Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Notes & Comments

A Different Sense of Privilege

Privilege today still comes with strings attached, but they are different now.

Steve Lagerfeld

Lolostock/Shutterstock, Inc.

In the 1980s, I got to know a man who seemed to be the walking embodiment of privilege. He was an elderly but vigorous WASP, tall and lean, with ancestry in this country that reached back to the seventeenth century. A Princeton man, he had gone into finance and risen to become CEO and chairman of a major regional bank. He had one of those WASP names one can barely resist satirizing, but he had been known all his life by his childhood nickname, Curly.

This was just the first hint that this man was something of an anomaly. (Curly was also, inevitably, almost entirely bald.) Long retired by the time I met him, he had chalked up the expected array of civic and charitable activities during his career. But in retirement he was pursuing with characteristic energy an assortment of more hands-on volunteer jobs. One of them in particular struck me. He was a hospital orderly, pushing carts here and there, assisting patients’ families, and doing various tasks too small or tedious for the nursing staff. “A candy striper,” he joked. As far as I know, he was never asked to empty bedpans, but I’m pretty sure he would have done it.

Where, I have often wondered, does such a spirit of service come from? How could it be revived? Today’s elites are often generous givers of money, yet it’s hard to imagine, say, Bill Gates, a magnificently prolific philanthropist, pushing a cartful of sheets and towels down a hospital corridor. More important, it’s hard to imagine many of the millions of anonymous meritocrats who earn $150,000 a year or more—business executives, technology workers, attorneys, doctors—performing such humble labor. These are the twenty percenters, the new privileged class. Privilege today still comes with strings attached, but they are different now. Our meritocrats are expected to say the right things, embrace the right ideas, and send money to the right causes, but there is no expectation that they should get out in the world and do something to help make it, and its less fortunate inhabitants, a little better. They are free to keep their fellow citizens at arm’s length, and they very often do, especially with loving displays of their superior wealth and status.

The change in the nature of privilege is part of the explanation for the growing sense of grievance and inequality in American society. The sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, the great chronicler and critic of Curly’s WASP aristocracy, made a distinction that is useful for understanding what has happened. In his 1964 book The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America and other works, Baltzell distinguished between the upper class and the elite. The upper class was Curly’s world—one knit together by inherited wealth, family and community ties, and a shared culture. The elite consisted of the meritocrats—the high achievers in business, politics, the arts, and other fields. The meritocrats’ collective identity, if they had any at all, was limited to the fact that they had all risen to the top of the heap. The two groups overlapped. In Baltzell’s view, the upper class set the tone for society by upholding standards of behavior and ethics and embodying its ethos of service. The key to this system’s success was that the upper class remain open enough to absorb non-WASP newcomers and retain its unwritten authority; Baltzell worried that the WASPs were becoming an insular caste that would dribble into irrelevance, leaving the nation without a moral gyroscope.

Even in the 1950s and ’60s, when Baltzell did most of his work, this must have seemed a quixotic hope. The WASPs had failed miserably. By the time I met Curly, the only people taking cues from them were Ralph Lauren and a passel of other preppy fashion revivalists.

One way to understand American society during the past fifty years is as a struggle among the elites to determine which values will govern in the absence of those once conveyed by the WASP aristocracy. One big difference between now and then is the meaning attached to privilege (leaving aside the related but different question of white privilege). In the past, privilege was accepted as an inescapable part of the natural order, and the WASPs did not shrink from the label, while they also accepted the responsibilities said to come with it. In that not fully meritocratic world, there was more room to recognize the role of luck and the arbitrary advantages of birth, and to be grateful for both. Privilege was akin to a debt that needed to be worked off through good works and certain behaviors.

We no longer tend to see the world as naturally hierarchical, however, and today’s meritocrats must denounce privilege and insist that they have not been favored by it, even as they send their children to the best private schools and universities and spare no expense to give them an edge in the great meritocratic race. The lucky winners who find themselves as undergraduates at Princeton or Yale must then forge narratives about the great barriers of American injustice they had to overcome to make it. Gratitude is the last thing on their minds.

Rootedness is another big difference. The WASPs had it not only in the intangible form of long family histories in America but also in the very physical sense of inhabiting particular communities for generations. Every American city had what one observer jokingly called its mostly WASP “local native elites” who provided leadership to their communities. In Curly’s case, that city was Newark, New Jersey (though he lived outside the city limits). This created a kind of connective tissue that is hard to replicate. Curly was never going to be “one of the guys” down at the volunteer fire department, but he was still a local, a fellow citizen. You might have guessed he was the owner of the local hardware store.

Like some others of his class, Curly had a genteel disregard for the material. He had not inherited family wealth, but he still felt no need for displays of status to mark his superiority to the hoi polloi. He lived among mansions, but, again anomalously, his own house would have fit better in a suburban tract development. He and his wife drove K-cars, the modest sedans Lee Iacocca created to save Chrysler Corporation from Japanese imports in the 1980s, because they thought it was the right thing to do.

Protestantism was the silent foundation on which the WASP world rested. Curly was familiar with the inside of churches but was not much of a churchgoer, and religion was by then a largely residual Christmas-and-Easter force in his class. Yet it still provided much of the impetus toward humility, duty, and service. At its best, it produced something better than noblesse oblige; indeed, a far more egalitarian sense of obligation. In this respect, as in others, he was less representative of his class than of its ideals.

Those ideals were a product of a certain time and place that are beyond our reach, but there are important things to be learned from them. How we think about privilege, for example, is something that is within our power to change. Privilege now requires a poisonous bad faith. It requires that we deceive ourselves about our own existence, and it breeds anger and resentment. But privilege is inescapable. All but the most unfortunate have enjoyed at least some small degree of privilege. The most privileged have the most to be thankful for, and the greatest obligation to mitigate inequality. That is not just a matter of dollars and cents. Take it for what it is, and privilege can lead to gratitude and service.