On Monday, the New York Times published an article about rich people who had made last-ditch efforts to flee the U.S. at the beginning of the pandemic, and are now “stuck” in their chosen countries of vacation.
The story unfolds just as you’d expect: two ballet dancers have been in the Bahamas for almost two months, hiding the beach from their colleagues in New York on Zoom (“We’re trying to be sensitive.”); a U.C. Berkeley business school director worries if her two-months-long Hawaii family vacation is going to stunt her two boys’ understanding of the pandemic; an admissions director at a Manhattan prep school flew to Indonesia with his girlfriend of three months, enjoying surfing lessons and the spa she owns, before getting stuck quarantining with her.
It’s always interesting what rich people are willing to tell the Times. Here’s an excerpt from that last guy:
“There’s no reason to go home now, other than hugging my parents, which I can’t even do,” Mr. Anchors said. Working remotely has only increased his job efficiency, and he’s hopeful that with comparatively few cases on the island, his dry surfboard will be back in action soon. “I don’t feel stranded,” he said. “I feel liberated.”
The piece is entertaining, to an extent, in a less systemic-failure-y How the Other Half Lives kind of way. It’s all the more strange in that it’s actually a “Why I Left New York” essay in disguise.
The article weirdly disclaims at the beginning, “…They get it. They know that their privilege — financial, physical, professional, personal — allowed them to leave their homes, where infections were rapidly multiplying.” But at the end of the vignettes, the piece’s real agenda becomes clear, when writer Jessica Shaw admits she’s among the many well-off folks who vacationed her way into isolation.
“I sometimes feel guilt for not being ‘New York strong,’ as Gov. Andrew Cuomo would say (yes, I watch him here too), along with sadness for my city, relief that I didn’t bring illness to this hospital-free island and worry about paying my bills after renting a vacation home for three months instead of two weeks,” Shaw writes.
She felt bad for getting stranded in paradise, so she pitched an article to the Times about people getting stranded in paradise, in which she actively acknowledges that no one really cares to read a story about people getting stranded in paradise. Got it.
And Shaw is right. After the entertainment value wanes, I’m left feeling little sympathy for the people profiled in this piece, except for the late Fountains of Wayne frontman Adam Schlesinger, who died of the coronavirus after Sarah Silverman flew into New York to workshop a musical they wrote together, and Silverman, for losing a friend. But otherwise, this article does little more than make me mad at the rich people who had the privilege to leave New York and Los Angeles. And I’m not sure how much more energy and mental space I have to get mad, or how helpful that even is when we have other rich people to be far angrier at.
There are reasons to be mad, and frustrated, and upset with these people. It is enraging to live in a world where some people are left at the mercy of a disease and others get to wax poetic about seeing the stars at night. But these are not the rich people who, save for being taxed fairly, can do anything for me. They are not the government leaders who would rather their people die than prevent them from contracting the virus. They are not the billionaires who’ve done whatever they can to maintain their riches and their reputations, including exposing their workers to the virus. There are many rich people to be mad at during this pandemic, and I wish I could expect better of the less-influential people without policing them and putting other people at risk.
And these things can also both be true at the same time, right? Rich politicians and the owners of the companies they bail out are a problem worthy of astronomical anger, and rich people who jumped ship to a tropical island can be infuriating. But beyond the potential havoc they could have wrecked upon the people of the country they’ve decided to vacation at, the latter group don’t have the immediate power to protect others.
They don’t have the chance to pass a greater stimulus package. They don’t have the ability to safely plan business reopenings. And while they stew in their getaway rentals, there are people who have the ability to do these things who won’t. Those are the people I will reserve my energy for.
Shaw’s article misfired, not just because it’s actually a personal essay that could have just been published to your paid list of Substack subscribers, but because these aren’t the targets we’re looking for. I don’t think readers will look at the Times piece and conflate vacationing ballet dancers or admissions directors with people like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — people with actual influence. But I also don’t think we have the energy to spare to point and laugh the way that we used to — or at least, I don’t. Looking at these people and the messes they’ve gotten themselves into doesn’t make me feel better right now. If anything, I’m hungrier for change, and gawking at the rich feels like no substitute for eating them.
So, please, no more essays or articles about the rich people who bungled their coronavirus response plans. Not to give them a pass for their poor decision-making, but because these stories ask too much of me. I get it, I do! Woe is them for making such a tragic, potentially harmful, but comical mistake. They feel bad and guilty, but we also know they will be just fine. We’ve got bigger things on our minds.
Photo via rayinmanila/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)