Our diminishing egalitarian experiences

June 11, 2013

It used to be that our public amusements were the ultimate egalitarian experiences.

Everyone paid the same price for a ticket at a movie theater. The price was the same at a rock concert whether you were 10 feet from the performers or so far away you needed to aim your binoculars at the screens surrounding the stage. Tickets to Broadway shows could actually be had by patrons who had never sampled caviar or who appreciated wine as a drink, not an investment.

Not anymore. Some movie theaters now have specially designated VIP sections with cushier seats, concerts have become stratified by class, where those with the deepest pockets sit closest to the stage or even partake of VIP packages that include limousine service and lavish meals. And seeing a show on the Great White Way now often means ponying up for a ticket equal in cost to a couple of car payments.

Now, unfortunately, some theme parks, which should in theory be the ultimate level playing field for both rich and poor, have introduced VIP packages that allow the moneyed to move to the front of the line and partake of food a good bit more sumptuous than cotton candy in circumstances more elegant than a picnic table with flies swarming around it.

A particularly depressing story that appeared in the Monday edition of The New York Times outlined how Universal Studios in Hollywood has introduced a $299 VIP ticket that includes perks and privileges that the plebes who paid “only” $80 for a ticket will never experience – unlimited line-skipping, perhaps the greatest of all prerogatives during the crowded summer season, along with breakfast and lunch in private dining areas, special access to certain attractions and “amenity kits” that include mints and bottles of hand sanitizer. We suppose the latter is part of the deal in order to remove any of the contaminants the VIPs might acquire should they accidentally encounter anyone in the great unwashed.

The story detailed how a well-off family from Pennsylvania was able to maneuver around the hordes of average Joes and Janes: “The group was subjected to minimal mingling with the masses. … (They) were even able to eat lunch in a private, quiet dining room, sampling items like sake-poached shrimp, New Zealand mussels and New York sirloin from a lavish buffet.” It then noted, “Outside, no-frills ticketholders stood in line for hamburgers at the Flintstones Bar-B-Q pit.”

On the one hand, Universal has clearly found it has patrons willing to pay a handsome price for red-carpet treatment and, like other businesses, if they can enhance their bottom line by doing so, then that is their right. But there’s something disquieting about a society where the most gilded among us are able to sequester themselves away from everyday interactions with the majority of folks who are not as flush with material comforts or disposable income.

And, as the gap between the rich and the poor has grown, we’ve become a less equitable society in areas that truly count for a lot, from the quality of health care to the caliber of education our young people receive. Several studies have shown that the United States has become a less mobile, more class-bound society than the European countries many of our ancestors left in the hope of attaining a greater economic reward in a more fluid, dynamic society.

They probably would not be pleased with a caste system that has their descendants cooling their heels in long, hot lines while the well-heeled are ushered past them.



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