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America Is Having A 'Tom And Daisy' Moment Worthy Of West Egg

Joel Ryan
The cast of the 2013 adaptation of 'The Great Gatsby' at the Cannes film festival in France.

Searching for perspective on today’s national climate of reckless self-interest some historians find an apt comparison in another decade of unparalleled greed and corruption, the so-called “Roaring Twenties." They have a point.

Consider F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, an examination of the perversion of the American Dream widely regarded as emblematic of its time. Reading his description of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, the wealthy couple who play a significant role in that story, it’s easy to see its relevance to our time.

Here’s Fitzgerald:
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

The trailer for one of the latest film adaptations of Fitzgerald's novel.

This has a strikingly contemporary ring. Indeed, we might say that America’s having a Tom and Daisy moment.

Too many of our current leaders callously disregard most Americans, playing only to their base. And the 1 percent uses its wealth to insulate itself, with its gated communities, private schools, private jets – and even, recently in California, private fire departments dedicated to saving multi-million dollar mansions while letting middle class neighborhoods burn. They’ve replaced civic responsibility and neighborly compassion with indifference, even scorn.

Sadly, this extends beyond our shores. Our national greatness long depended on representing a set of values enshrined in The Declaration of Independence – values of freedom and equality of opportunity that made us, in Jefferson’s words, “the world’s best hope.” But to most of that world today the U.S. looks arrogant and dangerously reckless: preferring confrontation to conversation, denunciation to diplomacy, and isolation to internationalism; burning bridges rather than building them.

In putting America first, we seem to much of the rest of the world to epitomize the reverse Midas Touch – whatever the U.S puts its hand to is defiled.

There are many candidates for today’s version of Tom and Daisy Buchanan: the 1 percent, big business, Congress, the administration. All fit the bill of fecklessly destroying things and people and retreating into a “vast carelessness” of indifference to the effects of their behavior.

And it’s clear who will have to clean up the mess they’re making.

That would be you and me.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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