On social media and on reality television, all of us are welcomed into the highly curated lives of the wealthiest, most successful, most beautiful people on the planet. It is a sad irony of the modern world that while each generation’s quality of life improves, the bar for success is also set higher and higher. When everyone is competing in every way with those humans who have been touched in some exceptional way by the finger of God, then there will inevitably be those among us who feel so weightless and anonymous that they give in to despair and turn to chemical consolation prizes, robbing themselves of life and livelihood alike.
This kind of social dynamic also spells trouble for those who do reach the very top, though they might not know it. In the old, aristocratic model, it was still possible for elites to recognize the role that providence played in their good fortune. The acknowledgement that they were not the authors of their own prosperity left room for the notion that they had some duty to exercise their privileges for the common good. We wouldn’t want to romanticize this too much. Noblesse oblige was likely far less common than high-handed arrogance and entitlement among the aristocrats of yesteryear. But at least it existed whereas among today’s meritocrats, it doesn’t. Given that the meritocratic ladder is a market mechanism, with credentials, jobs, and elections being decided (at least ostensibly) on the basis of merit, there is no logical reason for those at the top to believe that they owe anything to those at the bottom. Our culture reinforces the idea that they are the unilateral authors of their own success, just as it reinforces a similar notion about the failures of the down-and-outs.
Thus, Americans are left with two options: Either be a celebrity, or find one to champion you and make you feel visible.