Privilege (Twice!), Class, and Collectivism

May 22, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Privilege* is the title of Shamus Khan’s 2011 study of St. Paul’s, an elite New England prep school where he had been a student. The difference between the new elite and the old is the difference between “entitlement” and “privilege.”

Whereas elites of the past were entitled – building their worlds around the “right” breeding, connection, and culture – new elites develop privilege: a sense of self and a mode of interaction that advantage them. The old entitled elites constituted a class that worked to construct moats and walls around the resources that advantaged them. The new elite think of themselves as far more individualized, supposing that their position is a product of what they have done.

Privilege** is also the title of Ross Douthat’s 2005 memoir of Harvard, an elite New England university where he had been a student. He sees the same evolution from the old entitlement (the “right to rule”) to the new privilege.

Ruling classes have always believed in their own right to rule, but it once was understood ... that their place in the social order was arbitrary, an accident of birth and breeding, rather than a matter of cosmic justice. Ideals of noblesse oblige grew from just this sense: the knowledge that God (or blind chance) had given the elite much that was not necessarily deserved.

The modern elite’s rule is regarded not as arbitrary but as just and right and true, at least if one follows the logic of meritocracy to its unspoken conclusion. For today’s Harvard students ... there is nothing accidental or random about their position in society. They belong exactly where they are – the standardized tests and the college admissions officers have spoken, and their word is final.

At Harvard, and at similar schools around the country, a privileged class of talented students sits atop the world, flush with pride in their own accomplishments, secure in the knowledge that they rule because they deserve to rule, because they are the best

For both authors, the new elite see themselves and the world through the lens of individualism. The old elite saw themselves as a class. For Khan, the crucial function of that class was to protect its economic and political advantages (“walls around the resources that advantaged them”). Douthat, though he uses the old Marxist term “ruling class,” emphasizes their sense of humility and social obligation (“ideals of noblesse oblige”).

The irony is that Douthat, the conservative, dislikes a system based on individual merit; he seems to prefer the more collectivist elites of the past.  (That picture of the past is necessarily romanticized and heavily edited).  This is quite a contrast with an older conservative, William F. Buckley, Jr., one of Douthat’s heroes and early benefactors. Buckley’s first book was about Yale. Like Douthat’s book about Harvard, it could have been called That Really Famous College I Just Graduated From – Here’s Why It Sucks. For Buckley, the big problem was godless atheism. The actual title was God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom.”  

I believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.

That was then – 1951.  Three generations later, at Harvard (and presumably Yale) individualism is the only view left standing. That ascendance didn’t go the way Buckley would have wanted it. These campuses are largely liberal and godless, politically correct and feminist. But the young elites there see themselves as individuals, not as members of some class or collectivity.  To quote once more from Shamus Khan:

[The elite] have gone from seeing themselves as a coherent group, a class with particular histories and tastes, to a collection of the most talented and hardest working of our nation. They look more diverse, by which I mean that they now include members formerly excluded. They have rejected moat and fence building around particular resources and qualities that might identify then as a class and have accepted the fundamentally American story of “work hard, get ahead.” They think in terms of their individual traits, capacities, skills, talents, and qualities.    

* The full title is Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.

** The full title is Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class.

No, No, a Thousand Times No

May 21, 2015 
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Financial Times wants me to tweet this quote from Martin Wolf, “widely considered to be one of the world's most influential writers on economics” (Wikipedia).

I admit, there is tweet temptation. But not for the reason the FT thinks.  No, what strikes me in this quote is the multiple negatives. They leave me utterly confused as to what the passage means. Here’s a simplified version.

It is impossible to believe that the government cannot find investments . . . that do not earn more than the real cost of funds. If that were not true, the UK would be finished.

The first sentence has three negatives. The next sentence not only has another negative, but it throws in a mysterious pronoun – that. If you can figure out what that is referring to, you’re a better reader than I am.

I have posted before (here most recently) about the confusion of negatives that carom about, reversing and re-reversing the direction of the sentence. Yet here we have one of the word’s most influential writers tossing one negative on top of another, and another. Personally, I find it impossible not to believe that writers can’t learn not to avoid simplifying their prose by using positive constructions.

Don Draper Meets the Chicago School

May 20, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the next-to-last episode of “Mad Men,” Don Draper has walked out of an important meeting at work and driven to Wisconsin searching for a waitress he had a brief affair with. Not finding her, he now continues to Kansas and Oklahoma. He is on the road.  The reference point though is not Kerouac but a much earlier book. The title of the episode is “The Milk and Honey Route.”

Nels Anderson was a “Chicago school” sociologist, a student of Park and Burgess in the 1920s. That school produced what we would now call urban ethnographies – Harvey Zorbaugh’s The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago’s Near North Side (1929) or Paul Cressey’s The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life (1932).  Perhaps the first of these ethnographies was Anderson’s The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man (1923).

In 1931,Anderson also published a more popular treatment of the same material. He used a pen name, Dean Stiff. The book was The Milk and Honey Route.

(Older readers: if the cover art looks vaguely familiar, that’s because the illustrator,
Ernie Bushmiller, was the creator of the comic strip “Nancy,” which began in 1938.)

The road the real hobo follows is never ending. It is always heading into the sunset of promise but it never fully keeps its promise. Thus the road the hobo roams always beckons him on, much as does the undealt card in a game of stud. Every new bend of the road is disillusioning but never disappointing, so that once you get the spirit of the hobo you never reach the stone wall of utter disillusionment. You follow on hopefully from one bend of the road to another, until in the end you step off the cliff.

Substitute “Don Draper” for “hobo” in that paragraph, and you get something you might have read this week in one of the many appreciations of “Mad Men.”

Do Liberals Fail the Churches?

May 18, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ross Douthat calls out liberals who think, and declare, that churches today are more focused on “culture war” issues like abortion and homosexuality than on poverty.       

Ridiculous, says Douthat.  Religious organizations spend only “a few hundred million dollars” on pro-life causes and “traditional marriage” but tens of billions on charities, schools, and hospitals.  (His column “Do Churches Fail the Poor?” is here.)

Those numbers shouldn’t be surprising, especially since much of religion’s spending goes to the developing world while the culture war is being fought almost entirely within the US. Unfortunately, Douthat and his sources lump all spending together rather than separating domestic US budgets from those going to the developing world.  But even in the US and other wealthy countries, abortion and gay marriage are largely legislative and legal matters. Building schools and hospitals and then keeping them running – that takes real money.

Why then do liberals get this impression about the priorities of religious organizations? Douthat blames the media. He doesn’t do a full O’Reilly and accuse the media (liberal, it goes without saying) and others of ganging up in a war on religion, but that’s the subtext.*

Anyone who tells you that America’s pastors are obsessed with homosexuality or abortion only hears them through a media filter. You can attend Masses or megachurches for months without having those issues intrude.

Actually, the media do not report on the sermons and homilies of local clergy at all, whether they are urging their flocks to live good lives, become wealthy, help the needy, or oppose gay marriage. Nor is there a data base of these Sunday texts, so we don’t know precisely how much American chuchgoers are hearing about any of these topics. Only a handful of clergy get media coverage, and that coverage focuses on their pronouncements about controversial issues.  As Douthat says, liberals are probably reacting to “religious leaders who make opposition to abortion more of a political priority than publicly-funded antipoverty efforts.” 

Of his own Catholic church, Douthat adds, “You can bore yourself to tears reading denominational statements and bishops’ documents (true long before Pope Francis) with a similar result.” Maybe he has done this reading, and maybe he does think that his Church does not let “those issues intrude.” Or as he puts it, “The belief that organized religion is organized around culture war is largely a conceit of the irreligious.”

But here, thanks to the centralized and hierarchical structure of the Church, we can get data that might reveal what the Church is worried about. As Douthat implies, the previous pope (Benedict XVI, the former Joseph Ratzinger), was more concerned about culture-war issues than is the current pope. 

How concerned? I went to Lexis-Nexis. I figured that papal pronouncements on these issues would be issued in masses, in official statements, and in addresses.  For each of those three terms, I searched for “Pope Benedict” with four “culture-war” terms (Abortion, Homosexuality, Condom, and Birth control) and Poverty.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Abortion was the big winner.  Poverty was referred to in more articles than were the other individual culture-war terms.  But if those terms are combined into a single bar, its clear that poverty as a papal concern is dwarfed by the attention to these other issues. The graph below shows the data for “mass.”

This is not the best data. It might reflect the concerns of the press more than those of the Church. Also, some of those Lexis-Nexis articles are not direct hits. They might reference an “address” or “statement” by someone else. But there’s no reason to think that these off-target citations are skewed towards Abortion and away from Poverty.
.So it’s completely understandable that liberals, and perhaps non-liberals as well, have the impression that Big Religion has a big concern with matters of sex and reproduction.

* Perhaps not subtext. Douthat decries the sins of  “the Obama White House, with its . . . attempts to strong-arm religious nonprofits.”