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Elite Living


The Elite Culture            Gerry OShea

Thinking about the allurements of capitalism, the promise that anyone can make it in America, a country where every self-made millionaire is widely admired. Rags-to-riches stories guarantee an attentive audience.

The entrepreneur is often portrayed as a rugged male who successfully overcomes bureaucratic regulations and peer opposition — an admirably dogged character. Reminds me of a tale about a rogue confronting impossible odds.

A condemned man is begging for clemency from the all-powerful king. He is facing a death sentence for stealing the king’s donkey. He pleads with the monarch to let him live for a year, and in recompense, he swears that he will teach the king’s favorite white horse to talk. The king expresses incredulity about the proposition, but he reckons he has nothing to lose in the deal, and he agrees to postpone the execution for twelve months to see if the criminal can get his special horse to talk.

The prisoner returned to his cell in an elated mood, but his cellmate could not understand his mirth, especially when he heard of his plans to spend a year teaching a horse to converse. The voluble chancer pleaded his case with his jailhouse friend: “A lot can happen in a year. The king might die. The horse might die. I might die. And, how do you know, maybe the bloody white nag will talk!” Like many aspiring capitalists, he gambles that events will work out for him.

How is the capitalist system working in America? In a recent survey, nearly four-fifths of the population told pollsters that their children would be less well off than they are, the worst result for this question since 1990, when only about two-fifths were that gloomy.

 Also, the latest longevity numbers in the United States reveal a major negative. The average lifespan of citizens lags significantly behind other Western countries. People, on average, are living a few years longer in Ireland now than in America.

 Most weekly workers put in long hours just to make ends meet, and yet, unless they carry a union card, they rarely receive a retirement pension needed to supplement their social security check.

A recent report on inheritance highlights a telling systemic problem. It contends that a large global transfer of wealth is set “to make affluent millennials the richest generation in history.” Such unequal inherited wealth is not consistent with sensible public policy or basic morality and runs counter to a thriving democracy.

A core conservative belief stresses that in an ideal world, every human being should be responsible for his or her own economic betterment. The idea of handing any young person an unearned bulging bank account, accumulated by someone who has passed on, contradicts the core conservative principle that individual responsibility and diligent work should determine a person’s economic status. When last did you hear a conservative leader argue that crucial political point in America or anywhere else?

In the preface to his 11th book, Quiet Street, Nick McDonnell promises an interrogation of America’s most entrenched elite, the entitled, blue-blooded, white upper class of the East Coast. He is well-groomed for this task because he himself, by birth and upbringing, is an unquestionable, if ambivalent, member.

As a journalist, he writes a lot about American foreign policy, but in this book, whose subtitle reads appropriately as On American Privilege, he is attempting to shine a light on rampant inequality connected to “another kind of concentrated American power.”

For McDonnell, this is part of a spiritual journey where he must shed his elitist baggage: “It is important for me as a writer and reporter to try to see myself as clearly as I try to see the people and places I write about.”

He reflects at length on his school days at Buckley (an all-boys private school in Manhattan) and Riverdale Country School, followed by Harvard and Oxford – all bastions of ptivilege. He mentions enjoyable summers at the Devon Yacht Club.

 During his education in Buckley, many of the boys, all from elite families, would snigger about the kitchen workers, viewed, of course, as less worthy because of their limited means and the fact that some of them could barely speak English.

In all these “special institutions,” good manners were preached and expected, but, in reality, he writes members could get away with almost anything. Money talks and you know what walks! A sense of entitlement dominates this ethos, which, with the burgeoning growth of elite families, is sure to become even more prevalent.

This culture of elitism, bred in classism, is certainly not confined to America. I worked for ten years in a comprehensive high school in Ballymun, a poor section of Dublin.  In applying for scarce jobs in those years, our graduates often reported back that the system was rigged against them because young men from the elite fee-paying high schools – all run by religious orders - had the inside connections guaranteeing preference in hiring.

A few years ago, in a widely discussed study, three Harvard researchers showed how money, not ability, is the surest indicator of who will get into Ivy League universities and go on to become CEOs.

In McDonnell’s book, he writes fondly about many of his experiences in the series of elite private institutions he attended, but he characterizes their culture as best described in terms of “superficial meritocracy.”

In writing his book, he talked to his peers from his prep school years, and they reflected on the cognitive dissonance that allowed them to reconcile the purported school values of “kindness, fairness, and generosity” with the reality of moneyed families justifying passing on their privileges to the next generation.

McDonnell favors radical changes that would end the pretense that elite educational institutions are driven by high ideals and not dominated by Mammon’s greasy hand. He and his school friends decided that the sense of importance that they enjoyed, the prestige of feeling good about their status and standing with their peers, far trumped the availability of a big bank account.

Harmless talk with friends over a few beers late at night, lauding old-time relationships while diminishing the importance of bank accounts. But elitism falls flat without the two conjoined. Money and status go hand in hand. The elite brand is suffused with both.

Gerry O’Shea blogs at


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