Watching a Cambridge student in white tie trying to set fire to a £20 note in front of a homeless man is hardly heartwarming, but the rage unleashed against 18-year-old Ronald Coyne for raising his lighter to some crumpled cash has left me feeling oddly sorry for him.
After Coyne was filmed burning money, he was promptly forced to resign from Cambridge University Conservative Association. It branded the student’s behaviour “disgusting” and “abhorrent”.
A petition now threatens to remove Coyne from university, as students clamour to be the most “shocked” and “appalled” by his actions.
Meanwhile, his poor mother was left desperately stammering, “We’re just a normal family. We’re not toffs,” which is probably true, because no one posh ever uses that word.
“He’s been a hard-working student who is very, very lucky and aware of the privilege he has to study at Cambridge. He spoke to us after the event and said he’d done something very stupid and felt really bad about it.”
Of course, Coyne is a fool. But then he’s a fresher and all kids do stupid stuff. It was especially idiotic to upload his actions to Snapchat so that hundreds of people could watch.
But there he joins a wider social media trend for conspicuous shows of wealth, the most extravagant of which are the Rich Kids of Instagram, who post pictures of themselves spraying bottles of Cristal around private jets and fanning themselves with £50 notes.
Such cash-flashing looks pretty trashy, especially if it is done right in a homeless man’s face. I certainly wouldn’t condone such cruel behaviour, but I don’t find it nearly as annoying as the hypocrisy of Silicon Valley billionaires such as Mark “Fifty Shades of Grey” Zuckerberg, whose normcore wardrobe — worn by the world’s greatest capitalists — is designed to show a lack of interest in money.
Coyne’s pathetic delight in having a £20 note to burn isn’t as irksome as listening to Gwyneth Paltrow trill about how “incredibly close to the common woman” she is while recommending $300 (£240) T-shirts, or seeing Kate Winslet brag that she’s “working class”.
Old money has always been falsely modest about its wealth — wearing holey cashmere sweaters in unheated stately homes. Now the same poorgeois aesthetic has spread to the middle classes, who have developed a taste for poverty-chic: buying expensive eco-rags that make them look as if they’re sleeping rough; spending five times the price of a supermarket shop on dirt-covered vegetables at their local farmers’ market and forking out £600 on washing in a tin bath on a “luxury” glamping holiday.
Such conspicuous displays of poverty from the wealthy feel more offensive than Coyne’s stupidity because they insult not our pockets but our intelligence.
It feels worse to pretend not to have money, because it also means lying about how much money matters and how much it helps. To conceal the significance of money is to deny the realities that keep poor people in their place.
It is telling that it is young people — a generation more cash-strapped than their parents — who are so keen to show how much they have.