My daily commute from the Ironbound in Newark to the Upper West Side of Manhattan has become so rote that I hardly notice anything along the way to work and back. While on the train I am absorbed either in a newspaper or book, headphones firmly planted on my ears. Once my morning train pulls into the polluted, congested rabbit-warren of Penn Station I am focused on rushing through its grimy tunnels to get to my subway train. In that state of single-minded focus, I get tunnel vision, and I don't notice a whole helluva lot.
However, on Friday, I saw something that I could not ignore. As I bounded through the subway turnstiles and rounded the corner to the stairs to the uptown bound 3 train, I saw a homeless man (an all too common sight in Penn Station) sitting dejectedly between an incredibly gaudy poster for the reality show The Shahs of Sunset. The whole poster was gold colored, with the titular reality tv personalities standing confidently around a pyramid of glasses brimming with champagne. It is an image that so perfectly captures the amoral, materialistic excess that is the one value that our feckless economic elite holds scared. That image made quite a contrast with the indigent man forced to bed down in a dirty tunnel.
I am well aware that New York City presents examples of its extremes of wealth and poverty every day, signs and signals that have become so common to me that I barely notice them anymore. This particular sight has stuck with me because it's indicative of the ways our entertainment industry aids and abets the increasingly ironclad class system in our country. There are so many reality television shows about wealthy bores with endless reservoirs of crass narcissism. I know people who claim to like them who say they see them as ways to mock the wealthy, or as simple escapism. However, the more we see such self-centered materialism on television, the more that behavior is normalized and even implicitly justified.
Not to preach too much of a jeremiad, but I really and truly think that there is a moral cancer in our society that I fear may be inoperable. Greed and selfishness have become virtues, and the plight of those who suffer from the greed perpetuated in this country are left on the dung pile to rot. Even worse, many more people would rather follow the lives of materialistic moral cripples on television rather than contemplate the man sleeping in a dirty subway staircase, or bother to think they are much more likely to be in his shoes than topping off a champagne pyramid. Until there are more people who feel moral outrage at elites living to excess while others starve than there are people who follow what TMZ has to say about the Real Housewives of New Jersey, nothing is going to change.