They Live Redux

Though it contains no new revelations, "Greed and Debt," an article in the latest issue of Rolling Stone by Matt Taibbi, is a superior exercise in explanatory journalism. Taibbi elucidates just how Mitt Romney mastered the dark art of the leveraged buy-out, employing massive debt to fund corporate acquisitions. These firms were then saddled with this new debt and generally pillaged of assets, enriching Romney and his cronies at Bain Capital -- and, often, leaving bankrupt enterprises, legions of cashiered workers, and devastated towns in their wake.

But I found Taibbi's subtext even more disturbing than his primary theses on private equity. Late in the piece, he ruminates on Romney as an "archipelago man" -- his term for an individual so flush with cash that he floats serene and isolated in a limpid sea of wealth, separated from and indifferent to the rest of us grubbing for an existence on the teeming shore.

This, then, is the nub of our ire and fears. We think we're divided into hard Right and unyielding Left, Tea Partiers and unrelenting Progressives, those who feel government is the problem and those who think it must be a significant part of the solution.

But these are spurious divisions. Few people I know consider themselves members of any party's "base." They are centrist by default. They are pragmatic and flexible; if moved by astute analysis, they will change their minds.

But one thing they -- or rather, we -- all share is a deep and abiding sense of unease about our place in the world. Some of us are struggling to stay in the middle class. We are aware of the increasingly sharp economic stratification that marks our society because we -- like most Americans -- are on the wrong side of the line.

Actually, most Tea Partiers and Ultra Progressives share our leaky boat -- but they're at each other's throats because their ideological differences override their mutual economic interests. Ultimately, though, we all fear and loathe the same thing: the elite stratum that sucks the wealth and opportunity from our society like a black hole devouring stars. The resentment against the antic bankers who precipitated the 2007-08 crash, for example, burns white hot on both ends of the political spectrum.

By the same token, the recent revelation that tax-averse American companies are moving overseas in ever greater numbers is unlikely to engender much sympathy from regular folks -- right, left, or center. This egregious abandonment of our economy -- hell, of our nation -- angers all of us; but we are impotent in our rage. So we turn on each other while the "archipelago people" float idly by, sipping their refreshing beverages and marveling at our shenanigans.

Manifestations of the "archipelago ethos" are now everywhere, the media included. Until a few years ago, I labored as a reporter at a large metro newspaper in northern California. Those of us from working-class backgrounds would sometimes remark on the inordinate number of trust fund babies in our midst. There was an invisible line in the newsroom: It separated the people who came from money and power from us mere proles. It rankled, and I'm convinced it colored the news.

And I'm not alone. In a wonderful essay on her travails as a young reporter and writer, Alexandra Kimball reflects on journalism as a kind of sinecure for the moneyed elite -- no one else, she trenchantly observes, can afford to undertake the work. Staffs and salaries have shrunk. Newcomers must resign themselves to years of unpaid internships; only those of independent means can endure the lengthy apprenticeships. This, I think, may be the real reason for the widespread public hostility toward the media. The people reporting and editing the news are recognized as having nothing in common with the audience. Journalists used to be "of" us. No longer.

As Taibbi points out in his dissection of Romney's career at Bain -- and F. Scott Fitzgerald noted before him -- the very rich are very different from the rest of us. Their allegiance is not to their nation of origin or residence, but to themselves, their assets, and their class. I'm reminded of the sci-fi schlock classic They Live, starring the indomitable Rowdy Roddy Piper. In this 1986 John Carpenter film, Piper, a homeless drifter, discovers a pair of sunglasses that allows him to see the rich and powerful as they truly are: grotesque aliens who subjugate humanity through media manipulation and the promotion of mindless consumerism.

Various high-mayhem hijinx ensue, and Piper's character ultimately is killed -- but not before he reveals the aliens' true guise to the world.

Detractors of my modest polemic will label it a call for Class War. Not at all. We -- the hoi polloi -- have enough war to occupy us at the moment. Indeed, we must stop fighting each other and recognize where our true interests lie -- and it is naïve to think they lie with Romney.

Some of Rowdy Roddy's magic spectacles might help.