Entitlement, American gentry, and the legacy of Maurice Minniefield

My first semester of college, I had a neighbor who had a nice stereo system. I don’t know anything about stereo systems to I have to take her word that it was nice, or at least expensive.

My neighbor set up her CD player and speakers inside her closet, against the interior wall that separated her closet from my closet, and when she played music loudly, which she liked to do, especially at night, it thumped right into my room. Sometimes I asked her to turn it down, and at one point asked if just in general she could not turn the volume so high because it was just as loud in my room as it was in hers. Or even just keep it off at night. Her response was one of my first encounters with the feeling of entitlement that comes with having money: “What’s the point of having a nice stereo system if you can’t play it?”

I remember having a vague feeling of injustice, of thinking about shared space and why her right to play her pricey stereo system shouldn’t come at the expense of my right to quiet. (So began my long road to having no patience with libertarian ideology.) I was a math major and only took one political science class, so didn’t have a framework for that feeling until many years later, not until I’d lived overseas for a while, gotten married, and moved back to the States to bumble around inarticulately and angrily liberal during the entirety of the George W. Bush administration. I’m still liberal and often angrily so, but I hope more articulate.

Entitlement is a vague thing to try to pin down, an unvocalized feeling that the entitled person somehow has more of a right to exist, to take up space and air and attention, than other people; and a feeling that the fact of their ownership, whether of property or money, gives them an automatic right to it, no matter how that property was gained or at whose expense it’s employed. 

Being wealthy is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for entitlement, but they do often correlate. Entitlement infects our civic and social life and the function of our political system at every level. Why buy an expensive car if you’re not allowed to drive as fast as possible wherever you like? Why own property if you can’t use it for whatever purpose you have in mind? Why finance a politician’s political campaign if you can’t use their influence to forward your own interests?

An example of entitlement that comes to mind a lot, especially when thinking about upper middle class Trump voters, is the character Maurice Minnifield from the TV show Northern Exposure. Not that all entitled people are Trump voters. It’s just that a lot of them remind me of him, especially in rural-ish areas like mine where the local gentry easily maintains a thick cushion from challenge to their worldviews.

For those who don’t know, Northern Exposure was an early 1990s sitcom in which a young Jewish doctor from New York City takes a position as a general practitioner in a small, remote Alaska town in exchange for having his student loans paid off. It’s a plot ripe for rural-urban cultural clashes and stunning scenery shots (the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska, was filmed in Roslyn, Washington).

Maurice Minnifield, one of the show’s main characters, is a Vietnam vet, a retired astronaut, and the town’s wealthiest landowner with 15,000 acres. He is also self-important, pompous, and bigoted. I can’t remember if the show ever delved into how he made his money or if he was born into wealth, but his entitlement is a theme throughout the show. It’s not just that he’s rich and a large landowner, but that he considers these facts as giving him a certain standing in the community, as having a kind of ownership over Cicely and its residents similar to that of an English nobleman over his land and tenant farmers. One manifestation is when Ruth-Anne, who runs the town’s general store, saves up enough money to pay off Maurice’s loan to her for purchasing the store. Maurice’s response to her thrift and the loss of the owner-debtor relationship is to feel a personal sense of betrayal. Ruth-Anne’s freedom from his financial control is an affront.

It’s a sitcom, so the storyline requires that Maurice come to terms with Ruth-Anne’s independence by the end of the episode, but these kinds of relationships exist all over our real lives—particularly in small towns with petty bourgeoisie—and they do not usually end either with freedom from debt (financial or otherwise) or with personal growth on the behalf of the wealthy and entitled.

Like many upper middle class Trump voters today, Maurice is shocked at being called racist when he’s so clearly racist both in obvious ways and also in subtle ways that most mainstream media can’t seem to characterize; and he’s deeply homophobic, inhabiting a revulsion so ingrained that, if the show had lasted long enough to witness the legalization of same-sex marriage, might have seen his character written out of the show.

But it’s his also wealth-given entitlement that explains similar real-life people today. With that kind of entitlement, there’s a sense that no matter what you have or how you acquired it, you have the right to keep it and use it and nobody has the right to question how you got it or how you employ it. No right to ask if your company is built from other people’s underpaid labor, or if your profits come from mining activities that poison other people’s water, or if your use of said wealth, the weight of it, is crushing other people’s ability to survive. Your wealth might have come from slavery or near-slavery, or from pollution that leaves toxins for subsequent generations to grapple with, but legally it’s yours and therefore questioning its virtue and by extension your own virtue is an insult. Maurice would have been deeply offended if anyone questioned the source or use of his wealth, and the world is riddled with people of a similar socioeconomic status who feel the same, who feel that the most they owe society is some kind of noblesse oblige and that we should feel grateful for any generosity they feel like bestowing.

Patrick Wyman, host of the Tides of History podcast and related newsletter, was on a recent episode of the podcast TrashFuture (this is not a podcast I listen to regularly and won’t start because there’s too much banter and not enough information for the amount of time it takes*) talking about some of these issues, and he said a bunch of things that perfectly captured the entitlement aspect of the Maurices of the world:

“It’s very hard for them to accept the fact that the system that produced them and made them people who matter, people whose needs and whims are catered to and who feel like they have some positive role to play in society—the idea that the systems that put them where they are might somehow be bad or might have negative consequences . . . it’s very hard to wrap their heads around.”

Wyman and the podcast hosts were discussing a kind of capitalism divide prevalent in the January 6 attempted insurrection and the movements leading up to it (I think; the banter sometimes made it difficult to grasp the conversation thread), which they said was partly a result of two different kinds of capital opposed to each other, “the Davos guys versus the boat dealership guys,” a “revolt of the regional elites, the regional gentry.”

Who comprises regional gentry rather than the international über-wealthy is something Wyman got into in a newsletter he wrote about the kinds of wealth you see in the power players of small towns and mid-sized cities—not the ilk of the Koch and Mercer families, but people who run McDonald’s franchises or large local construction companies. People who are much better off than you’d think but who also work hard. People like car dealership owners, which made perfect sense to me—the owner of the local Subaru and Chevy dealership where I live seems to be incredibly well off, and there’s no other place within hours to buy a Subaru. A pity because he’s also the head of the Montana Republican Party, which I wouldn’t mind so much if he hadn’t become more vocally right-wing and anti-democracy over the past few years. 

These are people, Wyman points out, who derive their wealth from ownership of actual, physical assets rather than from salaries like a doctor or lawyer or hedge fund manager would.

“Wherever they live, their wealth and connections make them influential forces within local society. . . . We’re not talking about international oligarchs; these folks’ wealth extends into the millions and tens of millions rather than the billions. There are, however, a lot more of them than the global elite that tends to get all of the attention. . . . It’s not hard to spot vast apple orchards or sprawling vineyards and figure out that the person who owns them is probably wealthy; it’s harder to intuitively grasp that a single family might own seventeen McDonald’s franchises in eastern Tennessee, or the kind of riches the ownership of the third-biggest construction company in Bakersfield might generate.”

It’s ownership, Wyman said in the TrashFuture podcast, that creates the basic divide between the two kinds of ruling capital. “To what extent is ownership central to your identity? The more central ownership is, the more likely you are to fall on the right side of that spectrum.” Maurice Minniefield of Cicely, Alaska, most definitely saw himself as an owner. He owned many of the town’s assets and envisioned building—and benefiting from—more, and would have come down hard on any resistance he met against his right to use his assets as he saw fit, including his 15,000 acres. Maurice, in a way, straddled the identities of both kinds of capital that Wyman speaks of, and embodied their entitlement at the same time.

A real-life example closer to the Davos end of the capital class, or maybe somewhere in between, was recently covered in a feature in High Country News: When Gunnison County, Colorado, tried to exile non-resident homeowners (who tend to extreme wealth; David Koch owns a vacation home there) in the early months of the pandemic, those property owners fought back, but in ways that demonstrated entitlement rather than relying on either the law or by showing their commitment to the health of the community.

Whether banning non-resident homeowners from staying in their homes was a wise or legal choice for the county isn’t something I know enough about to comment on (legally it seems pretty sketchy), but the homeowners’ responses reflected not arguments for what would be best for the community or what their own legal rights were but what they personally felt entitled to no matter the consequences to anyone else. In addition to setting up a PAC to raise money to unseat county commissioners and replace them with more congenial candidates, a group of non-resident owners set up a private Facebook group as they worked against the ban, and some of the comments that have become public were . . . telling. 

“‘People who rely on others for their livelihoods should not bite the hand that feeds them,’ wrote one second-home owner.”

“‘Where is the appreciation and gratitude for the decades of generosity?’ wrote another.” 

“‘Maybe don’t run your mouth so much on social media when you depend on those people to help pay your bills,’ one Facebook commenter wrote.”

“According to the second-home owners,” wrote the author of the article, Nick Bowlin, “Gunnison County’s economic survival and most of its residents’ livelihoods depend on their economic contributions and continued goodwill.”

It’s easy to see the logic of this thinking, but it also shouldn’t take that much work to pause, for a moment, and comprehend more fully the expectations of those who see themselves not as integrated members of a community, but as generous and gracious people of means to whom local residents should be grateful but for whom the health of that community itself is a matter of choice and leisure rather than necessity. People who have no bonds to the community itself but still feels it owes them something. When I buy books from the local bookstore, I don’t expect the clerks or owner to be grateful to me. I am part of my community, interdependent with it; the continued existence of the bookstore and the coffee shops and the library and all the small downtown businesses also make my life whole. I am grateful to them. It is their existence that makes our community thrive, along with the hard work and mostly non-monetary contributions of people who live here. When the non-resident homeowners of Gunnison County lambasted a local restaurant server who’d publicly disagreed with them—“One of those big mouths is slinging drinks for tips—I’ll be sure to leave her a little tip,” wrote one of the Facebook group’s members—it was clear that what those residents expect is not service but subservience.

(Somewhat beside the point here, but it’s worth pointing out that escaping this kind of landed gentry vs. villein or tenant relationship is exactly what drove so many people like my ancestors out of Europe and into the American West.)

Bowlin tried to talk about the wealth divide in Gunnison County with Jim Moran, who launched the PAC to attempt a takeover of the county commission and whose vacation home in Crested Butte is worth, according to Zillow (referenced in the article), $4.3 million:

“I pointed out Gunnison County’s housing shortage to Moran, who, from 2008-2011, was an advisor of the private equity firm Lone Star Funds—the biggest buyer of distressed mortgage securities in the world after the 2008 financial crisis. After the crash, the firm acquired billions in bad mortgages and aggressively foreclosed on thousands of homes, according to TheNew York Times. I asked Moran if, compared to locals who struggle to pay rent, people who own two or more properties should be considered wealthy. ‘I think that’s wrong,’ he replied.”

Once you’re in a position of wealth and power and mostly surrounded by people who are the same, it can be very, very difficult to see yourself as wealthy, or powerful, much less to understand how your position affects the lives of everyone around you. Of the more small-fry but locally large-fish gentry dependent on their assets, Wyman said that, “These people exist in a world that caters to them.” That characterization applies to both types of capital classes and most of the spectrum in between. I don’t think my former neighbor in college was from serious wealth, but she was pretty well off, and I could easily see her going from insisting she had a right to turn up her music to becoming of those non-resident homeowners making entitled comments on Facebook.

“So what do we know about them, these vocal second-home owners?,” wrote Bowlin in High Country News. “They worked hard for everything they own. They are clear on this. Their critics, they believe, are often motivated by jealousy. ‘I’m certainly not “rich.” I’ve worked for my entire life to have the properties I own,’ wrote one group member.”

Properties. First of all, owning more than one property of the type described in the article, in a country where millions of children go hungry every day is, yes, rich, no matter how hard you’ve worked. Secondly, we have a problem when the very fact of ownership becomes its own justification. How is that wealth gained? At whose expense? And what impact is one’s ownership having on the local community? As someone who also lives in a resort town with a high percentage of non-resident homeowners, this is not a minor question. Wealth that translates into property ownership frequently has a terrible and nearly immediate downstream effect on the affordability of homes for people who live and work in that community full-time that cannot be counterbalanced by a few dinners out. Ownership in and of itself is not a value-neutral position.

I can see Maurice Minniefield now, nearly 25 years after Northern Exposure went off the air. He’d have spent the last couple decades increasingly annoyed at being called racist and homophobic but also increasingly entrenched in those positions because it wouldn’t occur to him to question his own perspective. He’d maybe be initially appalled by Donald Trump’s absolute lack of morals, but their common membership in the owner class would override much of that disgust, and the opportunity to be released from the obligation of changing how he viewed other people would be tempting. 

A property owner and developer like Maurice might think that Trump would understand the necessity—for the good of the economy! of the country!—of reducing his taxes and releasing him from burdensome regulations. He could then use his assets to benefit the community because he had a strong sense of noblesse oblige; he just wanted his contributions acknowledged and, in a way, bowed down to. What that community itself saw as a benefit wouldn’t matter; they should be grateful that he was willing to use his wealth to bring jobs and amenities to their isolated town. The character of Maurice was written as a war veteran and a retired astronaut—creative choices that complicated his sense of worth in ways that benefit Northern Exposure’s story arcs. He had a strong sense of service that was evident in his personal history. But it was his wealth that saturated him with a sense of entitlement, that made him believe he knew better than others what was good for them and what was good for the world.

“Equating wealth,” wrote Wyman,

“especially generational wealth, with virtue and ability is a deeply American pathology. This country loves to believe that people get what they deserve, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary. Nowhere is this more obviously untrue than with our gentry class. They stand at the apex of the social order throughout huge swathes of the country, and shape our economic and political world thanks to their resources and comparatively large numbers, yet they’re practically invisible in our popular understanding of these things.”

Entitlement whitewashes wealth within the owner’s own mind. It makes all that they do and think automatically valuable. It grants them, they believe, the absolute right to do whatever they like with their property regardless of the consequences to other people. And just like the problems of white supremacy and white nationalism, entitlement isn’t the sole province of high-profile stories located in a few specific enclaves. It’s everywhere.

And if the rest of us do benefit from the choices the entitled make in how to employ their wealth and property? Well, we should be grateful that they’re willing to share—or, at the very least, grateful that they’re begrudgingly willing to turn down their music once in a while and throw a few tips our direction.

*TrashFuture is described in my Apple podcast feed as a “comedy show about late stage capitalism f*****g our lives up,” and I like the concept and have absolutely nothing against banter but as someone who’s spent over a decade as a primary caregiver to children I have little patience or time for thought-interrupters. When I listen to a podcast it’s because I want to spend time deep in thought with whatever they’re presenting. I’ve got kids to provide banter.