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.

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