On a recent visit to Seattle's Pacific Science Center, I joined the crowds thronging to see the incredible display of historic Egyptian wealth at the King Tut exhibit. I gasped along with everyone else as I wandered among the gleaming gold artifacts, intricately styled by human hands over 3000 years ago. Even the workmanship of the simple, woven beds were stunning examples of what a culture can produce, and I was impressed.
But all that stuff also made my stomach hurt a little.
Historians will say that it's a good thing Tutankhamun and other pharaohs were such avid materialists; had they not worked so hard to preserve their riches, their standard of living, and even their physical bodies through mummification, our understanding of our ancestors from the ancient world would be radically diminished. And although, as the exhibit instructed, little Tutankhamun was really just a minor pharaoh, he hoarded like a champ, keeping a record, in his death, of the things that were important to him and his ilk in life. He died before he turned 20, and we are more knowledgeable as a result of his choice to take all his toys with him to the afterlife.
I wonder, though, if King Tut brought his own popcorn to the movies or if he only downloaded free apps. If he had lived a fuller life (and if the time/space continuum could accommodate such a scenario), would he have only flown coach and insisted on do-it-yourself pyramid-repair projects at Home Depot on the weekends?
Fundamentally, would he have been as frugal as Mitt?
Mitt, a Washington Post article declares, is penny-pinching to a fault. He also, apparently, has taken a page from Rich Dad, Poor Dad and has refused to leave his children any money if they are not, themselves, working to make their own. These, along with his impulse to support charities at a level that most of us can't imagine, are charming and admirable traits, to be sure.
And yet, famously, he has:
spent millions updating and expanding the compound on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire into a family playground of horses and barns, powerboats and water toys. He's seeking to triple the size of the couple's $12 million San Diego beachfront home and include an underground garage with an elevator lift. He supports his wife's passion for the expensive equestrian sport of dressage.
Not equivalent to a pharaoh's glittering legacy, perhaps, but close. And I wonder what a Romney presidency will say to future civilizations about what ours values.
When future museum-goers wander through the relics of our culture, I'd prefer that they find evidence that our leaders resisted hoarding tributes to their own material success -- and that we've learned, over time, that dying with the most toys really isn't the point.