Tuesday, January 27, 2009

unlike marie-antoinette


Marie-Antoinette had a lot more class
than the fraudsters of greed who beset us
avant le déluge, when the flood came, alas,
and made all rich creditors debtors.
It’s said Marie-Antoinette offered cake
to the peasants who clamored for bread:
I’ve heard that this legend’s a dreadful mistake,
but who cares? The lady is dead!

In contrast, the fraudsters are mainly alive,
and have paid themselves all a great bonus,
and still in their mansions appear to survive
quite free of remorse, since the onus
of guilt, they all claim, should be on all suckers
who trusted them. When you’re the tempter
who makes a great living by fooling hard-luckers
your motto is caveat emptor.

What makes man unique, said Mark Twain, is the fact
that when he’s ashamed he’ll start blushing,
except for these fraudsters, who when they’re attacked
tell accusers it’s wrong to go rushing
to judgment. They’re right. Like Marie-Antoinette,
they deserve a fair trial, which she never
received, but they will. And they won’t have to sweat
when this happens––their lawyers are clever!

If only Marie-Antoinette had assistance
from lawyers like theirs we’d be saying
the diet she offered––above what’s subsistence––
should have saved her from slovenly slaying.
Far less greedy was she than the men of Wall Street,
though a few who were as unmyopic
appeared to be even more kindly and sweet,
and were famously thought philanthropic.

Clyde Haberman writes, in “Imparting Some Shame in Those Who Trade in Greed,” NYT, January 27, 2009:
Mark Twain, who came up with pretty much every good line not ascribed to Oscar Wilde or Yogi Berra, said of human nature that “man is the only animal that blushes.” “Or needs to,” he added. New York is not quite living up to the Twain dictum. We’ve had a string of prominent people behaving in ways that many others consider shameful. Though they ought to be blushing, they show no sign of doing so. A question, then, is how to make them feel a sense of shame. There is no shortage of examples. Feel free to create your own list, even tossing in a few journalists if you feel like it. What sets us down this path is the greed that some on Wall Street continue to display even as their world crumbles around them. A leading character in this regard is John A. Thain. He has just been bounced as the chief executive of Merrill Lynch, now part of Bank of America, which has received $45 billion in taxpayer bailout money. While Merrill was losing $15.3 billion merely in the last quarter of 2008, Mr. Thain scurried around paying huge bonuses to executives. At one point, according to news reports, he suggested that he himself be paid $30 million or more as a bonus for having done such a splendid job. (In the end, he got no bonus at all, poor devil.) For those who have trouble thinking in terms of billions, the topper was the $1.2 million that Mr. Thain is said to have spent to redecorate his office — purchases like an $87,784 area rug, a $68,179 19th-century credenza, a $35,115 commode and an $18,468 George IV chair. The rug alone cost the equivalent of nearly two years’ pay for the average worker in New York State. If anyone should blush, you’d think it would be Mr. Thain. Or perhaps Richard S. Fuld Jr., who presided over the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, then went around blaming everyone else for what went wrong.Now it turns out that Mr. Fuld has sold his $13 million mansion in Florida to his wife, Kathleen, for — hold onto your hat — $10. The reason for this bit of legerdemain is not clear. But if you don’t sense some sort of dodge, you have a saint’s faith in the nobility of mankind. Twain would have been very disappointed in you. Of course, at the upper reaches of the shameless we have Bernard L. Madoff, no further identification required and no blushing detected.
If they have no bread, let them eat cake!" ("S'ils n'ont plus de pain, qu’ils mangent de la brioche.") — Marie Antoinette [M or A]
The original quote comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions: "I recalled the make-shift of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread and who replied: ‘Let them eat brioche’." ("Je me rappelai le pis-aller d’une grande princesse à qui l’on disait que les paysans n’avaient pas de pain, et qui répondit, qu’ils mangent de la brioche.") He was referring to an incident in Grenoble, 1740, ten years before Marie Antoinette was born. It has been speculated that he was actually writing of Maria Theresa of Spain or one of various other aristocrats though no evidence has ever been offered for this. In the meantime, Marie Antoinette's attribution to the quote was current in her time in antiroyalist propaganda, most likely to hasten her way to the guillotine.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/27/09


  1. Without reading the long footnote which I'm in future going to read instead of the newspaper (thanks!) it's a funny, ride-able poem very much to the point today. Yes, she let people starve while she lived it up (though was in many ways completely innocent in her behavior) but the non-blushers you talk about in your poem are sociopaths in a way. Still, poor M-A was accused of deeds she never committed and we as good Americans have to remember the non-blushers have to be tried fairly, as she never was. She probably never actually killed anyone, though the fall-out from the non-blushers have and certainly will be the cause of some deaths. Meanwhile, I like your poem - it's lots of fun (sorry, Votre Majeste!)

  2. Sociopaths in a primrose path of dalliance way.