conversations with her.

Before you start berating me for having a “favorite” robber baron(ness) or speaking well of the devil, and before you demand I say any of those other (probably justifiably) nasty things you all think I should say about her, give me a break. She’s my favorite billionaire in the same way you are my favorite struggling middle-class proletarian.  “(In Marxist theory) the class of workers, especially industrial wage earners, who do not possess capital or property and must sell their labor to survive” (

I know all about you. It’s not true that you do not possess capital or property. It’s almost certain that, if you’re reading this, you have a 401K or some other retirement plan or the almost certain hope that you will someday soon. And my guess is that most of you are much better off than I am. One of the retirement counselors at SMU told me that I need at least $250,000 in my portfolio ONLY for medical expenses in retirement–then I can think about how I’m going to eat and pay my rent. I don’t have that much total in my “assets.”

And if you truly do not possess capital, tell me which of the “day laborer” lines you’ll be in this morning, and I’ll come and get you and hire you to dust my entire apartment and shampoo the carpets.

Alice is my favorite billionaire because I’ve read quite a bit of stuff about her and pay attention to what she, her siblings, and Wal-Mart do–peripherally, that is. I have much better things to do than keep track of Alice. You know, things like surf the net trying to get ready to teach my classes about Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body Snatcher,” and watch “Project Runway”–or “The Big Bang Theory,” whichever I come to first as I play with my remote. And try to get him to walk over to the Fluellen shop on Elm street and get a cupcake. Important things.

Crystal Bridges Museum

Crystal Bridges Museum

When you hear on PBS that this foundation and that are sponsoring a certain program, and the announcer says, “The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who ‘believe every person deserves the chance to live a healthy, productive life,'” do you ever imagine Bill Gates in some African refugee camp standing beside a kid who’s so hungry his belly is distended and his ribs stick out from his emaciated chest? Or beside a Palestinian Bedouin kid watching as Israeli tanks destroy her family’s home as they level the land to make a “settler road” to the nearest town of illegal Israeli squatters? How in hell does Bill Gates think those kids are ever going to live healthy and productive lives?

Or think about yourself, running over to Walmart and buying your copy of the new version of “Grand Theft Auto” for $59.96 so you can be up to date in your participation in the $67 billion industry next year
So you’re going to cast aspersions on Alice Walton? Take your copy of “Grand Theft Auto” and YOU stand beside the Palestinian Bedouin kid and tell her what’s important in life and how she’s going to be OK even though her house is gone and her family’s means of providing her next meal has disappeared in a cloud of dust made by American-produced-and-profited-from Caterpillar machinery in the hands of Israeli demolition teams breaking all of the conventions of occupation and warfare–the kind of flouting of international propriety we’ve all but destroyed Iraq over.

Nope. Here’s the deal. You have a whole lot more in common with Alice Walton than you think you do. Me too.

We’re all just alike, those of us who have evolved beyond the need to think about what is real and what is not. Your $600,000 401K is no different from Alice’s $6 billion (it’s actually quite a bit more than that). And my addiction to this iPad and my brand-new paid-for car (it’s actually 9 months old) and my $200,000 in retirement assets is the same as both Alice’s “stuff” and your “stuff.”

We all think it’s important. We all want more. We all don’t really give a rat’s ass about that starving kid in Somalia or that little Bedouin girl watching her house destroyed.  But the sad thing, the grievously, unbearably sad thing about all of this is that we all think this “stuff” is real. That it’s somehow going to keep us alive forever–just me, not anyone else. I, of all the billions of people now and ever on this poor bedraggled planet, will be the one who–if I get enough money and enough stuff–beats the odds, and I, out of all the rest of you, will be the one who wins, who doesn’t die.

That’s what it’s all about. That’s what Alice’s billions, and your “Grand Theft Auto,” and the pipe organ in my living room are all about. Our sad, painful, pitiful unrelenting belief that this “stuff” is going to let us live forever. That we don’t need to give another thought to what any of it means in the long run (well, 90 or so years is NOT the long run, and we know it).

JER05_waAnd so we have no thought of giving any of it to that poor starving kid in Somalia–or even the one over there in West Dallas. It’s none of our business if the Israeli army destroys a Bedouin village–they’re just trying to insure their own immortality. The Bedouin girl is going to die someday in any event, so what difference does it make?

Makes no difference to me. I’ve got my own stuff-guaranteed immortality to worry about. Those kids will just get in the way of my beating the odds. And so will that homeless schizophrenic down in the park. Alice and you and I have everything in common–we’re deluded, selfish beyond belief and almost totally out of touch with reality.

3 Responses to Alice (Walton, that is) and I have more in common than (I assume) she thinks we do

  1. bobritzema says:

    Have you read Earnest Becker’s “Denial Of Death”? Your talk about the projects by which we try to ensure immortality sounds a lot like him.

  2. bobritzema says:

    I find it a very useful book for understanding quite a few of the seemingly irrational things that humans do.

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