How America’s celebrity obsession weakens the fight against inequality

Why are the poorest Americans still sold on the American dream?

Amy Chua: Well, I happen to be a fan of democracy. I think it has flaws, but there was just no other better system for one simple reason and that is: you can often get a beneficent dictator. A lot of people think that Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore was such a person. He was not corrupt. He actually alleviated a lot of the ethnic conflict.

But here’s the problem: You can never ensure that the dictator will stay beneficent. The better thing about democracy is that, eventually, you can vote them out. If you don’t like the policies, if you don’t like the leaders, you can vote them out. 

So, on balance, I think that democracy is the best system. What I think is wrong is that America treats democracy like a panacea. We romanticize it. We think somehow that oh, there’s all this civil war and tribalism and sectarian warfare there—let’s just have some elections! What they don’t realize is that in very divided countries—ethnically divided, tribally divided—democracy can sometimes catalyze group conflict rather than softening it.

A lot of people have puzzled over how so many blue-collar and working-class Americans could possibly have voted for a billionaire born to wealth, born in Manhattan. But it’s actually not a puzzle at all. What a lot of working-class Americans resent is the idea that there’s a rigged system.

That there are these people—arrogant people—controlling the levers of power from afar, somewhere in D.C. and on Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

If you look at the surveys, Pew Foundation studies, you find that most Americans, including working-class Americans, actually love capitalism. They don’t want socialism. They still want a system where if you can work hard you can strike it rich, and they want it to be fine to be rich.

Studies show that many working-class Americans actually resent the professional elites more: the very polished, well-educated, snobby professors and journalists and pundits speaking on TV, and that they don’t actually dislike the Kardashians so much—or the billionaires that are jet-setting around. That’s why shows like 'The Apprentice' are so popular.

The Occupy movement did many important things, highlighting the urgency of inequality in this country. But one problem with the Occupy movement is that it was a movement that purported to want to help the poor that didn’t actually include any members of the poor. It was, overwhelmingly, an extremely privileged movement. Not necessarily wealthy, but highly educated and largely from cosmopolitan, urban areas.

And if you look at the interviews of people from other parts of the country, working-class people, blue collar people, it’s not just that they didn’t participate in these activist, anti-inequality movements. They actually were very suspicious of them, and even a little scornful. The interviews have people saying, “Don’t these people have jobs? Don’t they have to work? I’m working three jobs just to put food on the table! How can they be marching and protesting all the time?”

Now that’s a little unfair because a lot of these activist movements have done tremendous good, but it is also true that it is a privilege to have the time to take off work and to do these things.

So there’s a real schism in group identities.

A lot of America’s elites, while they were campaigning for Bernie or Hillary, didn’t really connect with so many of the lower income Americans because, in part, they had a snobby view towards them.

But the point is that a lot of America's political elites, the establishment elites, just really didn’t bother to get to understand the people that supposedly they were trying to help.

It’s amazing to contrast the Occupy movement with the prosperity gospel. The irony is just glaring.

So Occupy was a movement championing, supposedly, the underclasses, but largely driven by elites. The prosperity gospel is a hugely popular movement in America, one of the most powerful religious movements in the United States, that is very largely populated by disadvantaged Americans—including our most disadvantaged minorities. African Americans and Hispanic Americans are flocking to the prosperity gospel.

What is their creed? That God blesses the wealthy. That being rich is divine and that if you pray for wealth hard enough, God will give it to you. And this contrast just shows the tribal chasm between America's haves and have-nots.

You have people purporting to want to help the other side and yet actually scorning the very movements that those people actually belong to.

We have a strange relationship with celebrity culture in America. And in some ways, you could see the victory of Donald Trump as Donald Trump tapping into this obsession with celebrities. It’s almost like he’s created a kind of billionaire populism where he’s tapping into this desire for a lot of working-class people to rise in a system where they can no longer rise—where there’s so much inequality that they can’t just make it with hard work, and they romanticize that. They think, “You know what? If I go on American Idol or The Voice or Shark Tank maybe I can hit it big.” And they actually glorify all the Desperate Housewives or the Kardashians or the celebrity musicians and actresses. These are beloved figures. They’re not hated at all. It’s like the royal family in England.

The desire for the American Dream is so powerful that people will cling to it even when they have no chance. Even when the American Dream turns their backs on people, mocks them. A lot of Americans would sooner turn on immigrants, outsiders, even reason itself than turn on the American Dream.

A lot of people think why is this happening now, you know. What’s going on with our society? Well, it’s always been there. A lot of these issues have always been there. There have always been these male bosses that have done these terrible things. So it’s not like it’s all happening now. It’s just that finally certain groups voices are allowed to be heard.

It’s the same with a lot of diversity issues, you know. People will say, why now are there so many minorities complaining on campuses or on this organization? It used to be so smooth. Things used to work so well.

Well, that’s because so many voices used to be suppressed. So, in a way, I think it’s healthy what’s often experienced as turbulence and chaos—“oh my gosh, everything’s going haywire”—is actually a healthy rising of certain voices that historically have not been allowed to speak. And there are lots of different groups. It’s along all different kinds of lines—gender, race, ethnicity—it’s everything.

Deepening inequality is escalating a tribal conflict between the haves and the have-nots in America. But it's not playing out in the most obvious way: the beef of working-class, blue-collar Americans isn't with Manhattan-born billionaires and Instagram influencers—it's with garden variety professional elites. "If you look at the surveys, Pew Foundation studies, you find that most Americans, including working-class Americans, actually love capitalism," says Yale professor Amy Chua. "They don’t want socialism. They still want a system where if you can work hard you can strike it rich, and they want it to be fine to be rich." Why did low-income America elect a billionaire president? It's no puzzle, says Chua. Despite the data on inequality and the dismal stats on upward mobility, Americans are still sold on the American Dream. It's the narrative peddled by American Idol, the Kardashians, and jet-setting celebrities—that you too can somehow climb the ladder. The richest of the rich are adored, not scorned. Chua points out a glaring irony: while the overly privileged Occupy Wall Street movement was trying to raise up America's poor, America's poor were flocking to the enormously popular prosperity gospel. Its creed? That God blesses the wealthy, and if you pray hard enough the money will come. "The desire for the American Dream is so powerful that people will cling to it even when they have no chance," says Chua. It's that dream that sustains inequality from the bottom up. Amy Chua is the author of Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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