The infamous “Pharma Bro,” Martin Shkreli, who went viral half a year ago when he raised the price of the AIDS drug Daraprim by over 4,000 percent, made headlines once again last week as he stood in front of a congressional hearing and pled the Fifth. It was a spectacle. The only question to which he responded with more than the Fifth Amendment referred to the pronunciation of his name: “Ssskre-lee.” The congresswomen and men on the committee stripped themselves of their power to legislate and resorted to a sophisticated form of begging. They pleaded with Shkreli to lower the price. After he left the courtroom, Shkreli tweeted this out.
Hard to accept that these imbeciles represent the people in our government.
— Martin Shkreli (@MartinShkreli) February 4, 2016
As I write this, the showdown is making headlines in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. Shkreli’s smirking face is displayed across the banner of The Atlantic’s new website. As it should be; this is important. But Shkreli’s smirking character in the story of America necessitates a controversial statement:
Privileged America needs Martin Shkreli.
We live in a society that allows a small group of powerful individuals like Shkreli to determine other individuals’ access to material resources. In this story, it’s a pill, but in other stories the resource is food, adequate health care, clean drinking water or even the right to vote. This reality is not hidden. Speak to most people and they will acknowledge the existence of inequality and hierarchies of power, even if they question their origins or relevance to their life.
But instead of confronting the explicit issue inherent in these relations of power, we have developed a coping mechanism: outrage. The explosive and personal attacks on Shkreli after his announcement about the drug’s price gouge last September were resounding and launched from both sides of the socio-political aisle. They were absolutely deserved; his decision caused, and will cause, physical and financial suffering. We were united in our hatred.
As a community, we use outrage as a mechanism of moral disassociation. Shkreli’s actions were legal, so legal disassociation — like jail — is not an option. We use our collective hatred to disassociate ourselves from individuals like Shkreli and their actions. And as we disassociate ourselves from them, we fortify our own moral high ground. We look around at our peers and feel affirmed and content with the situation. The price of Daraprim is high, but at least we’re pissed.
This is why we, as collective America, need Shkreli. Our dramatic performance of outrage requires a face, a villain. We need to broadcast across all networks that Shkreli is not a product of the American system, but a contradiction to it, someone who misunderstands what business, and America, is all about. But our anxious repetition reveals the truth: Shkreli is America and a representation of what we stand for.
Our particularly American form of morality requires outrage in the face of viral disregard for human well-being, but nothing more. It’s a similar sentiment that drives campaigns like Kony 2012 and the ever-so-common profile picture featuring African children. Through our performance of outrage, we, as America, morally justify our unequal system of privilege and fortune that allows inequality and bigotry. We don’t act; we yell, mostly at each other. Our convenient hyper-individuality allows us to hate Shkreli as an individual without questioning our culpability as a democracy that allows his actions.
This is why I must agree with Shkreli’s analysis of Congress in this instance. Even those who we democratically chose to protect us from people like Shkreli resorted to outrage, glares, and pep talks in a room that serves as the altar to the profit incentives that drove Shkreli’s actions.
As the spectacle subsided, Congressman Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, warned Shkreli that he could become the “poster boy for greedy drug company executives.” I disagree; a poster boy for the archetypal evil executive is what Shkreli is now. What he will become is a poster boy for a historical America that was consumed, from the inside, by its own greed.