[From the German “Schaden” meaning harm and “Freude” meaning joy. Oxford English Dictionary: “malicious enjoyment of another’s misfortune.”]
By Henry Pollard / Special to The Malibu Times
Schadenfreude (SF) is one of our baser emotions. It has a ubiquity that causes it to surface with much greater frequency than we care to admit. One of SF’s many first cousins is envy, another unattractive and pervasive emotion. Who does not fantasize exchanging places, if only temporarily, with say Tiger Woods, Robert Redford or Hillary Rodham Clinton-or, in earlier days, with say Cary Grant, Princess Grace or JFK? While each of us may have different choices, don’t we all have some special person who is the object of our envy?
In addition to envy there is another element required to make one SF-eligible. The aforementioned celebrities lack it and, therefore, do not make the cut. They lack hubris! [OED: from the Greek, “excessive pride or defiance of the gods leading to nemesis.”] Hubris, or its milder version, chutzpah, is a sine qua non. To be SF-worthy you must not only have enviable wealth or fame but you must flaunt it, the more ostentatiously the better. You must disdain conventional codes of behavior that ordinary mortals follow. You must make your own rules.
Finally, there is the most terrible SF requirement-the fall from grace. To merit SF-ness one must experience a disastrous plunge from Olympian heights into ignominy and public disgrace, the more Shakespearean in magnitude the better. Icarus must arrogantly fly too close to the sun and then plummet earthward to his death.
Current business news provides a wealth of members for the SF rogues’ gallery, and it grows daily. Consider the following, all of whom extracted exorbitant compensation from their companies and reveled in lavish lifestyles. Their downfall resulted in huge losses to shareholders, employees and creditors and, in some cases, bankruptcy.
Dennis Kozlowski, formerly head of Tyco International, being prosecuted for larceny and securities fraud, is the poster boy for corporate avarice. He allegedly charged his company for his wife’s birthday bash in Sardinia, and thousands of dollars for a wastepaper basket and shower curtain for a company apartment that he exclusively used. Richard Scrushy, who lived high on the hog and then laid low Healthsouth Corp., has been indicted for accounting fraud. Ditto for the Rigas, pere et fils, who drove Adelphia Communications into bankruptcy after “borrowing” several billions from the company. Bernie Ebbers, erstwhile CEO of bankrupt WorldCom, has been convicted and awaits sentencing. There is Kenneth Lay and the rest of the Enron gang, some of whom have already plea-bargained, and the balance await trial.
The doyen of gracious living, Martha Stewart, is not on everyone’s SF list; many feel she was unfairly targeted. She is on mine-this elegant lady lied to cover up a greedy effort to make a few thousand dollars selling stock on inside information. She caused her stockholders to lose millions. My Columbia Law School classmate, Judge Miriam Cedarbaum, properly sent her to the slammer. From the political arena of the last century, Richard Nixon and Senator Joseph McCarthy are charter SF members. Both were saturated with hubris and both ended their careers in well-deserved disgrace. Their hubris was more dangerous than the financial greed of the business people mentioned above, since it threatened to undermine the fabric of our democratic system. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, does not merit inclusion. His hubris was libidinous at most and, moreover, he survived his impeachment.
A looming SF prospect is Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, formerly the autocratic numero uno of AIG, one of the world’s largest insurance companies until the regulators forced his resignation. AIG has already announced accounting improprieties that evaporated almost $2 billion dollars of net worth, exposing only the tip of the iceberg. Its stock price has suffered drastically. Recently, Greenberg voluntarily ceased being a multibillionaire and reduced himself to multimillionaire status by giving the bulk of his fortune to his wife-a likely vain attempt to shield it from the deluge of impending stockholder lawsuits. I single him out because our paths crossed several years ago.
My office was in the Century City tower in which AIG has its West Coast headquarters. One day I walked into the lobby and spotted Greenberg and a dark-suited entourage moving toward an elevator bank. I recognized him from his newspaper photos and the AIG Annual Report I had seen. He is short, slim and wears a thin smile. His companions were taller and only they carried briefcases. I followed them into an elevator and just as the door was closing a stocky, middle-aged man hurried in after us. He immediately addressed Greenberg with a rapid-fire litany of gratitude. He said he was an AIG stockholder and thanked him profusely and repeatedly for all the money he had made on his stock. Throughout this paean Greenberg nodded slowly, expanded his thin smile slightly and murmured thank yous. I would not have been surprised to see the man genuflect, kiss Greenberg’s ring and receive his blessing.
We all got out on the top floor. Greenberg and his group moved away and the man and I remained at the elevator. He punched the down button. You see, we both had chosen to ride up in the elevator with the Great Man simply because we had had the opportunity to do so. As we descended, my companion rocked back and forth fairly bursting with joy and repeating over and over, “What a man!” I would guess that he probably continued to hold his AIG stock. I wonder how he feels today about his idol. For my part, not being a stockholder, I have no malice toward Mr. G. I just hope he gets his just desserts.