March 9, 2004
Some are appalled that Martha Stewart could be prosecuted for covering up a crime she didn’t commit, especially when prosecutors would never have bothered pursuing an ordinary person. Yet double standards against the rich are nothing new. Prosecutors and others have long made their careers by going after this very visible minority.
The greatest Western inquisition of all into socially desirable behaviour, the Spanish Inquisition, preoccupied itself with the rich in society. As renowned historian Henry Kamen documents in The Spanish Inquisition, public opinion at the time often viewed the Inquisition’s target as being less the conversos – Jews converted to Catholicism – and more the rich. Of the Seville Inquisition of 1481, a chronicler wrote: “what was noticeable was the great number of prosecutions against moneyed men.” In Cuenca, one resident observed “They were burnt only for the money they had.” Observed another: “They burn only the well-off, because they have property; the others they leave alone.” To allay a woman’s fear upon learning that the Inquisition would be coming to her town of Aranda de Duero, a neighbour in 1501 reassured: Don’t be afraid of being burnt, they’re only after the money.” In part, the Inquisition was after the money – its funding depended on confiscating the property of the sinners. But the Inquisition’s focus on a rich minority served another purpose, too: An across-the board assault across all sectors of society could have led to widespread opposition and cost the Inquisitors power and prestige.
Because few will come to their defence, the rich generally make inviting targets but the rich must be attacked intelligently. Mao Tse-tung was an expert practitioner of the calculated assault, to both tap the masses’ resentment of the rich and to divide any opposition that the rich might attempt. “Land reform in a new Liberated Area should be divided into two stages,” he wrote in one of his cunning analyses, Essential Points in Land Reform in the New Liberated Areas. “In the first stage strike blows at the landlords and neutralize the rich peasants. This stage is to be sub-divided into several steps; strike blows at the big landlords first, and then at the other landlords . . . The second stage is the equal distribution of land, including the land rented out by the rich peasants and their surplus land. However, the treatment of rich peasants should differ from that of landlords. The total scope of attack should generally not exceed 8% of the households or 10% of the population.”
Mao had learned from Stalin, who had made a similar calculation in attacking the rich kulaks. Stalin’s latter-day successor, Vladimir Putin, has also singled out the rich – the industrial “oligarchs” of today – as a means to maintain popular support.
Like Stalin and Mao, many a U.S. prosecutor have risen to prominence on the backs of the rich. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who gained fame prosecuting Merrill Lynch and others, is widely expected to run for office as Governor of New York State. Rudy Giuliani, New York’s former mayor, made his name by indicting financiers Ivan Boesky and Michael Milliken.
Saint Augustine could have been describing current attitudes toward Martha Stewart in his reflections on the story of the rich man and Lazarus. “Although the haughty and rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day, died and was tormented in Hell, nevertheless, if he had shown mercy to the poor man covered with sores who lay at his door and was treated with scorn, he himself would have deserved mercy.” The rich man’s sin, in effect, was his personality – his haughtiness and disregard for the poor, stereotypes of the rich that justify their damnation to this day.
If the rich have any consolation, it’s in knowing that they’re not alone in being singled out. The poor, too, are systematically picked on in our society, whether by being the chief targets of sin taxes, such as the visible tobacco taxes that disproportionately target the lower classes, or the invisible taxes on their accommodation – apartments are taxed at much higher rates than condos or single-family homes. Those who single out both the rich and the poor, ultimately, are the middle-class. They form the crowds that today’s politicians seek to please.