"They Are Different"

Cross-posted from the Academe blog:

This morning, Diane Ravitch quotes from Mike Lofgren’s story in The American Conservative, “Revolt of the Rich.” She comments:

What is so astonishing these days is that the super-rich… have control of a large part of the mainstream media. They can afford to take out television advertising, even though their views are echoed on the news and opinion programs. And the American public, or a large part of it, is persuaded to vote against its own self-interest. A friend told me the other day that his brother, who barely subsists on social security, was worried that Obama might raise taxes on people making over $250,000. How can you explain his concern about raising taxes on those who can most afford it?

Twenty years ago, I visited Moscow and St. Petersburg and saw the remnants of the super rich of the czar’s time, including bejeweled carriages that had signaled a remove from the “moochers” (as Ayn Rand, whose family lost everything in the Russian revolution, called them). A passage in Lofgren’s piece reminded me of them:

Being in the country but not of it is what gives the contemporary American super-rich their quality of being abstracted and clueless. Perhaps that explains why Mitt Romney’s regular-guy anecdotes always seem a bit strained. I discussed this with a radio host who recounted a story about Robert Rubin, former secretary of the Treasury as well as an executive at Goldman Sachs and CitiGroup. Rubin was being chauffeured through Manhattan to reach some event whose attendees consisted of the Great and the Good such as himself. Along the way he encountered a traffic jam, and on arriving to his event—late—he complained to a city functionary with the power to look into it. “Where was the jam?” asked the functionary. Rubin, who had lived most of his life in Manhattan, a place of east-west numbered streets and north-south avenues, couldn’t tell him. The super-rich who determine our political arrangements apparently inhabit another, more refined dimension.

The extraordinary rich don’t “get” the rest of us any more than we “get” them. Ravitch mentions a famous Fitzgerald/Hemingway “exchange” on the difference. Read this, if you will, from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1926 story “The Rich Boy”:

There are no types, no plurals. There is a rich boy, and this is his and not his brothers’ story. All my life I have lived among his brothers but this one has been my friend. Besides, if I wrote about his brothers I should have to begin by attacking all the lies that the poor have told about the rich and the rich have told about themselves–such a wild structure they have erected that when we pick up a book about the rich, some instinct prepares us for unreality. Even the intelligent and impassioned reporters of life have made the country of the rich as unreal as fairy-land.

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.

That’s the passage that Ernest Hemingway used in his story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”:

The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Julian and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, “The very rich are different from you and me.” And how some one had said to Julian, Yes, they have more money.

Hemingway, of course, cherry-picked Fitzgerald’s passage for the sake of his own point (as I am doing here, a bit), for Fitzgerald had no “romantic awe” of the super rich–at least none is exhibited in “The Rich Boy.” In fact, Fitzgerald’s attitude in the story is quite a bit more sophisticated than the cartoon Hemingway inks.

But the conceit remains. We often retain it as a question: “Are the very rich different from you and me?” Though we may pretend to answer by brushing the question aside with Hemingway’s rejoinder, deep in our hearts we feel that they may, in fact be different. And that we, if we could, would like to be “different,” too. 

In terms of education, they certainly are different–and are making sure they become more so. Lofgren writes:

To some degree the rich have always secluded themselves from the gaze of the common herd; their habit for centuries has been to send their offspring to private schools. But now this habit is exacerbated by the plutocracy’s palpable animosity towards public education and public educators, as Michael Bloomberg has demonstrated. To the extent public education “reform” is popular among billionaires and their tax-exempt foundations, one suspects it is as a lever to divert the more than $500 billion dollars in annual federal, state, and local education funding into private hands—meaning themselves and their friends.

A few years ago, Peter Schmidt wrote an opinion piece for The Boston Globe titled “At the Elite Colleges – Dim White Kids.” He had asked:

Who are these mediocre white students getting into institutions such as Harvard, Wellesley, Notre Dame, Duke, and the University of Virginia? A sizable number are recruited athletes who, research has shown, will perform worse on average than other students with similar academic profiles, mainly as a result of the demands their coaches will place on them.

A larger share, however, are students who gained admission through their ties to people the institution wanted to keep happy, with alumni, donors, faculty members, administrators, and politicians topping the list. 

Applicants who stood no chance of gaining admission without connections are only the most blatant beneficiaries of such admissions preferences. Except perhaps at the very summit of the applicant pile – that lofty place occupied by young people too brilliant for anyone in their right mind to turn down – colleges routinely favor those who have connections over those who don’t.

With the looming student-debt crisis, “elite” colleges are going to be even further out of reach for most of us as fewer and fewer of even the best of us who are not rich are going to be willing to chance a huge debt burden on the possibility of crossing the barrier and joining the elite.

One of the reasons so many of us, like Ravitch’s Social Security recipient, want to keep taxes low on the rich is that most of us are continual optimists. Even in the face of reality, we believe we will one day join the rich. What the real rich are banking on is that this belief continues. Otherwise, resentment will start to build–maybe not to the extent exhibited in Russia in 1917 or France in 1789, but enough to seriously compromise the complacency of the seriously well-to-do.

We members of the broader American faculty aren’t immune to that optimism. Few of us would turn down a position at an “elite” institution, even if (like me) we love teaching the immigrant, minority, and first-generation college students of our public institutions. Nor are we loathe to use whatever little influence we might have, as Schmidt indicates, to move ‘our own’ a little further toward the elite.

The irony of David Horowitz’s condemnation of The Professors as left-wing zealots is that we members of American faculties, for the most part, are active supporters (by our actions, though rarely by our words) of a widening gap between the elite and the rest of us, of the very system that backs Horowitz in his conservative activism. We may talk another line but, given the chance, we jump just as quickly to elite status as anyone else. Even when we teach at low-barrier colleges, we encourage our best students to leave, to transfer to “elite” institutions–and are flattered when they manage it.

Last spring, while walking in one of the less elite areas of Brooklyn (Flatbush), I heard a yell, “Hey, Professor!” It was an ex-student of mine. After finishing her Associates degree at City Tech, she told me, she had gained admission to Columbia University, had graduated, and was starting on a Master’s program there. I was flattered that she remembered me and was proud of her–prouder than I am of students who simply graduate from City Tech. She was on her way, if not to the elite of the super rich, at least to the other side of the widening divide between what promises to become two Americas–if it has not already.

Like the rest of the professoriate, I need to seriously re-evaluate my attitudes toward my students, my institution, my profession, and even myself. Many of my attitudes, just as much as those of, again, that Social Security recipient, put me in service to the elite, and not to those I tell myself I would rather serve. I am helping increase the difference, the gap between the rich and the rest of us when I should be trying to, as they say, lift all boats.

I wonder if I’ll ever learn; I wonder if any of us will.

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