Master and serf, and political coventions

By John MacBeath Watkins

I confess, I didn't watch all that much of the conventions. We haven't had a brokered convention in eons, so it's just a big show, an extended ad. But they do tell us something.

The Republican convention showcased Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, two men born to prominent families who claim they are all about equality of opportunity, and accuse their opponents of being about equality of outcomes. The "We Built It" theme, aside from being based on a lie, was about the myth of the self-made man born in a log cabin he built himself.

The Democratic convention never seemed to have a central slogan -- I'm sorry, "Forward" is a direction, not a slogan -- but it seemed its thrust was that we all had some help along the way.

The irony is that the Democrats were showcasing men who were not born to prominent families. Joe Biden's father was a used car salesman. Barack Obama's father was, as the social workers say, absent. These men's families strove to give them a good education, and they worked hard to take advantage of it.

But Joe Biden and Barack Obama, who have far better claim to be self-made men, seem to be very aware of the help they got along the way. Maybe they could actually see people making sacrifices on their behalf.

But Romney and Ryan got help along the way, as well. They worked hard and made the best of it, but they now seem determined to tell people that you shouldn't expect help, except from family members who can well afford it.

A wise old former smuggler who spent plenty of time dealing with duplicitous people once told me that you had to watch the silent movie, because you can't trust what people say. Biden and Obama act as though they want others to have the opportunities they had.

Perhaps Romney and Ryan are acting the same way. If your father was the CEO of a large corporations, sell some of the stock he gave you to finance your college education. If not, don't expect any help from anyone.

Ryan had it tougher. His family made its money in part from a contracting business that helped build the Interstate Highway System, a federal infrastructure program of the sort Ryan now claims the government should not be involved in. But his father died when he was 16, and Social Security paid him survival benefits which he didn't have to spend on, you know, surviving, so he wisely saved it up to spend on his education. He's worked for the federal government he now seems to despise since he graduated from college.

Both men could have blown it. They could have spent the money they received, whether from a gift of stocks or from Social Security, on fast cars, fast women, and drugs. They could have flunked out of school. They didn't, and good for them. But neither was born in a log cabin he built and worked his way through school digging ditches.  Both had help.

Romney thinks it's fine if people have the kind of help he did -- a rich father. What he objects to is that they might have the kind of help he didn't have -- financial aid such as Pell grants or work/study. He seems to object to any aid that comes as a collective act of the community, rather than the act of a family member. This ties in with the Republican insistence that President Obama's achievements are somehow illegitimate, that he is in some way the "affirmative action" candidate.

Of course, over the years many people have been admitted to top-rank colleges without top grades. They are called legacies -- if a parent, say, George H.W. Bush, attends a college such as Yale and does well in life, his son, George W. Bush, can be admitted (in his case to the Yale MBA program) when less prestigious schools (University of Texas at Austin law school) have turned them down. Such admissions are based on the fact that their family connections and wealth are likely to make them successful in any case, and they will then donate money to help keep the alma mater going.

And that sort of affirmative action has been fine with the Mitt Romneys and the Paul Ryans of the world, and anyone criticizing such benefits is accused of envy (in fact, that's the word Ayn Rand used to describe anyone who favored an inheritance tax.) Because it's all right to benefit from being born well, but to benefit from any effort to make up for being born to a less fortunate situation in life is illegitimate.

In part, I see this as a defensiveness about maintaining the fortunate situation. After all, it is not so easy to stay in the upper crust. Through much of European history, there was downward mobility for much of the nobility -- only one son could inherit the title, and the children of noble houses tended to survive childhood more often than the children of peasant or serf families. My great grandmother bore a great name, MacBeath, the name of an ancient Scottish king who was slandered by some English hack, the name of the hereditary physicians of the Lord of the Isles, but her father was a poor man from a fishing and crofting village that no longer appears on maps, and she herself was a maid who married well--she married the gardener.

So when someone like Mitt Romney is born on third base and wants people to think he hit a triple, and doesn't want too much competition from those who haven't even had an at-bat, I understand the insecurity. Maybe he's not even worried he'll be thrown out trying to steal home, maybe he just wants to give third base to his sons (he has five.) But you can't be the hereditary executives of Bain. Even Ford doesn't work that way anymore.

What we're seeing played out here is the tension we see in our education system. In the abstract, we might want every child to have an equal chance, but parents want their child to have a better chance. That's why the cost of housing near good schools gets bid up. In essence, the conservatives in our society represent the private ambitions of parents, and liberals represent the public conscience of parents. That's why people well situated to realize the private ambitions they harbor for their children -- the white and the wealthy, those with the cultural and financial advantages -- are more represented in the party of Mitt Romney. That's why the people less well situated -- the less well-off and the minorities who have been excluded in the past -- gravitate to the liberal side.

Throughout the history of mankind, private ambitions have reigned supreme, and parents have passed down wealth and power as well as they could. It is the basis for class distinctions, for nobility and kings, for lords, peasants, and serfs. And throughout history, this did not produce great wealth, only great concentrations of wealth. The magic of the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation and the ensuing Industrial Revolution was that knowledge and opportunity were spread more widely, and when more people had opportunity, they created more wealth.

But that vision of how humanity should organize itself has always been at war with the instinct to get what we can and pass it on to our offspring. In human society, wealth is not always absolute, it is in many was positional. Absolute wealth of the sort created by equality of opportunity is transformational in its way, producing a society with less disease and longer life spans, but the zero-sum game of who shall be the master and who the serf still remains. It is a battle of the fore brain and the hind brain.

But the important thing to remember in this conflict is that only one of these ways of doing things is a zero-sum game. We cannot all be kings, but we can most of us be middle class.The Republican insistence that any effort to produce a more equal society is class warfare is all about maintaining class distinctions. They see breaking down the barriers of class as warfare against the privileged positions of those who, at least, finance the party. That is why the membership of their party is so overwhelmingly white. Whites long maintained a privileged position in our society, and some of them resent the loss of privilege.

G.W.F. Hegel, now remembered primarily for the inspiration his work gave to Karl Marx, believed that the master-slave dialectic had been at last resolved, and history -- the story of that conflict -- ended on the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 14, 1806, with Napoleon's defeat of the Prussian nobility in the Battle of Jena. He thought that this represented the triumph of the ideas of liberty and equality represented by the French Revolution.

But the Battle of Jena rages on, a battle between liberalism and tradition, between the Enlightenment and tradition. No matter how much wealth liberalism can create, the desire to re-establish or defend the master-serf relationship will be at war with it. It is a war between the generosity of reason and the selfishness of desire, between a philosophy that can make us all richer and a custom that can make some richer than others.