We have a new legal defense and this one will be the death of us: Affluenza. I have to admit that the term, used here on Scholars and Rogues in a number of previous posts, including Amusing ourselves to death, circa 2010 and Affluenza: Black Friday is America’s new high holy day, both by Sam Smith, had not seeped into my consciousness. It took a death, four of them, actually, to emblazon the term on my mind. In case you missed the story out of Texas, a 16-year-old stole alcohol from Walmart, got drunk, drove recklessly, and killed 4 innocent people. His court ordered punishment: 10-years of probation and some pricey rehab to be paid for by mums and daddums. No jail time. None.
And why does this thieving, drunken killer get away with it? He was spoiled! Station KHOU described how a psychologist, working for the defense, Dr. G. Dick Miller, testified that Ethan Couch’s parents “gave him ‘freedoms no young person should have.'” Couch ended up suffering from “affluenza,” wherein “his family felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between behavior and consequences.”
Spoiled rich kids without boundaries or morals are nothing new. Maybe it’s time we brought back one of my favorite anachronistic terms: “wastrel.” A wastrel in literature was generally someone who burned through an income or inheritance because of bad behavior. Wastrels were often pictured as embarrassing burdens to their families. My favorite literary wastrel is George Wickham from Pride and Prejudice. George Wickham may have been a debaucher, but he was not a killer.
The problem is that wastrels have become pop icons and their behavior is celebrated. Think Lindsay Lohan’s bad driving and revolving door rehab stints. Think Justin Bieber and his monkey and pot smoking and being carried up the Great Wall. Think Amanda Bynes and–well, on second thought, don’t. Being bad–not just having a bad attitude–has become cool. Flaunting the law publicly is no longer a problem for many people.
Privilege is nothing new for the wealthy. The phrase “it’s good to be the king” was coined for a reason. Perhaps the issue is the growing gulf between the wealthy and everyone below them. Instead of noblesse oblige, there is only privilege.
Over a decade ago I encountered my first students who were afflicted with “affluenza.”
Junior was a sophomore at a private school. By the end of the first semester, he was failing all but one of his classes. As soon as the second semester started, he stopped bothering with the one he was passing. The school had what the teachers called a “Come to Jesus Meeting” with the student and his parents. The parents begged the school to allow their son to finish the year “so he can repeat his sophomore year somewhere else next year and still get into a good college.” The school acquiesced. Junior had his own car, his own credit card, a cell phone, and all the other accoutrements of wealth. When Spring Break rolled around, Junior went to the Bahamas and spent his time gambling. He “finished” the school year and topped it off by cutting school half way through an exam. His parents supposedly sent him to an isolated and Spartan boarding school the next year to give someone else a shot at disciplining their son.
Marvin and his buddies were on a hike during their sophomore retreat. During a break, the conversation turned to one of their favorite pastimes: shoplifting. They were never lacking in spending money, but stealing was more fun. They compared notes on the best ways to steal from big box stores: old bags, old receipts, big pockets, etc. They seemed to view it as some sort of art form. Marvin got busted later that year for selling pot on campus to his buddies, nine of whom also got busted once the snitching started. Marvin was, however, the only one allowed to return after being expelled for a year.
Charlie was also a sophomore. He was smart, good-looking, charming, and generally, a pretty nice kid. He was an outstanding baseball player. In February, he had some videos to return to Blockbuster and he borrowed his dad’s new car to return them. A Jag. Charlie, who had only recently gotten his license, sped around a corner at twice the speed limit and put the car upside down into a tree. He died at the scene. His father wore Charlie’s baseball cap when he delivered his son’s eulogy. He passionately defended his decision to hand over the keys as something that anyone would do “for his best friend.” I still feel angry when I write about that memorial. Sometimes the parents are the affluenza sufferers.
The faces of the affluenza cases have blurred over the years. Fortunately, most of them are still alive and have not killed anyone through their pursuit of pleasure. At least not that we have heard. Yet.