The Magic Mormon

In the now-infamous secret video, what stands out to me is the way his radio announcer voice rises when he utters the word "entitled." This is no act; he really is outraged.
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"Speculation is the romance of trade, and casts contempt upon all its sober realities. It renders the stock jobber a magician and the [stock] exchange a region of enchantment."
---Washington Irving

Among the 5,000-plus books in Occupy Wall Street's People's Library, the omission of The Magic Christian is noticeable. Released on the eve of the sixties counterculture, Terry Southern's debut novel is ideally suited to guerrilla activists. Its hero is a traitor to his class, a trickster plutocrat who uses his vast fortune to comically expose the corrupting nature of capitalism. No motive is given for Guy Grand's behavior. The plot itself is virtually nonexistent. Episodically structured, this surreal satire consists of a series of increasingly outrageous and expensive pranks, culminating in bedlam aboard a five-star luxury liner with a Who's Who passenger list. Southern would later achieve a measure of Hollywood immortality as the Oscar-nominated co-writer of Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, but in The Magic Christian he memorably reduced the American Dream to its basest elements.

Mitt Romney would have both terrified and delighted Southern. Firedoglake's Glenn W. Smith has likened the Clint Eastwood debacle to the climactic scene of The Magic Christian's panned film version, which includes Yul Brynner singing in drag and Raquel Welch brandishing a whip. If I didn't know better, I'd suspect Romney of taking a page from Guy Grand's book and deliberately sabotaging his campaign in order to undermine free market illusions. But alas, for once in his political life he's sincere. In the now-infamous secret video, what stands out to me is the way his radio announcer voice rises when he utters the word "entitled." This is no act; he really is outraged. In The Magic Christian, the lower class is discouraged from applying for berths on the luxury liner: "Our criteria may not be yours," they are told. It's hard to imagine Romney objecting. But don't blame him too much. He's just carrying on a tradition that can be traced back to the beginning of the Republic.

As Steve Fraser points out in his short history of Wall Street, the haves have always tried to keep the have-nots in their place. The self-made immigrant Alexander Hamilton was so anxious to be accepted by established elites that he championed their interests at every opportunity. This put him at odds with some of his fellow Founders. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison each waged what Fox News would call class warfare. Jefferson defended the French Revolution's egalitarian spirit; Adams, an unimpeachable classical conservative, criticized "paper wealth"; Madison held labor in higher regard than capital: "There must be something wrong," the Father of the Constitution warned, "radically and morally and politically wrong, in a system which transfers the reward from those who paid the most valuable of all considerations, to those who scarcely paid any consideration at all."

Hamilton rejected the notion that money enervates the soul. The vices of the rich, he said, were "probably favorable to the prosperity of the State than of the indigent and partake less of moral depravity." But it was John Jay, the nation's first chief justice, who encapsulated the sentiment that everyone at Romney's Boca Raton fundraiser would -- if they were brave and honest -- affix to the bumpers of their Bentleys and Ferraris: "Those who own the country ought to govern it."

Romney has staked his candidacy on the public's belief in Wall Street's magical reputation. He promises to bring his job-creating wizardry to the White House. But he earned his $250 million from speculation, "an inversion of the moral calisthenics of the work ethic," as Fraser puts it, that has a long, unsavory record of screwing over common folk. On November 6, every voter should recite the epigraph from The Magic Christian, which Southern borrowed from the Texas Rangers: "Little man whip a big man every time if the little man's in the right and keeps a'comin'." Now, as president, whose side would the Magic Mormon be on?

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