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Why do we admire the rich?

I was once in an airport immigration queue, awaiting clearance to re-enter my homeland. The queue was long, and we were all tired after a long flight. 

A very well known business tycoon came in from a different flight. He took a look at the line in front of passport control and walked right past it. He sauntered over to the immigration officer handling our queue. The officer had been looking at the passport of the person currently in front of him, but threw it aside immediately when he saw whose face was now looming large. He stood up to greet the personage, received his passport with both hands while bowing, and then stamped it in record-breaking time with barely a second glance.

This happens all the time in our country. If a wealthy person walks into a room, all attention shifts to them. Employees stand up straight and rush to be of service. Strangers become obsequious, giving the rich one their most fawning attention with fake smiles plastered on their faces. The rich are given special attention, special service, special entitlements, special privileges, special exemptions.

Why, though? Why this servile, bootlicking, toadyish adoration of people just because they have money? What is it we are admiring?

I have no problem with those who are rich because of their endeavour, their innovation, their dedication. Those who bring unusual value to the world deserve to get a lot back. Those who become rich for the right reasons, and retain a certain humility and modesty, are indeed worthy of admiration.

But is that where most fortunes come from? A study by Bank of America of rich Americans concluded that perhaps a quarter of wealthy individuals are self-made; the rest achieve it because of inheritance, or head starts occasioned by being born into affluent families and having doors opened from an early age. I wonder what the data in our part of the world, if it is ever generated or available, would suggest?

Many fortunes are so obviously inherited or stolen or grabbed, so I ask again: what do we clap for when we clap for the rich? Balzac told us that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. We don’t have to be that absolutist, but we know that we are often applauding, approving, and validating great crimes. Many are rich because they have impoverished others; many because they stuck their grubby fingers into the money sacrificed by taxpayers; many through collusions and monopolizations; many because they have exercised deceit and betrayal systematically in their lives.

In Kenya today, that crime is not even “behind” the fortune; it is up front and in full view! The grotesquely rich no longer pretend to have made their money honestly; they flaunt their crookedness; they revel in it; they wear it as badge of honour, as though being clever enough to be liars, schemers, and plunderers makes them better and more deserving than the rest of humanity.

And yet we clap. We fall at the feet of the rich. Even those with good money to their name do this when confronted by greater riches. We yearn to be invited to their family weddings in order to gape at the spectacle of big money being spent. We throng their funerals as though our own have passed away. What is it we hope for? To be noticed, to partake in the feeding, to be thrown a few scraps? Is it envy that drives our nonsense, or a weird, vicarious, morbid need to gape and gawk at the spectacle of wealth?

Whatever it is, it is retarding us. There is so much more to admire in the human being, so much that is left unappreciated and unsupported. I have said it before: there are many great currencies that are ignored in favour of dollars and shillings. These include modesty and humility; kindness and generosity; compassion and empathy; fortitude and resilience; wisdom and perceptiveness. 

We meet people trading these currencies in their everyday lives all the time; but we belittle them and push them aside because they have no real monetary wealth to their names. How narrow-minded, and how simply dumb we are when we fail to see the real treasures of humanity, and focus only on misbegotten lucre.

The only reason to admire the possession of money is when it occurs genuinely as a result of personal endeavour or honest enterprise. Even then there is no reason to admire the result, but every reason to admire the process. We should reserve our approval for hard work, for special insight, for expansive thought—not for the bags of dollars they generate. And we should have great regard for those qualities even if they never lead to eye-catching financial gain, because great intentions are also their own reward.

Pecuniary reward should be a byproduct of the good things we do. It should ensue from good work and good practice. When we worship mammon for its own sake, we abase ourselves before the most primitive and sordid of idols, and our idolatry will yield its own reward: unhappy, covetous, unfulfilled lives. 

(Sunday Nation, 17 December 2023)

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