The Queen of What Really Matters

I went to see “Queen of Versailles” last night–here’s the official site for the movie: It’s a documentary about Jackie & David Siegel, and their attempted construction of the largest private residence in the United States, model on Versailles. I say “attempted,” because Siegel’s timeshare company–and consequently, the construction on the house–was severely impacted by the market downturn in 2008. So, what was planned to be a boastful, crowing documentary of unparalleled financial successes turned out to be a stinging, insightful critique on the excesses of American capitalism.

Watching the documentary, all I could think about was how ugly money is, really:  it has only instrumental value, with absolutely no inherent value at all.  That is, money is only a means—it only matters insofar as you use it for something useful and constructive.  When it is simply on display for what it is, it looks crass, vapid, and worthless—ironic, I know; but if you watch the documentary—including the hard-to-watch scene in which Jackie discovers that the children have let their pet lizard die from lack of food and water [fish in a filthy aquarium die, too], and really could care less—you come away with the realization that far from being edifying and constructive, money qua money is corrupting, undignified, and infantilizing.

Anyway, I had all this in mind while I was walking Henry this morning and reading the NY Times on my phone; and I came across this op-ed piece:  It’s about a young woman in Pakistan named Malala Yousafzai, who is a passionate advocate for girls’ education:  she is viewed as such a threat by the conservative militants in that country that the Taliban shot her to try and keep her quiet, and keep other girls out of school.  This is the line that really caught me in the piece:  “On the other side are the Taliban, who understand the stakes perfectly. They shot Malala because girls’ education threatens everything that they stand for. The greatest risk for violent extremists in Pakistan isn’t American drones. It’s educated girls.”

We live in a country where money is everything:  it is what our society values most and what we put the most effort into achieving and maintaining. Yet, in and of itself money is worth nothing, and is ultimately meaningless.  Contrast that with education, which in and of itself is of immeasurable value, even when as a means it doesn’t always lead directly to one specific or even “successful” end.  I would argue, however, that education is not meant to be seen as a “means”—instead, it has inestimable inherent value insofar as it has the power to transform an individual and even a whole society by changing the way people view relationships, politics, religion, creation, etc., etc.  Education opens us up to the world through the practices of learning new ideas and being in dialogue with others.  It helps us understand ourselves and others better, and it enables us both to think new thoughts and dream new dreams.  That’s what the Taliban are so afraid:  they know that education will enable those girls to envision a new future—not only for themselves, but for Pakistan as a whole—and the power of a dream should never be underestimated. 

You might think that Jackie Siegel is much, much better off than Malala Yousafzai—and, in some ways, you would be right:  who wouldn’t rather be sitting in the lap of luxury, rather than lying in a hospital, fighting for your life.  Yet, I can’t help but think that Yousafzai is actually the one to be admired and emulated:  she has put it all on the line for something that really matters, something that really makes a difference:  not only for herself, but for a whole nation—and even for the whole world.  Jackie Siegel?  Not so much; and watching the documentary, you can’t help but come away with the impression that she is much to be pitied.  Nothing is sadder than the spectacle of someone trying to convince herself that money in and of itself is to be valued.  It’s the worst kind of lie we can tell ourselves.

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