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Book Review: Rich People Things: Real-Life Secrets of the Predator Class by Chris Lehmann

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Chris Lehman has written for a number of well known publications, including New York magazine. While there, he saw from the inside what the demographic, and rock-solid editorial stance was. A rag for the moneyed, to reassure and affirm the belief that their position at the top of the heap is not only correct, but their God-given right. As it turns out, he was a bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, although this was not exactly why he took the job. As he explains in the introduction, the initial impetus was not high-minded at all. He just needed work.

The essays Lehmann wrote that make up the recent book Rich People Things: Real-Life Secrets of the Predator Class were written for the Awl website, run by some of his friends. When initially approached, he was reluctant, as it was a non-paying gig. After reading a cover story in New York that pissed him off though, he decided to rebut it on Awl. Thus began the “Rich People Things” series of articles.

To me, Rich People Things is a pretty funny title, made all the more so because Lehmann was presented with it as sort of a fait accompli. As it turns out, an editor thought Rich would make a good header for the essay, and Lehmann went along. Think of “rich people things” the way we hear slang terms such as “it’s a chick thing,” or “it’s a white-guy thing.“ Rich just turns the tables a bit on those sanctimonious sacred cows.

Although Lehmann himself did not come up with the title, his pieces expose the de facto class system of the United States. The author has a way of getting to the crux of the matter with the precision of a scalpel. It was almost embarrassing for me to read these essays, thanks to my own ego. The points he makes are so spot-on, and so obvious, I kept thinking “Why did I not make these connections before?”

The rather difficult fact I had to face is that I have fallen prey to the great American myth of “the land of opportunity.” There is something deep down in all of us that wants to believe this. And before I begin sounding as if I have drank Lehmann’s own particular brand of Kool-Aid, let me assure you that I have not. I am well aware that we as a nation live much better than most of the world. And as a lifelong resident of the Seattle area, I have seen with my own eyes people who have boot-strapped themselves into wealth. And I’m not talking about Bill Gates or Howard Schultz, I am talking about guys (mostly in the music industry) who started out with literally nothing, and “made it.”

But we are getting off topic here. I just wanted to point out that there is still plenty of room for debate, before delving into the various subjects of the book. Having looked at the wide scope of his thesis, the real fun comes with the topics he has chosen. Rich contains essays on 19 subjects, each of which have a particular “rich people“ appeal.

In dissecting the Rich, I mentioned that the author is so precise as to use a scalpel. The scope is broad, and as a metaphor, a “shotgun approach” might be the more appropriate term. Believe me, he is “loaded for bear,” aiming both barrels at the heart of what citizens of the US hold most dear. The first chapter is “The U.S. Constitution.”

Lehmann is not exactly pulling his punches. Calling (but certainly not dismissing) the Constitution a “rich person’s thing” takes some balls. And the points he makes are a matter of historical record. The fact that a slave was considered “three-fifths” of a person is indefensible. What makes this a “rich person thing?” Well gee, the fact that having slaves is a Constitutional right might be something to consider. But beyond that, why were slaves considered “people” at all? It’s like making your horse a person.

The meat on the bone is that the more slaves one owned, the more governmental representation the owner had. Set aside the whole issue of slavery for a moment (if possible) and look at this as the first official step in creating an undeclared class system. Even in this “holy” document, the intent is  to legally sanction the wealthy from the poor. It is a provocative piece to be sure, but one that is hard to argue with.

Chapter Two is “The New York Times.” This is one I have been waiting to see for years. The whole “left wing bias” crap the right have been bellowing for decades has used the NY Times as its main boogeyman. Since I only read the paper occasionally, I do not feel qualified to make the case for or against every article on every page. Lehmann does not even bother with that. What he hilariously, and oh so accurately exposes is in the supplements of the paper. I have taken the weekend Times before, which is sort of a digest, and these sections are nothing but celebrations of fabulous wealth, expressed with lavish layouts of the most incredible penthouses in the city, and mansions in the tri-state area.

These two articles provide a pretty good “one-two punch” to get the ball rolling. As Rich People Things is a collection of stand-alone essays, skimming the chapters is just as valid a way of reading it as going from front to back. So I next went to one I was mightily intrigued by. The piece on Ayn Rand is not only funny, but dead-on.

I recently went to a party with some people I vaguely knew as fans of the band Rush. The host had made a fair amount of money in the software industry, and had a lovely home, right on the water. He had enough property to do as he pleased, but the big attraction was that he had created his own “laser show” which was to the highlight of the night, complete with the requisite Rush soundtrack. Sounded pretty good to me. But before the big event, everybody got extremely hammered. Normally I would have joined in, but since I was driving, I took a pass on the booze.

So I got to see first-hand a group of nouveau riche, highly intelligent code guys arguing the brilliance of Ayn Rand. They obviously discovered her from the name-check she receives on Rush’s 2112 album. Neil Peart called her a genius. The wealthy code-geeks had read all of her books, and were convinced that she was not only the greatest thinker of all time, but probably the greatest ever. There were even arguments over why the recent Atlas Shrugged film basically went straight to DVD. Like all true apostles, the consensus was that it was simply too true, too revolutionary, and far too ahead of its time. It took all the control I could muster to keep from saying that it died because it was one of the worst movies I had ever seen.

Lehemann’s hilarious deconstruction of the Rand cult comes down to her most famous books, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. He obviously took the time to read both of these ridiculously lengthy doorstops, and breaks them down. It actually seems a fairly easy task, as the paper thin plots are there simply to advance the bizarre metaphysical philosophy of Rand, which she called “Objectivism.”

For anyone who cares, there is a great scene in Mad Men where Bert Cooper gives Don Draper a check for $2,500 after reading Rand. He had “gotten” it, and realized that by giving Draper this money, he was protecting his own interest, because “a man must be compensated for his work,” in other words, he didn’t want to lose Don. He also suggested that Draper get the book, to better understand the world.

Lehmann’s piece on the magazine Wired is another example of a subject that I had never really considered before. I have read a few issues of it, but never really placed it in the category of a rich person’s thing. Yet, as the author’s very deliberate examples show, the magazine seems very much a Rich People Thing. I will investigate a bit further, but his consensus that Wired is to Silicon Valley what The Wall Street Journal is to Wall Street makes a lot of sense.

“Reality Television” is another intriguing chapter. The section about the show Undercover Boss is priceless. For those who have never seen the program, the setup is simple. The CEO of a huge corporation goes “undercover” as a grunt, being filmed as he is supposedly a new hire for various positions. The workers are asked whether they think he is up to the menial tasks at hand.

While in “the trenches” he inevitably meets good, hard working folks who are just trying to get by, but are stymied by real life events. These include single moms, young men working to support their ailing parents, and older people who have no place else to turn. The big reveal at the end finds him (it is almost always a man), “seeing the light.”

With the people who particularly impressed him, the boss gives money to them to go to college, or to take a vacation, or to pay off college debts, etc. It is a feel good show, without a doubt. Yet as Lehmann points out, in many cases, the very same corporations we are supposed to feel good about at the end of each episode are in the midst of huge class action suits. They have been indicted for crimes ranging from discrimination, sexual harassment, bribery, intimidation, and all sorts of other corporate miseeds.

“Social Media” is another topic I have been waiting for someone to tackle. As a freelance writer, I am constantly asked by friends and family why I am not out there on Facebook and Twitter promoting my little reviews. The reason is very simple. I do not believe in Mark Zuckerberg’s bizarre vision that every aspect of every person’s life should be public knowledge.

And that is just on the surface. The collecting of data about those who “willingly” participate has already been shown to go far beyond what people “agreed” to, and it is only going to get worse. The crucial mistake George Orwell made in 1984 was that there was an identifiable enemy in Big Brother. But what if your enemy is your friend. And all you would have to do is “Like” the friend on Facebook?

Frankly, these blue-tooth cyber-people already scare the hell out of me. What if I were to promote this review on Facebook and (as intended) get some feedback? And in the midst of all this, some long-forgotten person in my life decides to take the opportunity to put something on my “wall” along the lines of “Why didn’t you call me back on August 29, 1982?“ Social media? Social disaster.

“Tax Cuts“ brought to mind yet another personal, and disturbing train of thought. I’ll never forget the sight of a lovely eighty-ish woman at the Republican convention in 2000, seemingly enraptured by W.  She reminded me of my deceased grandmother, and I thought how wonderful it would have been to have my grandmother look at me with such hope. How could she know have known that very soon W’s cronies would figure out a way to steal every penny she had in her pension?

“The Lobbying World;” “The Democratic Party;” “Libertarianism;” and “The iPad;” are just a few more of the thought-provoking, and highly entertaining chapters in Rich People Things. The good lefties at link Haymarket Books are the publishers, and I believe this to be another essential title in their catalog. Not only does Chris Lehmann have a great deal to say about the subjects at hand, but the book just might provoke some personal thoughts about your own experiences with the various topics. If you have gotten this far, I think you can see that it certainly had the intended effect on this writer.

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