Monday, August 30, 2010

The Paradox of “Humble Origins”

There was a slide show on the Internet a couple of weeks ago, and the subject was the “humble origins” of the people who are now seen as being, basically, in charge of everything – especially your fate, your future, your pocketbook. These are, as Tom Wolfe put it, the “masters of space and time”; they have somehow, mysteriously, ascended to the heights of material, secular power – which means they are masters of everything that counts in this totally materialistic world, where merit is measured solely by one's portfolio. Truly, the “prosperity gospel” has never been as widely recognized as the ultimate truth as it is at this moment – the rich are, by definition, meritorious, and everyone else is, basically, a schmuck. And, I should note, this attitude stands side-by-side with the concept of the “noble poor” -- but the difference is that the rich, by and large, got to where they are through their own efforts, which, in America, is still considered a valid basis for “extra credit”. The poor may be noble, but they are victims as well, which means that any “merit” they have is not so much individual as collective – and we see this in the politics of victimization, where people are defined by their race/gender/ethnic group/sexual preference rather than as individuals. Whereas when it comes to the masters of space of time, it's all about individualism, and heaven forbid it should ever be attributed to race, gender, or ethnic group – although, truth be told, it never hurts to be a male WASP, especially if you don't have any other competencies (think: George W. Bush).

And there are paradoxes even within the ranks of the rich and powerful. Some can be shown to have gotten to where they are through sheer talent, ambition, and social dominance – and possibly a bit of sharp dealing as well. But even within these ranks there are the hangers-on... the underachieving sons... the left-behind brothers... you know the type, like the guy who wound up shot in the rowboat in the “Godfather” sequel. Family ties are important... but they are not the last word. At some point, the ones with ambition have to leave the losers behind... and we have seen this any number of times in politics as well as business and finance. Every family has its “dreamers”, and the way they are dealt with is worth at least one large volume. The paradox, of course, is that these “dreamers” may, in fact, be the most moral members of the family in question – but that is part of their problem, and the reason why they have to be put away. What I'm saying is that the Regime is not immune to the awkward effects of DNA and “diversity”. The robber baron of yesterday may give rise to the Medieval poetry major of today; there are many stories of this sort. And what happens when said poetry major comes into his inheritance? Well, they don't – I mean, not really. Because by that time the vast fortunes accumulated by the strong, “alpha-type” parent have been placed into the competent hands of a “trust”, and that trust is administered by the coldest, most hard-hearted human beings on the planet. So wealth has a curious way of becoming self-perpetuating in the sense that it becomes immune to human foibles – it becomes an entity unto itself. Can anyone claim that the major “foundations” are dependent, for their management and guidance, on the whims of any one descendant of the original family? The ones that are – or were – are quickly liquidated. Only a competent “management team” that shares, or defines, the values of the controlling elite, is capable of keeping a given locus of wealth alive and well. This, of course, is both the plus and the downside of membership in the elite – you have all the privileges but you also have to conform to the standards and mores of the group. Otherwise, you are cast out – and in these times, idiosyncratic, non-conforming wealth is a rare thing, if it exists at all. All of the rich have membership, or at least a courtesy card, with the controlling elite – if not, they are quickly and firmly dealt with.

Having said all this, we go back to what I call the paradox of humble origins – the fact that, indeed, many of the people who can be said to be “in charge” came from backgrounds that were not at all promising. They were, in other words, indistinguishable from the vast mass of individuals who had opportunities... but at some point those opportunities were taken up with vigor by a few, and passed by by all the rest. So what can be said about the rich? Well, by American standards, they are, by definition, the most meritorious, superior beings in the country, if not in the world. Because in America, merit is defined by one thing, and one thing only: net worth in dollars. And this is not simply a “materialistic” phenomenon; it goes back to the very origins of Protestantism and its notions as to what constitutes merit – or a “sign of grace”. At some point, the Sermon on the Mount got turned on its head, and, as Dickens points out in a number of his novels, wealth – or at least prosperity, or comfort – was accepted as the chief sign of favor from God, and the poor were considered... well, if not cursed, than surely forsaken. This is why there was such ambivalence about the merits of material charity in the 19th Century – with an attitude perhaps not much different from the Hindus, the notion was, maybe the poor, on some level, deserve their state... and certainly the rich deserve theirs, because they are, demonstrably, more ambitious, more persistent, and more resourceful than the vast majority of humanity. Totally forgotten was “Blessed are the poor...” and so on.

What I'm saying is there is nothing new about this attitude – it has been with us almost from the start. And in one sense, it is uniquely American – I mean, Europe at least had a dissenting voice in Rousseau... and I suppose we did as well, in Thoreau. But the American "meme" has always been one of infinite opportunity, expansion, "progress", and devil take the hindmost. Admittedly, there have always been people who claimed that being poor was not, by definition, a shameful thing. And yet, the main force of the American mystique has been in the opposite direction – that there is nothing wrong with being born poor (the “born in a log cabin” idea), but to stay poor, with all the opportunities surrounding you on all sides – well, that's a disgrace. And again, there is an ambivalence – the “poor” are treated with great gobs of charity, but along with it comes paternalism and condescension – and mainly, mechanisms for insuring that the poor stay that way (at least by definition). (The liberals are absolute masters at this -- but the "conservatives" are starting to catch on as well.) In simplistic terms, we need the poor in order to feel rich. The poor, like the incarcerated, have a role to play – and that is to make the rest of us feel better... more resourceful... more ambitious... more energetic. The society matron who spoons out chicken soup once a month at the homeless shelter is greatly edified by the experience; it is now confirmed, without a doubt, that she is not only lucky but also full of merit. And the only price she has to pay for this assurance is her failure to always stay upwind of the homeless.

So... now that it has been established to everyone's satisfaction that only money counts, we confront, once again, the paradox of humble origins. And the main question is, if the majority of the elite come from humble origins, why do they seem to have so much trouble empathizing with the poor... or the ordinary, the struggling, the non-privileged? Why, in other words, do they seem to spend every waking moment plotting ways to enhance their own wealth at the expense of everyone else? Don't they look at the faces of the working class and see their own – or at least those of their parents? Why do they delight in enslaving everyone who does not share their ambitions or talents? And – do they differ, in this respect, from those who were born to wealth?

Now, when it comes to the “silver spoon” crowd... well, to begin with, it's notorious that the scions of wealthy families are notorious underachievers – not all, but a great number. Is this because the talent for making money is simply not one of those things that can be passed down from one generation to the other? Or does it have to do with some sort of Freudian syndrome – the dominant, powerful father vs. the submissive son who simply can never quite measure up? Much has been said, for example, about George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush in this regard. Are the sons of the powerful fathers doomed in this respect? But there are plenty of stories that seem to contradict this – stories of sons who, while not dominant in the raw, primitive way their fathers were, have nonetheless made their mark and vindicated their heritage. They have earned, in other words, what they were born to. In many cases they have achieved more than their fathers – at least in some other areas of endeavor. (My favorite example is Avery Cardinal Dulles, the son of John Foster Dulles.)

The least one can say about those “born to the purple” is that, if they have the least bit of insight, they will realize that their rank in life is based largely on circumstances they had absolutely nothing to do with. This – shall we say -- “royal humility” is a rare thing, but not unheard of... and one might even count it as a factor in, for example, the Kennedy brothers' apparent concern for the poor and underprivileged over the years. (Some might call it “liberal guilt” as well. I challenge anyone to define the difference when it comes to cases like the Kennedys.) In any case, I say this is all to the good – better than a wealthy family spinning off nothing but worthless playboys who spend all of their time on yachts, in sports cars, and in Monte Carlo casinos. But there is another facet of all this as well, which is a common lack of ambition – at least in the material sense. If you're born with, and inherit, more money than almost anyone else has, what possible motivation do you have for making more? Sure, you're going to hang on to what you have – thanks to an army of advisors – but spend time plotting to get even more? This does not seem to be a priority activity among those who were born wealthy -- and, frankly, that's a good thing. I always say, vote for the rich man because he's less likely to be bribed.

But those who are from “humble origins” -- ah, that's a different matter. These are cases where a person starts out indistinguishable from tens of millions of other “unwashed” -- and yet, by hook or crook, manages to surpass them all and become their master. Now what is his mind set? Some would say he is the perpetual “arriviste” -- the nouveau riche – and as such, feels a kind of perpetual inferiority to those whose ranks he has recently joined. He's in the same position, in other words, as the guy attending his first “upper-crust” social function, wearing the first tuxedo he's ever owned. Even if he could buy and sell half the people there, he still feels inferior – an outsider. This is the popular conception, but I say that it is, by and large, totally in error. The “self-made man” in the company of the silver-spoon, prep-school crowd has every reason to feel superior – at least by American, egalitarian standards... for he did it all on his own, with no help from name, family, breeding, race, creed, or anything else. Because while money is the sole measure of merit in our society, it still counts as to how one obtained it. “Trust fund babies” are considered... well... a bit decadent and superfluous – and so many of them are! (I've met a few.) These are people who, perhaps through no fault of their own, might qualify – based on their own merits – for a day-labor job, but not much of anything else. Who are they compared to a guy who grew up in Hell's Kitchen and made his first million by the time he was 30? In the American scheme of things, they are so much chaff in the wind... and he is rock-solid (and market-wise). They might have grown up in “the Hamptons” and attended “The ____ School”, and the Ivy League, but this rough-and-tumble guy from Delancy Street could eat them for breakfast... and they know it, and he knows it, and they know he knows it, and he knows they know it, and.... et cetera.

So then, how does one define “merit” in this society? Is it only about bank balances, or something more? Because Americans do have an ambivalence towards wealth, and “royalty” -- they admire it, but resent it at the same time. Even if “any boy born in a log cabin can become president”, it makes more sense in a way for some boy born in a mansion in Westchester County... it satisfies our atavistic longing for rank and hierarchy. But the “self-made man” -- ah! There is the ideal American type. He does not carry the burden of inherited wealth that is so inimical to the American ideal... but at the same time he is wealthy; he is the Horatio Alger story come to life. And as such, he is the ideal candidate... not only for political office, but for any other position of esteem we choose to elevate him to. (And in case you're skeptical as to the sheer force of this idea, I invite you to attend any Amway rally. You will go home a believer, trust me.)

But what does the “self-made man” think of himself? -- especially in contrast to the vast majority who were left behind in the race to the top? He thinks – and I'm speculating here, I admit, but I'm willing to bet that I'm right most of the time – that those others are all wimps, cowards, and underachievers... and that they deserve to be left behind in the dust, and that he deserves to be placed on high and made a judge over them, and a sealer of their various and pathetic fates. Yes – he of humble origins is now the strong man, and his attitude toward the bulk of humanity is that if they had had any ambition, they would be sharing the throne... but they didn't, and they don't, and that's all there is to it. They have, in other words, chosen their lot, which is to be slaves, serfs, servants... that's all they are good for, while he, on the other hand, has shown his mettle and is suited to be their master, because... who better? If he is superior to them in every way that counts, isn't it only right, and just, that he should be their master and judge, and they should be his subjects and slaves? Isn't that the way the world has worked, from time immemorial? Wouldn't it be a gross distortion of nature to try and arrange things any other way? (They don't read Nietzsche, but if they did they would find a kindred soul.) So he is secure in his position, and in his self-assessment... and the masses are, well... they can take it or leave it, basically. It they take it, they will enjoy the peace that comes with a life sentence... and if they leave it, they will be hunted down like the renegades they are, and suitably dealt with.

Now, you will notice, in all this, that at no point is there any mention of morals, or ethics, or righteousness... or of charity... and certainly not of “egalitarianism”, or “democracy”, or “the people” (except in the role of slaves). These are ideas that have now been firmly relegated to the ash heap, in the light of the “final solution” to the problem of the undeserving having any freedom... and of the “bourgeoisie” and “kulaks” having any resources (or anything to leave to their children). We have arrived at the same point as any primitive tribe on some South Pacific island when Captain Cook showed up – one strong man, a bunch of goons, and everyone else in a state of slavery. But, as it is all writ very large, the “strong man” is now called “the Regime” -- i.e. a cabal of strong man, working in unison... the “goons” are called “congresses, parliaments, and administrations”... and the “slaves” are called the working class and the “middle class” (or what is left of it).

And when it comes to “humble origins” -- this is not an insurance against tyranny. In fact, it is, if anything, a natural conduit to tyranny – due, for certain, to the human condition and to our evil nature. All it takes is a bit of power, or money, and then come the comparisons of our own lot to those of the rabble... and then comes a warm feeling of merit (deserved, of course) and superiority... and then comes the notion that, by rights, one should not only enjoy one's own prosperity but should be entitled to rule over the rest of humanity... and, with the resources to make it so, comes tyranny. Thus, from humble origins comes much evil... and it is not the fault of poverty, nor of wealth per se, but of plain fallible human nature and concupiscence.

How does one define a true saint? A person of humble origins who remains humble no matter what riches life sends his way. And how many of those do we see among the pantheon of the world's elite in our time? I have yet to find one – and is it because it's impossible by definition? I would say, not impossible but wildly improbable. It is an exclusive club... and no one is admitted who does not share the world view of all the rest.

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