by Mark English
I don’t know if it makes much sense to talk about some people having a privileged background. These days this usually means having rich parents. And while I think that – all other things being equal – having rich parents certainly beats having dirt-poor parents, I’m not convinced that having rich – as distinct from just average-income – parents confers any real benefits on their children.
It seems to me that the only things that really matter involve physical and mental health and general culture. By the latter, I do not mean “high culture,” but rather just the normal cultural inheritance that is passed on within families and without which we would not be functioning human beings: language, ways of behaving (manners, morals etc.).
Are some cultures better to be born into than others? I think you can say so. Certainly, certain categories of person are likely to get a raw deal in some cultures and a better one in others. But you can also speak in general terms.
You could say that a culture in which violence plays a prominent role in settling disputes is clearly inferior to one in which disputes are dealt with via discussion and negotiation, for example. And I think you could say that a culture within which people who are not harming or threatening to harm others are protected and not themselves threatened or coerced is preferable to one in which these protections do not apply. A culture and an environment that is conducive to physical health is clearly superior to one that is not. Longevity isn’t everything but average lifespan statistics do provide a rough guide as to which cultures are working and which are dysfunctional.
The most important kinds of privileges relate, then, to these very basic kinds of things. That said, it’s all too clear that most of us want to feel special in some way, to excel in some activity, or otherwise have some kind of claim to fame or high regard.
To some extent, this is immaturity. Part of growing up involves the realization that, actually, one isn’t all that special – and coming to terms with this realization. Some people never do and live their lives with false hopes and unreal expectations that generally lead to resentment and unhappiness.
If ambitions, hopes and expectations are calibrated to an objective view of one’s abilities etc. – which usually means scaled back (in non-depressed individuals, at any rate) – then there’s no problem.
There are easier ways of having one’s basic feeling of being special endorsed or vindicated than work and achievement, of course. Falling in love, for example – so long as the love is reciprocated. Or one might just be born special: in terms of having a remarkable aptitude for something; or very good looks; or in terms of ancestry (being the son or daughter of a celebrity or a great man or woman, say).
Ancestry is a paradigm case of the “magical” notion of association by which the special qualities of one person are perceived to “rub off,” as it were, on close (or not so close) associates.
Like many others, I first started delving into my family history hoping (and half-expecting) to find high-achieving or notable ancestors. No such luck. It’s an odd thing to want. No direct benefit flows from it, but I think it’s all part of the need most of us feel to be special, to stand out from the crowd in some way. We feel special, and it’s as if we are compelled to try to vindicate or validate this feeling. Even high achievers often feel this need. One example was the writer Patricia Highsmith, who enthusiastically explored the possibility that she might have been a descendant of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Highsmith was special by dint of achievement, but she also wanted this other kind of perceived specialness.
This magical concept of specialness-by-association applies not just to ancestry but also to many other kinds of association, far too many to catalog here.
Let me give a couple of personal examples. An old colleague and friend of mine was taught logic at Harvard by Willard Van Orman Quine. This is part of who he is, and – rightly or wrongly – it impresses me, though it would not impress me so much were my friend not also very honest and even self-deprecating. He volunteered the information that Quine was not particularly impressed with his abilities (or attitude). He also told a story about a fellow graduate student at Oregon, whose father was a famous historian and who kept spouting all this nonsense about recursion, ideas which my friend was sure were going nowhere. The recursion man was Douglas Hofstadter, and he was working not only on his physics PhD but also on an early version of Gödel, Escher, Bach, a book which won a Pulitzer Prize and is still widely read and admired.
Another example. The father of a Chinese friend of mine was one of Mao Zedong’s generals, who had become a national hero at the time of the Korean War.
From my friend’s earliest years she moved in elite circles, meeting “the Great Helmsman” several times. On account of her father’s role in the Korean War – as well no doubt as her natural confidence and grace – she was chosen at the age of nine to present a bouquet of flowers to North Korean leader Kim Il Sung during an historic and diplomatically very sensitive visit. Her young life, though undoubtedly privileged, was hard and stressful in sometimes very unexpected ways. It was almost unimaginably different from my own.
Our personal histories are, of course, part of who we are. Had my self-deprecating male friend not had that particular upbringing and education, he would not be who he is. Likewise my (not so self-deprecating) Chinese friend. But in addition to this obvious truth there is something more, as rare experiences having little to do with innate abilities – such as moving in elite political circles or close associations with celebrities – can give people a certain aura in the eyes of others. This is a form of (usually harmless) magical thinking. It is pretty universal, I would say.
It applies to places also. Think of all those blue ceramic English Heritage plaques in London, saying, in effect, this is a special building/place because so-and-so once lived here.
Finally there is another dimension of all this which I would like to highlight: the fact that the great and the good and the heroes and villains of history are usually not all that special either. Such things as power and giftedness and fame are real, but the aura associated with them is a figment of mass imagination. The greatness of most political and religious leaders or the brilliance of most celebrities or the strange (and unfortunate) notoriety of perpetrators of horrific crimes is projected onto them by others.
Marcel Proust was a keen and bemused observer of the irrational side of human thinking and he was particularly fascinated by our tendency to confer a magical aura on certain people – in his case, mainly aristocrats – and places who/which (spoiler alert) inevitably fail to live up to expectations.
Pilgrimages to holy places are motivated by a similar mode of thinking, but in a slightly different – or enhanced – form. This is because the places in question are associated with people who are perceived to be more than just political, aristocratic, military, scientific, literary or artistic eminences. Some kind of actual spiritual force is seen to be in play. This is something which Proust, a natural skeptic, may not have understood. It lies outside the range of his experience.
As it happens – and appearances to the contrary notwithstanding – I am not a natural skeptic, and in my younger years I had a great capacity for believing a whole range of things (not just religious, but including religious ideas), which I now see as spectacularly mistaken. I am amazed at my erstwhile gullibility but will refrain from a detailed elaboration – which would not only be tedious but positively embarrassing.
My earliest introduction to the Holy Land was an old book by English writer H.V. Morton, with strangely emotive monochrome plates (the Sea of Galilee, the Holy Sepulchre, the Mount of Olives, the narrow, winding streets of old Jerusalem). Written during the time of the British mandate, it was called In the Steps of the Master. Morton was a secular travel writer but, like many literary figures of his time – and much of the reading public – he clung to a Romanticized, slightly sentimentalized form of Christian Platonism. Later I read Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus. Renan was a much more learned man than Morton – and a skeptic to boot – but even his perspective on both the person of Jesus and the places with which he was associated is irredeemably sentimentalized.
Many other books which appealed to me also dealt with the historical background of the New Testament or attempts to reconstruct supposed original Aramaic sayings from anomalies in the Greek of the canonical texts. In a similar way, various apocryphal gospels and other writings held out the tantalizing promise of reading – albeit in fragmented and distorted form – the very words of Jesus, maybe even the ones he spoke not in public but (there are hints of this in the Gospels) only to an inner circle.
In the classic English film Whistle Down the Wind, set in mid-20th-century Lancashire, some children discover a fugitive sleeping in a barn whom they take to be Jesus and to whom they attribute magical powers. At one point one of the children, a stubborn little boy, voices the children’s growing doubts: “He’s just a fella.”
There’s something poignant about this moment because it represents the sort of realization that all of us – those of us at any rate who share the common tendency to look for heroes and guides – have had from time to time. Such realizations are a part of growing up. Our parents are not all-knowing. Our much-loved teachers are flawed and fallible. Our political heroes turn out not to be quite as heroic or altruistic as advertised, our spiritual guides not quite as special as we thought.