A Change in Ethos

A week or so ago, David Geffen announced grandly that he was self-isolating to stay healthy … aboard his 454 foot private yacht in the Grenadines. He also very helpfully circulated a picture (presumably taken from a drone) of his palatial boat set against the backdrop of that evening’s magnificent sunset over islands and sea. That way we could all enjoy the moment with him, you see.

The insensitivity of sharing such an image at this time was immediately called out in both social and traditional media. The glorious photograph – and the mental images it called forth of the billionaire enjoying perfect elegance, including, no doubt, the help of precisely enough servants to meet his every need – were not greeted with unreserved joy by the millions of Americans effectively imprisoned in their apartments or houses, worrying about their families and jobs.

I see that photograph as defining the era we’ve just left. It’s like a glance back at the roaring twenties from a very different time (but, one hopes and I expect, not a new Great Depression).

I have long marveled at the in-your-face attitudes that have characterized so many of today’s ultra-rich, for whom flaunting it has seemed to be as or more important than enjoying whatever “it” is. In the endless competition for status – in this instance meaning the jealousy of others – apparently it just wouldn’t have done for Geffen to have had, say, a yacht only two or three times as long as the Mayflower. At his level, it had to be the biggest, or somebody else might have imagined that they were as important as he is.


I grew up in New England at a time when the received image of the rich – particularly members of the old WASP upper crust that still controlled the social hierarchy and much commerce – was of a very rich old guy who proudly drove a beat up, 15 year-old Volvo; on weekdays he wore suits from Brooks Brothers and on weekends casual wear from LL Bean – all of it understated and functional. The idea was that wealthy people should never, ever be showy or put on airs; they also had a pronounced responsibility to be personally generous and socially philanthropic, as their means permitted. A midwestern version of the same type was Sam Walton, who was famous for driving an old pickup truck around Bentonville long after he became one of the nation’s wealthiest people.

The people who were old when I was young had all lived through the Depression and the War. Presumably the widespread – nigh on universal – suffering experienced during those terrible events had taught them to be always mindful of others’ circumstances – and of their interconnectedness. As that generation passed away, a gaudier ethos gained traction and, I think, reached its eventual apogee with Geffen’s astonishingly self-aggrandizing photograph.


If the Coronavirus pandemic has already taught us anything – and it has taught us a lot – the first lessons were that all of us – even, eventually, David Geffen – are vulnerable to unpredictable changes in fate and dependent on the daily, sometimes heroic, work of ordinary people. Even the ultra-rich, I expect, will not look at the work of nurses, truckers or grocery clerks in the same way as they might have in the past, because now we all know just how dependent on the efforts and characters of such people we are.

These are lessons that too many had forgotten, lessons that John Donne captured immortally:

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

So now, once again, we know. And that knowledge will make us better people.

M.H. Johnston

2 comments to A Change in Ethos

  • Ronald Davenport  says:

    Very well stated and I hope that you’re right.

  • DP  says:

    Good post, so I haven’t got anything better to say than – as much as we’d love to have him – Sam Walton is from Arkansas and that is definitively not Midwestern in the view of most Midwesterners. Southern perhaps? When we moved to Winnetka, Illinois in the early 90s, our retired next door neighbours, who were natives, told us when were talking about cars that the sensible people in this suburb, one of the richest in America, drove Buicks. Cadillac was too flashy and don’t even start with fancier foreign makes. Same message.

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