In defence of lurid curiosity about the lives of the rich and powerful

This short piece by Norman Solomon about the wealth of NYT columnist Thomas Friedman captures something I’ve often felt about the sociological value of what might otherwise be framed as lurid curiosity about the lives of the rich and powerful. For example I’ve been interested for a long time in the personal biography of Anthony Giddens because it can so readily be incorporated into an analysis of his intellectual biography, in ways that I think only Bev Skeggs has seriously made a case for in print. Biographical details can’t substitute for sociological analysis but they can inform it, particularly when it comes to understanding how the vision of the world an author puts forward is shaped by their position within that world. As Solomon argues persuasively about Friedman:

Friedman’s great wealth is a frame for his window on the world. The Washingtonian reports that “his annual income easily reaches seven figures.” In the Maryland suburbs near Washington, three years ago, “the Friedmans built a palatial 11,400-square-foot house, now valued at $9.3 million,” on a parcel of more than seven acres near Bethesda Country Club and the Beltway.

Throughout his journalistic career, Friedman has been married to Ann Bucksbaum — heiress to a real-estate and shopping-mall fortune now estimated at $2.7 billion. When the couple wed back in 1978, according to The Washingtonian article, Friedman became part of “one of the 100 richest families in the country.”

Does Friedman’s astronomical wealth invalidate what he writes? Of course not. But information about the extent of his wealth — while not disclosed to readers of his columns and books — provides context for how he is accustomed to moving through the world. And his outsized economic privileges become especially relevant when we consider that he’s inclined to be glib and even flip as he advocates policies that give very low priority to reducing economic inequality.

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