Revisiting the “Brittle Grip”

September 10, 2014 1:16 p.m.

We see reported today that a number of elite golf courses in the New York area rejected the White House’s requests to allow the President to play on their courses when he was in the area over the Labor Day weekend. Let’s start by stipulating that of the various kinds of respect or derision aimed at the first black president, his ‘golfing rights’, for lack of a better word, rate low on the list – certainly not ones the White House press office will want to focus on. Let’s further stipulate that if you pay a lot of money to belong to a country club/golf course you’d probably be a bit annoyed that the place had been taken over by the Secret Service when you were looking forward to playing on Labor Day weekend – the rest of us get a little bummed when whole urban centers are locked down because of Presidential visits.

It’s worth noting that probably at least some of these clubs were likely restricted in the past. Perhaps some still are, albeit informally. But while I don’t think this is mainly or even substantially about race, I do think there’s a bit more afoot here than scheduling and convenience.

Let me tell you something about myself. Four or five years ago I discovered, from spending time on a friend’s boat, that I felt in some sense more alive on the water than on the land. I got a feeling of relaxation I’d never experienced before – maybe more grounded, though that mixes my metaphors terribly. When this friend moved out of the country, I bought her boat.

I didn’t grow up with any of this. Fishing was something I was raised with. But being on the water was almost totally alien. We were fairly poor. So owning a boat was a ridiculous proposition. But even beyond means, aside from going on a whale watching trip in elementary school and going out a few times on an uncle’s boat, the number of times I’d been on the water was maybe not more than I could count on my hands. So over the last few summers I’ve found every opportunity I could to get out on the water. A lot with my family. But also a lot alone. I go out on the Long Island Sound, drive out between New York and Connecticut, cut the engine and just drift. And think. Or better yet not think.

I say all of this as way of introducing the fact that this is where I spend a lot of time. And it’s also where some of the wealthiest people in the world take their yachts. So while I’m not on the same waters either financially or in most cases politically, I spend a good deal of time out there, literally, on the same water.

And I’m talking here about the big yachts. The 50 and 60 and 70 foot sailing yachts, beautiful creations with teak and canvas, I’m sure a dream to sail, needless to say, vast sums of money to purchase and maintain.

And then a couple of years ago I noticed something. More and more of these big vessels were flying the Gadsden Flag, the coiled snake “Don’t Tread on Me” Revolutionary War flag that has become synonymous with the Tea Party. I can’t tell you precisely how often I see this but I see it a lot. And I think I see it more out on the water than in the marinas.

Then I noticed something else. A lot of them were sporting a Tea Party flag without flying an American flag, something frankly I have a hard time getting my head around.

On one level we should hardly be surprised that extremely wealthy people tend to have conservative politics. But there is something well, extremely rich about the wealthiest, most privileged, in many ways most powerful people in the world sporting this symbol of rebel defiance against ‘the government’ which is somehow oppressing them.

I don’t begrudge these folks their toys. If I weren’t pretty blessed myself I wouldn’t be out there with them on my own motorboat. But I think we are talking here – and perhaps also with these golf course refusals – another slice of the ‘brittle grip’ of contemporary great wealth which we’ve discussed in the past.

It’s not nearly as dooftastic as Tom Perkins and his fears of a “progressive Kristallnacht” against the 1%. But it’s in the same neighborhood. It’s not about race. But it’s more than a little about plutocracy. Not just their importance compared to the mere federal magistrate but the odd and revealing sense of embattlement we see now cropping up again and again.

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