Upward Mobility


Seeing the Metropolitan Opera “live” (okay, it was an ‘encore performance’ so not so live) on high-definition on a big screen is breathtakingly beautiful.

MET Live Prince Igorin a poppy field.

Prince Igor-a classic traumatic brain injury yields a fantasy sequence in a poppy field.

For one thing, the audience gets swept up in the phenomenon so completely they applaud wildly and spring to their feet fairly often. The greatest ‘Standing O’ from the audience in the beautiful California Polytechnic theater was not for some blood-curdling death aria, but rather for the trailer for Prince Igor.

In the trailer, the blonde interlocutrice interviewed the male lead, who spoke good English with a fairly hefty Russian accent.

He told how his first job somewhere out in the sticks of rural Russia was being stagehand for a production of this

self-same opera, and personal bodyguard for the singer in the title role.

Now, HE was the singer in the title role.

And the crowd went wild.

This is social upward mobility at its finest.  This is the kind of Horatio Alger story that once won the hearts of all America.  Long before that, it was our cherished ideal.

 Horatio Alger NovelIn Ben Franklin’s precious pamphlet Information To Those who would Remove to America,”  I think this is what he meant when he talked about the colonies as being a place where you were judged but not who you were but what you could do.

The positive aspect of this delightful emotional response is that this human came from a country with whom we seem to have had a long and difficult cold war. And when that ended, the country splintered in to multiple republics and civil war broke out and the Russian Mafia took over – Ooooh!  It sounds like a Russian opera!

The negative aspect is that it may be a little harder to do this in America.

Me, I am a baby boomer weaned on post World War II optimism.  My late brother-of-blessed-memory was named “Harry Sidney” so it came out “Harry S.,” after the president whom my Grandmother-of-blessed-memory adored because he recognized the nascent state of Israel.  My grandmother believed — as American then did of any boy — that her grandson Harry could grow up to be president.

Now, the few upper-crust folks I know want a higher pay (and a smaller risk of assassination/early mortality) for their career-bound sons.

We seem to have come full-circle. From our birth as a nation we have been in denial of the existence of social class.  Now we have a class structure as strong as that of any country and stronger than most.  Much has been made of the fact that a tremendous amount of the wealth of this nation is controlled by a very small amount of the population.

And this is not just here in America –

The world’s richest 85 people control the same amount of wealth as half the world’s population, according to a report issued Monday by the British-based anti-poverty charity Oxfam.

This reality is so daunting that it is kicking pretty much everyone in the teeth, resulting in public protests, like occupying Wall Street.

I have been caught in the crossfire more than once.  I was brought up to believe I could do anything if I wanted to badly enough – and mostly, I have.

I was only about five when my Father-of-blessed-memory smuggled me into the synagogue on an off-day and convinced me I could read the sacred Torah scrolls (Five Books of Moses) in Hebrew.  This action set the tone and pattern for my life, and is one of the most important things he ever did for me.

In college, when I worked at the emergency room of a major academic hospital as a front-desk helper get Blue-Cross numbers and told people I was going to be a doctor, I got laughs — and plenty of them.

I returned to the same institution years later to be interviewed for a neurosurgical residency and the mildly retarded older man who emptied the wastebaskets just happened to be in the room and recognized me as someone who had been kind to him years later.  The chief surgeon saw the reunion and was appalled.  I knew the job would not happen.

I was clearly not of the social class of folks at that institution, and never will be.

When I saw the Russian singer well-received for having gone from stagehand to male opera divo, I thought of the diploma on my wall. My French diploma hangs on the wall of whatever office anywhere I am practicing psychiatry – whether in poor rural California or affluent San Diego or Orange County.  Anyone who inquires about it gets a short form of the truth — that I was able to work my way through French medical school by doing a variety of things, and that simply would not have been possible in the States.

Putting the facts together, the conclusion — although hard to swallow — is truly inescapable.

The American dream of upward social mobility may not only have become international.  It may also no longer be American.

At least for now.  This is something I can say because this is where my characteristic American optimism comes up and hits me in the teeth.

The ideals of the Founding Fathers are still ours.  As far as we may have fallen from them, they were a deliberate choice, not an imperceptible evolution, but the results of a very deliberate revolution.  This is something that nobody can steal from us.  American History is ours to keep.

The best hope comes from the idea that we are in a cycle.

We are indeed crashing from the post WWII optimism, but we can rise from this.  We can recognize that capitalism can slip into greed and a sort of turf protection for and by the very wealthy.

(Wade; ink to the guy who did the video you showed me and whose name escapes from me; the little guy who talked about the pattern of American wealth and politics as having the big cycle….)

Despite erosions at our principles, free speech exists, people can see truth, a theoretical “malice toward none/liberty for all “(Lincoln) can once again become real.

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