Last week, I finished the marvelous eight-part series “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” on Netflix. It’s an epic drama that tells the story of Andrew Cunanan, a young gay drifter, full of promise, intellect, and good looks, but who refuses to apply himself toward any meaningful purpose in life. Hard work and going to school are too ordinary.
He is special, entitled to a luxurious existence by virtue of who he is. And when that dream falls down the tubes, he takes out his rage against Gianni Versace, the great Italian fashion designer, gunning him down on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion.
It’s a Shakespearean tale that features two men on opposite spectrums of human existence: Cunanan, a lazy narcissistic lout, allergic to applying himself toward anything meaningful, and Versace the icon, who from humble beginnings in Italy built one of the greatest fashion brands the world has ever known.
As I viewed the series, I kept thinking that there’s a symbolic significance to Cunanan, in the sense that he represents, in the most grotesque form, a growing strain of entitlement in American life.
Across our country, more and more folks just don’t want to pay their dues in life, from the millenials who refuse to start in dead-end jobs and work their way up, to the Trump supporters who yearn for the easy manufacturing work of yesteryear instead of applying themselves to succeed in the modern economy.
We want the good life, without breaking the sweat to get it.
And it’s a profound tragedy. For one, this attitude always leads to a dead end of disappointment and humiliating failure. Additionally, it robs us of one of life’s great joys — courageously striving toward goals worth achieving.
One wonders where such thinking came from. It is clear that part of the blame must go toward the amazing economy Americans experienced in the 20th century.
After World War II, our people had a life of ease unlike any other time before in history. A high school graduate could obtain strong employment and a place in the middle class, along with steadily rising wages and a pension. Rents were cheap, education was plentiful, prices were low — it was an economic nirvana.
That softened us as a country, as Americans got used to having an easy road toward prosperity. However, with the onset of globalization, outsourcing, and the modern knowledge economy, everything changed.
It became a lot harder to succeed.
In order to live the life of our parents, workers today must truly develop their own value, gain vital skills, and be lifelong learners. Having one career for 40 years doesn’t cut it anymore. And we feel robbed because of this.
Instead of having the entrepreneurial spirit of Gianni Versace, and embracing challenge with joy, we’ve gotten angry and resentful, a society of cynics rather than strivers. Cunanan’s ghost haunts the land.
Immigrants to this country seem not to have this virus. In comparison to native-born citizens, they are starting twice as many businesses, are almost half as likely to commit crime, and accounted for most of the companies founded in Silicon Valley between 1995 and 2005.
They act the way we did in prior generations, working day in and day out to Make America Great Again.
But where does one go from here? How do we steer this ship around? Where is the leader, the modern JFK, who can remind us that a gritty, vigorous life is the only sort of life worth living?
Such truth telling certainly wouldn’t be popular. The voting public doesn’t like to be told to shape up. It is much more preferable for them to point the blame at forces beyond their control — big government or big business, immigrants or elitist universities.
However, bitter medicine is what the body politic needs. It is clear that America must also develop a new safety net, in line with what Bernie Sanders proposes, to help folks accommodate to these more difficult times. But even in a world where such programs exist, people are still going to need a fighting spirit in order to thrive.
The 21st century demands nothing less.
Joshua Heath is a Valencia resident and a political science student at UCLA. He has served two terms as a delegate to the California Democratic Party. Democratic Voices runs every Tuesday in The Signal and rotates among several local Democrats.