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SPOTLIGHT
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Power, freedom and vulnerability

Published on -12/4/2012, 10:04 AM

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Imagine a letter signed, "Your Boss." He/she would have your attention, yes? So consider a letter sent by the boss portrayed in the movie "Queen of Versailles."

For those not lucky enough to see the recent documentary, here's the story: Time-share magnate and multi-millionaire David Siegel marries his third and much-younger dream-trophy-wife, Mrs. America Jacqueline. They proceed to have seven children, because they can -- with servant help.

They begin building the largest house in the U.S. It's 90,000 square feet, modeled on the Palace of Versailles and built, symbolically enough, on reclaimed swamp land. Not exactly sand, but close. Gorgeous marble -- $5 million worth -- lies in the basement, awaiting installation.

But suddenly, the system seizes up. The greed-induced 2008 financial crisis washes over them. Their foundations are shaken. In a turn unexpected by both filmmaker and subject, the Siegels find themselves awash in debt. They wallow in a dream world turned nightmare. David, deeply depressed, spends each waking moment salvaging his company. He hides out from the now-nearly maidless shambles of his estate, shouting at his kids to turn off unnecessary lights from the shelter of his darkened, document-strewn office cave. Jackie shops at Walmart, bemoaning the fact that, like the rest of their fellow commoners, they must struggle to make it. We see them, in short, as real human beings. The film ends.

Then comes 2012. Cash returns to the big players. David, in the glow of the film's success, now claims his Westgate Resort timeshares will be solvent in 2 1/2 years. He restarts construction of his Versailles estate, hoping to sell it for $100 million.

Then, just before the election, he sends a letter to his 8,000 employees, telling them how to vote. Vote as you wish, he says, but ... "The economy has changed for the worse, (and a threat to your jobs is]) another four years of the same presidential administration."

Siegel's humanity disappears. He becomes obsessed with controlling his employees' vote -- and their free will. The letter reveals his self-pitying egotism. "Most of you arrive at work in the morning and leave that afternoon. The rest of your time is yours to do as you please. But not me. When you leave the office, you are done and you have a weekend all to yourself. I unfortunately do not have that freedom. There is no rest. There is no weekend. There is no happy hour."

This millionaire's near-religious martyr-playing does not fly. Over-indulgent luxury becomes self-sacrifice. Bread and wine becomes body and blood. This is not mass, but massive delusion.

In Salina, another letter was issued (the Sunday before the election) telling folks how to vote. A letter from the Salina Diocese's new bishop. A letter suggesting that a vote against LGBT protections was really a vote for religious freedom -- the church's freedom -- to maintain its doctrinal bastion around matters sexual. A letter whose impact, given the local issue, was likely much greater than Siegel's.

What's important here is not argument, but motivation. Siegel urged voting against the present President to protect his company's relative tax-light status (the "free market"), preserving business as usual. The bishop urged his flock to vote against the current city ordinance to protect his organization's inhibition-free status ("freedom of religion"), preserving business as usual.

To their credit, both men are devoted to their enterprises. In fact, if we display compassion, these bosses are mere vulnerable fellow humans.

"Queen of Versailles" portrays the Siegels as exactly that. And the bishop is an unlikely ogre. Credit him for making considerable life sacrifices in the service of the Lord.

We are all afflicted by this malady, as shown by a new viral talk by researcher Brene Brown, "The Power of Vulnerability." All of us are vulnerable. When we knowingly or unknowingly numb ourselves to what we sense threatens us, however, we sacrifice an essential tool for navigating uncertain times -- joy and human connection.

On a human level, Siegel and the Bishop's actions are understandable. But powerful persons should be required to exercise responsibility, even in their vulnerability.

Both men's responses in fact distanced them from real solutions -- and from real human connection with their flock or humanity. All in the interest of preserving (their) status quo.

We need less hogging and more hugging. Less fear and more fairness. And laws -- until we get past our knee-jerk fright about the new world a-comin' -- that protect any citizen vulnerable to discrimination.

David Norlin, a resident of Salina and McCracken native, is a retired English and communications professor from Cloud County Community College and chairman of the Salina Human Relations Commission.

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