Some are more equal than others

February 12, 2005

That has been true of every nation in every age.  Ours is remarkable for the principled rejection of this fact, despite the overwhelming evidence provided by history, biology, and gym class.  I have argued that equality is a heroic ideal rather than a reality, but we Americans like our ideals front and center, as close to reality as to make them indistinguishable.  And rightly so.

Now comes David Brooks in today’s NYT, complaining that we have entered an “Age of the Resume Gods,” in which big shots get all the good tickets.  God help us, but the object of his complaint is seating at RFK stadium, to watch the Washington Nationals.

The seating assignments were done by a “lottery,” but as the team president, Tony Tavares, told The Washington Post in a statement that pretty well sums up American civilization in our era, “This is Washington, D.C., and I had to take care of certain people. Of course, V.I.P.’s were taken care of, as they are in any other circumstance.”

Since I wasn’t among those who were taken care of, I find that statement morally offensive.

From this, Brooks enlarges on his misery until it becomes the defining characteristic of our times.

This is the age of Renaissance Weekends and Davos. This is an age in which it is immoral to discriminate according to race or sex, but discrimination according to career status is so thoroughly baked into society that it governs everything from restaurant table assignments to elementary school admissions prospects. We have worked up so many subtle gradations based on occupational status that if the characters from Edith Wharton novels could come to earth, they’d be so put off by our social stratifications they’d probably turn into Bolsheviks.

It’s not surprising that the Nationals would reserve seats for the usual array of eminences. What’s surprising is that the team president would so piously use this argument as his defense, as if he were simply pointing out the obvious order of the universe. We’ve gone from a culture of piously denied inequality to one of brazenly acknowledged Big Shot-ism.

Well, maybe.  I live in the Washington area.  Outside the very top levels of the Federal Government and every single Washington Redskin, I’m not sure we have VIPs.  And even among this crowd I have my doubts:  will anyone take a single step out of their way to accommodate Gale Norton or Alphonso Jackson?  Would we even know Elaine Chao if she walked to the seats behind home plate?

True story.  Last time I was at the barber shop, the man getting his haircut ahead of me in this lowly Virginia establishment happened to be the Deputy Secretary of State.  It was a warm day in mid-winter, and he was wearing long baggy shorts, some sort of Hawaiian shirt, and slovenly footwear, and he was chatting away with the barber in Vietnamese.  One hates to be unkind, but of 1,000 persons placed in front of a discriminating judge, he would have been selected 1,001 in the “aura of power and influence” category.

Another anecdote.  A U.S. ambassador was back in this country, trying to get a connecting flight to Washington.  He represented the President in a place where the culture valued hierarchy and deference, and where the ambassador of the United States was viewed, even by the mighty there, as a demi-god.  Which is to say, this man was used to having all his whims taken care of before he became conscious of them.  In this spirit, he walked up to the airline desk.

“I am the U.S. ambassador to Such-and-Such,” he said.  “Where do I go to catch my flight?”

The young woman behind the desk regarded him with puzzlement.  “Well,” she pointed, “there’s the end of the line.”

“And that,” the ambassador recalled later, “is when I knew I was back in America.”

This took place some 15 years ago.  Am I really so naive to think that nothing essential has changed since then?