Sympathy for the devil

It had to happen sooner or later. After all, the truth will out. This week, along with most of the population of the UK, I’ve been outed as the waste of space I truly am. Yes, I confess I’m a low achiever. I’m not a millionaire, and apparently this means I hate enterprise, hate people who look after their own families and … know nothing about the outside world. To be honest, this came as a bit of a surprise to me. Not the part about not being a millionaire. Running a small enterprise in my line of work isn’t going to get me there any time soon. But up until yesterday I’d at least been able to believe that one of the reasons I wasn’t a millionaire was that I’d made a considered choice to put my family before my career. As this choice involved looking after three children and a man with a debilitating mental health condition on a shoestring budget for more than twenty years, while at the same time juggling a string of jobs in youth work, education and social care, I’d also fooled myself that I knew a fair bit about the real world. Good job Sir Alan Duncan was there to set me straight.

I really, truly wasn’t going to blog again this week. Yesterday’s post drove me to the edge of distraction. But while I was wrestling with a handful of the trivial matters that occupy the feeble minds of us low achievers – theology, domestic abuse and addiction in this case – brave Sir Alan was rushing to the defence of poor, beleaguered David Cameron, a man whose tragic fate it is to be caught in the wealth trap, according to Charles Moore, writing in the Daily Telegraph. Naturally, it’s well beyond the capacity of someone such as myself to empathise with a man like David as he struggles to look after his family in these trying times. I’m all eaten up with envy, and I hate anyone who has got a hint of wealth in them. As a writer and an English teacher I don’t much like that sentence either if I’m honest, but the words are not mine and I suppose my aversion merely serves to highlight my inability to enter into the spirit of achievement.

This is not the first time I’ve written here of the dearth of empathy that plagues the world of the rich in the twenty-first century. It’s a tough call to be wealthy, and money doesn’t always make people happy. Pity poor Ethan Couch, an American teenager whose ‘affluenza’ caught the sympathetic ear of a judge after he killed four people and delivered life-changing injuries to two others while driving erratically. A psychologist told the court he’d had such a privileged upbringing that he was unable to distinguish right from wrong. I’m assuming his family paid said psychologist handsomely. Then there was Elliott Rodger, whom I’ve written about before. He killed six people and injured fourteen more, just because he thought he had a right to have sex with anyone he chose. Poor little rich kid. Yet in the face of all this, it seems the wealthy actually believe they’re better human beings than the rest of us. Jacques Peretti wrote for the Independent after spending time interviewing the super-rich for a BBC television series, The Super Rich and Us. He argues that the fallacy of moral improvement that comes with money has been used to justify inequality. The rich sincerely believe it, and they want us to sincerely believe it too, and guess what? We do. If we don’t achieve the unachievable, we’ve failed. It’s a rigged game. And there you have it, my fellow low achievers. Sir Alan, David, all their cronies and partners in crime, they sincerely believe they’re better human beings than you and me. And who are we to argue?

I’ll confess now that envy, combined with my soul-searing hatred of anyone who has got a hint of wealth in them (and of that appalling phrase) may have led me to make mock of the existential angst of the super-rich. In truth there’s good evidence that wealth blinds its owners to their common humanity, and to the suffering of others. An article published in Psychology Today in 2012 cited research that suggests empathy is more highly developed in us low achievers. We’re better at understanding one another because it’s a skill we need to survive when we know nothing about the outside world. David Graeber, writing in the Guardian in 2014, argued that working class people care more about their families, friends and communities. In aggregate, at least, they’re just fundamentally nicer. One of the smartest moves of those who consider themselves our betters has been to chip away at working class solidarity – crushing trade unions and ripping the heart out of working communities. The crisis in Tata Steel in Port Talbot has revived vivid memories of the destruction of the South Wales coal industry for me. But I’m a low achiever, and a woman to boot. What would I know?

Sometimes I just have to fall back on the frivolous issues that occupy my low-achieving mind. After all, even poor David’s not averse to a bit of theology when it suits his purposes. His Easter message this year cited the Christian values he likes us to believe our nation is built upon – responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, pride in working for the common good, and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and to our communities. I’m not sure how much of that goes on in your average tax haven, but who am I to comment? What I am sure of is that the religion he freely quotes to his advantage began in response to the teaching of a man who said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. And yes, I know religion’s been manipulated by the wealthy down the years to keep simple-minded low achievers like myself under the thumb. David’s still doing it now. But you know what? I’d rather have empathy and solidarity than all the money that’s been salted away in offshore accounts in the history of the human race, and if that makes me a low achiever, so be it. I’m proud to be that way, because when it comes to the crunch, what can anyone give in exchange for their soul, their empathy or their connection to the human race?

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