Tom Lehrer famously remarked that satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In a similar vein, I’ve increasingly found it difficult to come up with creative new ways of writing about the depredations of American inequality and the billionaire class that has been able to enrich itself so obscenely while hundreds of thousands have perished from a deadly disease. How, exactly, are you supposed to describe this stuff except in the most prosaic and literal way?
People in the world’s richest country are quite literally going hungry and the economy is somehow creating new billionaires while making the existing ones even richer. Seven million people are about to face eviction and the wealthiest man in human history just bought himself a personal yacht that costs the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, $500 million now being basically pocket change for a guy like Jeff Bezos.
It’s just emerged that Americans owe around $140 billion in medical debt to collections agencies, a sum which could be taxed away from Bezos’ wealth while still leaving his net worth at $64 billion or so. The skies of North American cities are beset by a noxious haze from wildfires, yet Congress is so captured by corporate interests that even modest action on climate change is written off like it’s some kind of boutique political demand.
Throw a few billionaire space flights into the mix, and words truly start to fail. The evils and inequities of America’s economic system have often been quite nakedly obvious, but plutocrats engaging in a phony private space race while the planet scorches and feudalism reasserts itself amid a global plague is so gobsmackingly overt it requires no further elaboration. To add to the general aura of unreality, mainstream sources of officialdom and opinion-making from the Biden administration to cable news have been content to discuss recent billionaire vanity outings as if they’re somehow major public achievements.
“The United States is the first country to have private companies taking private individuals to space,” remarked White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki of Bezos’s approximately ten-minute sojourn into the atmosphere:
This is a moment of American exceptionalism. That’s how we see it. It will be the ingenuity of all our commercial partners to help us continue advancing to the next stage of our nation’s space exploration. Investments in space create jobs, [they] can improve life here on earth through climate monitoring and medical advancements just to name a few.
Network morning shows, meanwhile, collectively devoted over two hundred minutes to giving Bezos’ launch the full infomercial treatment — one analysis showing that to be nearly equivalent to all the time those shows spent covering climate change throughout the whole of last year. The billionaire, for what it’s worth, did his utmost to brand the trip as a voyage of discovery undertaken in the common good, a narrative which met little pushback from the networks.
Fittingly then, the same national media which can so blithely dismiss an idea like universal public health insurance as a quixotic leftist pipe dream found plenty of time to humor the lunatic ravings about moving heavy-industry into space offered by Bezos upon his return.
The spectacle of the world’s richest corporate overlord dawning a blue jumpsuit and launching himself in a phallically shaped rocket is already about as absurdly burlesque as it comes. In the current national and global climate, however, the episode came with an extra dollop of dystopianism courtesy of America’s media and political leadership. Only in a country whose ruling class has grown deeply deluded could such an obvious symptom of moral rot and institutional decay be registered as cause for public celebration.
Jeff Bezos’s hobby flight, like Richard Branson’s before it, was not a stunning human achievement but rather a uniquely American disgrace. In a society less anesthetized by spectacle and less determined to cling to nostalgic fables of national exceptionalism, at least some hint of this might have broken through the facade. Instead, the barons of America’s second Gilded Age are taking their depredations into the atmosphere, and we’re all invited to clap.