Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The New Republic Online: Windsor Knot

The New Republic Online: Windsor Knot

Windsor Knot
by Andrew Sullivan

Only at TNR Online
Post date: 11.23.04
oor Prince Charles. I defy anyone brought up the way he was to have an unfailing sense of the public mood, to be a politician to his fingertips or an intellectual with an open mind. He's a man forever waiting to be something that is only a role. It cannot be easy.

The latest example of his putting his royal foot in his royal mouth is a leaked memo released in a legal suit. A former employee is suing His Royal Highness's staff, alleging sex discrimination and unfair dismissal. A few centuries ago, that employee would no longer have a head. In the 21st century, she's a media star. And the memo? It was a frustrated rant by Charles about staffers always trying to do things beyond their abilities and their resentment when they are denied advancement. Here's the relevant extract:

What is wrong with people now? Why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far beyond their technical capabilities? This is to do with the learning culture in schools as a consequence of a child-centered system which admits no failure. People seem to think they can all be pop stars, high court judges, brilliant TV personalities or infinitely more competent heads of state without ever putting in the necessary work or having natural ability. This is the result of social utopianism which believes humanity can be genetically and socially engineered to contradict the lessons of history.

Not very elegantly put. But the prince is surely on to something. The grievance culture does indeed often lead people to claim discrimination when they are merely not being promoted for good reasons. The self-esteem fad does indeed prize confidence in oneself over the harsh measurement of others. Objective standardized tests are highly unpopular among elites, despite the fact that our new elites are largely a product of them.

But learning our own limits is the beginning of wisdom. Some people are simply not as intelligent as others. Some can play the piano brilliantly; others have no clue. I do not regard my own failure to play rugby for the England team as a huge injustice, although my father has yet to recover from it. The world should be glad I am not an accountant. I am not likely to become an Abercrombie and Fitch model. And if I consistently nagged and begged assorted model agencies to hire me, I would have no case. Isn't that really what the prince was saying?

Of course, nuances matter. When the skill-difference between jobs is trivial, sometimes ability can be in the eye of the beholder. Bad management can squelch the most eager and capable of drones. But Charles is right to bemoan the notion that anyone can do anything, and that if they don't, some injustice is somehow being perpetrated. That injustice is called life.

And this, of course, cuts to the chase of the meritocratic project. The inequalities of ability are far more crushing than the inequalities of a rigid class system. And the great mixed blessing of a democracy in which everyone has a chance at success is that inequality of results seems crueler and starker. It cannot be blamed away. We're not there yet, of course. But you only have to read The Bell Curve (no, not its racial chapter) to see where we are headed.

An open market society with an effective educational system in an economy that increasingly values brainpower over brawn will lead inexorably to greater and greater inequality. And that inequality may be even less tolerable for those at the bottom than in days gone by. We can ameliorate this. But even if we improve the education system, the result is greater efficiency in advancing inequality. Human envy will not die. Neither will differences in human ability. And resentment will grow.

Is there any way out? The only answer, I think, is cultural and moral. We have to decouple the notion of virtue and worth from material success. I don't think it's an accident that we see greater emphasis on religious faith and moral values at a time when our economy is increasingly rewarding people on the brutal basis of market worth. It's a way of correcting for inequality, by reminding people that their dignity inheres in something far more profound than their paycheck or social status.

But we can also find ways to make those jobs that pay little mean more. How? By actually acknowledging the worth of all sorts of professions and jobs, the dignity of manual labor, the variety of talents that make for a functioning society. And this is what Charles was also clumsily trying to say. Here's a passage from his "mea culpa" speech yesterday:

Success can come in many forms. In my view it is just as great an achievement to be a plumber or a bricklayer as it is to be a lawyer or a doctor. Not everyone has the same talents or abilities, but everyone, with the right nurturing, can make a real difference to their communities and to the country. This is why I am so encouraged by the efforts which are now being made to recognize vocational skills in our education system and in the wider economy. I know that my ideas are sometimes portrayed as old-fashioned. Well, they may be. But what I am concerned about are the things that are timeless regardless of the age that we live in. Also I have been around long enough to see what were at the time thought of as old-fashioned ideas now come into vogue. Ambition is a good thing and should never be constrained by a person's starting point in life and people must be encouraged to fulfill their aspirations in ways that recognize their different abilities and talents. Thank God they do and that we are not all the same.
Mickey Kaus thought this sounded condescending. I don't think so. I think it's genuine. And the prince, after all, should know. His own role in the world is, practically speaking, completely undeserved. In a meritocracy, he would never have become next in line to be head of state. Every time he speaks with people who have actually done things, created companies, run countries, written brilliant books, he must realize how out of his depth he is. Even his former wife completely out-classed him in the royalty department. But he does have a role; and his job is meaningful. And he does it the best he can.

The overclass, in this sense, gets the underclass. And finding a way to give dignity and meaning to both is one of the central tasks of our time.

No comments: