Wealth and worth

On July 14, 2015, William Daniel Lee Pryor died, at the age of 88, a wealthy man. In his obituary, a tally of his accounts includes “…friends far too numerous to list.” As an educator, his was a life well lived, and, “…as testimony to his years of dedicated teaching, many former students and colleagues became lifelong friends.”

My friend Warren was one of them. He talked about Lee often, in tones of admiration and respect. I only met Lee once; I mostly knew him through Warren. About Lee, I also know this: Warren is a keen judge of character, and to have won his unqualified friendship tells me a lot about the kind person that was Lee.

Lee had other friends. Among them were Ima Hogg, Leopold Stokowski, Nina Vance, Andre Previn, and Tennessee Williams. In his later years, “…it seemed as if approximately half of the eminent physicians in town were among those admiring ranks.”

His accomplishments in the arts and humanities were remarkable for both their value and sheer number. Many would agree, as his obituary notes, that “…William Lee Pryor was in the running for ‘World’s Most Interesting Man.’”

All this is Lee’s fortune. And, without even the need for a will, many people have already benefitted from it. Lee’s name isn’t that of a forgotten philanthropist on a building somewhere; it’s everywhere in the minds of people fortunate enough to have known him.

Whenever I learn of people like Lee, it makes me reflect on the true nature of wealth. It seems mundane to say real wealth is not money in the bank, yet many people, by the way they live and the activities they pursue, seem to regard it that way.

Financial advisors almost comically misstate the true nature of wealth when they refer to one’s “net worth.” By my calculation, Lee Pryor was fabulously wealthy. Donald Trump and others of his ilk are worthless.

What’s going on

Marvin Gaye would surely be dismayed to see that his landmark anthem from the 1971 album still has powerful relevance.

Growing up in south Louisiana, in a working-class environment, taught me a lot about how bigotry gets ingrained. It’s really no different from the way any culture’s myths are propagated. Racial shibboleths get passed down from adult to child, with zero critical thinking attached. Institutionalized bigotry is a powerful force acting on impressionable young minds, with no organized opposition.

It certainly explains how so many people I grew up with, who were otherwise decent people, could parrot these kinds of things without thinking about what they actually meant. In the South, they are articles of faith among many. And like faith often is, they are accepted as fact, without critical examination.

Such acceptance requires willful ignorance of self evident truths:

We can’t deny people an education and then call them ignorant.

We can’t deny people economic opportunity and then call them poor and lazy.

We can’t incarcerate people in large numbers and then say they are all criminals.

It’s interesting to note examples of what happens when African-Americans are allowed to freely participate.

Take entertainment: They created Jazz and Blues, two of America’s most important, enduring, and original art forms.

Or athletics: people like Jackie Robinson started to excel from the moment they were allowed inside.

Or national defense: the Tuskegee Airmen succeeded wildly, on the thinnest opportunity.

Or politics: after starting so late, a long and distinguished list of lawmakers has already accumulated, from President of the United Sates on down.

This list of African-American pioneers in many other fields is too long to list.

What about any of this would imply innate inferiority? Why don’t people think about this kind of stuff when mindlessly reciting racial shibboleths?

Here’s something people should think about, with amazement. To me, the actual level of unlawful response to the level and duration of oppression visited upon the African-American community is an incredible feat of group self-restraint. Say what you wish about Palestinian reaction to treatment by the Israeli government; African-American response to more than a century of organized, state-sponsored mistreatment has been remarkably controlled by comparison.

There was a moment in the past when I thought everything was going to work out. Now, I’m not as certain. In his book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Hunter S. Thompson’s wonderful description of the counterculture zeitgeist resonates with how I feel in light of recent events:

“There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

“And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”