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More on privilege and social capital. - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
More on privilege and social capital.

Social capital, like other forms of capital, is subject to the law of compound interest.




For example, I rather notoriously like Americans, and that is, in no small part, because I know so damned many of the buggers.  But it is also in no small part because of which Americans I know.  I keep something of a mental list of the most truly impressive people I have known: many of them are unknown to worldly fame.  But of those whose names may be familiar to others – and I am speaking of people with whom I have interacted well enough to be able to claim at least a passing acquaintance: I’m not speaking of people whom I’ve shaken hands with once in a crush – not a few are American.  And of course, the opportunity to have met them is no doubt an instance of privilege – on first look (wait for it).  But what I am pointing to here is that this sort of thing rather ‘snowballs’: once you meet one or another sort of person, you tend to meet more of the same kidney.


For example, I have met, on a few occasions, the senior Mr Bush (and still more importantly, Barbara Bush); yet I know Bill Richardson rather better.  And once, in the 1980s, I met an obscure Southern governor who struck me as garrulous, annoying, sottish, and lecherous enough to disappear for a time – and for obvious purposes, and with utter disregard for his hosts and the gravity of the occasion – with a young woman young enough to have been his daughter.  (I understand this man’s wife has just recently lost a primary election in Iowa.)  But what I want to note here is the way in which all these things happened.  If you happen to get to know, at an early or middle point of their careers, such persons as Elliot Abrams and Richard Perle, say, or Chase Untermeyer or Bud McFarlane, you gradually find yourself meeting and conversing with US vice-presidents, governors (Douglas Wilder, of Virginia), presidential hopefuls, and American cabinet secretaries.  And once you have met, say, a Jas A. Baker (or a Geo HW Bush, or a Bill Clinton, or who have you), you are not at all surprised to go on to meet a Vernon Walters or a ‘Jumpin’ Jim’ Gavin (great chap, General Gavin, I must say: very impressive indeed).  I may add, as a matter of strict chronology, that I had first met the Bushes, before, and through other sources, I made the acquaintance of Ambassadors (and former general officers) Walters and Gavin, but you take the point. 


Similarly, if you happen to hang about with musicians, you may find yourself on dining terms, as it were, with anyone from Arnett Cobb and Ellis Marsalis to André Previn and Lionel Hampton – and you will tend to judge, consciously or not, their countrymen according to your liking for them.  I note, in passing, that the only well-known Canadian I ever met to this extent – as sitting in on a six-hour master-class he was teaching – was Maynard Ferguson.  Get chummy with writers, and you may find yourself comparing fancy waistcoats with Tom Wolfe.


Naturally, you will also meet some awful shits along the way: G. Gordon Liddy, for one, and, still more, Abbie Hoffman, with whom I once exchanged rather sharp words concerning agitprop, the Central American republics in the interwar period, and the Spanish Civil War.  But my point remains, and remains twofold: your exposure to one set of people will tend to burgeon into further acquaintance with others of that set, and you will tend to judge that set or nation or class or profession based upon the impressions you have of its representative members whom you have met.


And here, I think, is where I can address a question that is pending in the comments on my earlier post regarding privilege: In what ways have I seen that term too loosely used?  Well, naturally, where actual, formal, privileges exist in a society, to ignore those forms and any legal structure that supports them (the remaining disabilities, few though they are, that yet apply to RCs in the UK; hereditary peerages until quite recently; an established church), and instead to apply the sociological concept of privilege as if actual legal privileges did not exist, is simply intellectually shoddy (this was and remains an especial fault in Western analyses of the nomenklatura, Djilas’s ‘New Class’, both during the Cold War and now in assessing SUP’s unsavoury connexions here at LJ).  The blurring of the fine distinctions between privileged classes or persons, and (in sociological terms) an elite that is not necessarily coterminous with the limits of the privileged class, is all too common and equally slipshod.  And of course, I despair when I see such incantatory mumbo-jumbo as ‘the privileging of this narrative over the “B” text exemplifies the subtle ways in which the dominant classes’ do down the noble oppressed: for an admirable short course in how to weigh evidence between five sources without resorting to this sort of nonsense in default of actual historiography, I recommend the foreword to M. Gwyn Morgan’s recent study of the Year of the Four Emperors.


But the most infuriating instances of the misapprehension of privilege, and its invocation when what is actually at issue is social capital, are best exemplified, for me, in considering my interactions with Bill Clinton and General Gavin.  These were not occasions of privilege: both men would notoriously talk, at length, with anyone: indeed, given their own youthful circumstances and the absolute American idolisation of the ‘self-made’ man, the humbler, the better.  Talk?  You could hardly stop them.  They didn’t care in the least who their audience were.  Both were, to give the Arkansan devil his due, superb talkers, Ancient Mariners who could cause one to miss any number of weddings, and both had the gift of making, at least for the time, their pet subjects – in General Gavin’s case, the fall of the Reich and the secret history of the Cold War after; in Bill Clinton’s case, naturally, Bill Clinton – equally fascinating and impelling to their auditors, however uninterested one was in those subjects at any other time.  The only privilege involved was the happenstance of being there when they were present: a fact in no wise diminished when one admits that in one case at least, the speaker’s presence was arranged by the University.  (Even public school boys, let alone those who attended state schools, are up at University, if they are, on merit, nowadays.)  In a broader sense, what I have tried to set out as the means by which one chance acquaintance, intelligently and diligently pursued, can lead to one’s scraping acquaintance with any number of the great and the good, at least within the first acquaintance’s metier, is not reliant upon and is indeed wholly irrelevant to privilege.  Yet nine people in ten will simply presume that to have met and spoken with X or Y must mean that you, Z (called as ‘Zed’, my dear American readers, I implore you), are Someone Very Grand Indeed, who gained this entrée by being a sprig of the privileged classes.  Balls: I can name any number of middle-class people and undergraduates whose childhoods were spent in council estates who had precisely as much to do with Generals Walters and Gavin and Governor Clinton as any Old Etonian or what have you.  If this opportunity befell them because they were a part of an aristocracy, it was an aristocracy of merit.


And how did they reach and find themselves recruited into an aristocracy of merit, pray?  By diligence, and by building upon inherited social capital, which may be found as readily in the purer air of Seven Dials as in Mayfair (surely there are some G&S fans reading this?).  No one can say, I think, that one of the most impressive people in the world, to my mind – Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, ‘the Black Farmer’ – came of ‘privilege’: he was born in Jamaica; came to Britain at the age of four; was, as he notes, ‘raised in inner city Birmingham in a two-up-two-down with [his] parents and eight brothers and sisters’; ‘left school with no qualifications (but plenty of ambition and persistence)’; ‘had a brief spell in the Army, then trained and worked as a chef before talking [his] way into television, where [he] became a producer/director for the BBC’; became a chef; is now one of the most successful and highly-regarded farmers and food producers in the West Country, under his ‘Black Farmer’ marque; does more good works in a year than the C of E has done in decades; and will contest the new Chippenham constituency at the next general election … as a Tory.  WEJ wasn’t born to privilege: he accumulated social capital.  Yet as a successful entrepreneur – and still more when, as I devoutly hope, he is returned as member for Chippenham – he is and will be regarded by the inattentive as ‘privileged’ (‘oi, he’s an MP, innhe, or will be?  And a Tory?  And lashin’s o’ dosh’).  WEJ doesn’t hobnob with HRH the Prince of Wales because the Emmanuel-Joneses are County: he hobnobs with the Heir Apparent because they can have a nice natter about Duchy organics and hormone-free chipolatas.  Privilege?  There is something intellectually incoherent in this.


Having mentioned intellectual incoherence, I may as well address another open question from the comments on my prior post, asking me to elaborate on my admittedly disobliging statement that the average school-leaver in Britain was, at least if the school in question were a good grammar school or one of the public schools, as well-educated as the common or garden American MA.  In yet another of the comments to my previous post, one of the Norns on my friends-list – the Norns are safe enough, it’s the Parcæ or Moiræ you want to be wary of (the Eumenides, by contrast, are simply hopeless) – pointed out that too many people who speak of privilege seem not to recognise its derivation and etymology.  Lege might be a good place to start.  I don’t at all mean to be flippant, but the awarding of an MA or DPhil – for some occult reason, the Yanks seem to prefer the Tab version, ‘PhD’ – to persons who have never construed a line of Latin, let alone Greek, in their lives, seems to me to be fraught with ominous portent.  (And this is so despite Waugh’s perfectly accurate observation that, within a year of leaving school or University, no one in the kingdom can any longer translate a lapidary inscription.)  On a more sober or at the least a less captious note, I do want to say that – although the remark was made with some asperity – it is defensible.  The discipline, at least, of a Classical education is possessed by those who attended grammar school and public school.  Although they have not handed up a thesis for, say, an MA in Education that involves eight new ways to show educational films to an infants’s class, they have been educated more liberally, I think, than many an American MA.  Puling adolescents at, for example, Bishop Wordsworth’s School, a good Cathedral grammar school in Salisbury, will, by the time they leave it, have learnt several languages, had a broad grounding in maths and sciences, been taught critical analysis, been exposed to serious education in all the major world religions, and been expected to be able to compose music, write a computer programme, understand farming and commerce and trades unions, criticise or defend Haig’s generalship, and distinguish a Vermeer from a Fabritius at fifty paces.  At a small public school near Windsor, boys will when they leave have already been trained in the ways of the Oxbridge tutorial system – still the ultimate epistemological and pædagogical tool – and been put through their paces in Latin (and Greek if at all possible), French, and one of several other languages (German, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, or Japanese).  Such a boy will also have been crammed full of IT and Design Technology, history, divinity, and music – indeed, music and music scholarships are a speciality.  And he will not infrequently be a boy of slender means (there are a number of scholarship boys at Eton, and a few who are there without being asked to pay sixpence. Merit, you know; we have mentioned that before.)  One thing is certain: neither at a grammar school, Cathedral or choir school, or public school, nor at Oxford or that place in the Fens, will any student ever find himself in the position once reported on my flist, in which undergraduates were expected to attend a good old-fashioned Maoist ‘self-criticism session’ to discuss how the cleverer and more questioning students were ‘privileging’ themselves by being cleverer or more outspoken than their fellows.  Merit, damn it all.


Now, what is the point of all this?  Well, to begin, an Old Boy from such a school, grammar or public, will be able to read a number of original sources without relying on translations that simply will not be as generally available to the monoglot American MA.  He will have had a superior critical faculty instilled in him.  He will, as lasayla remarked in the comments on the prior post, have had more education: and an education that is at once more specialised in his field from an earlier point, and more general – more liberal – than is the case in America, from all that one hears.  And he will have amassed social and intellectual capital in ways very different to that of the American scholar, which will pay unexpected dividends, no matter what he does with his life. (For example, had you a son at Eton this half, if he were a violinist, he would be sitting at the feet of Viktoria Grigoreva, if a composer, learning his trade from JDE Weeks, or, if an aspiring piper, being trained by Pipe-Major Motherwell, formerly the Queen’s Piper.  I trust you recall what I said above regarding the way in which one acquaintance becomes a network of acquaintances?  It is the intellectual capital component that makes this something more than the oft-caricatured Old Boy Net.)  Whereas an MBA from Harvard allows its holder only to make money and to articulate what fools Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, and Ed Balls are, which latter task, at least, can equally well and equally convincingly be performed by any dirty old bugger over a pint down the Poacher’s Arms.


And it is for these reasons that I confide that you shall find that it is merit that matters, that merit is largely based not on privilege but rather upon social and intellectual capital however acquired, that in this acquisition the UK system is superior to that in the US as reported, and that it would behove American academics to take in a wider horizon that would perhaps prevent them from making these errors, deriving as these do from too small and too localised samples and experiences (as I trust shezan will further elaborate upon, with Continental examples).


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38 comments or Leave a comment
shezan From: shezan Date: January 5th, 2008 07:08 am (UTC) (Link)
I should comment more seriously at some stage but - you know Elliott & Richard? Small world.
shezan From: shezan Date: January 5th, 2008 08:13 am (UTC) (Link)
(you may want to screenn this comment)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 5th, 2008 12:25 pm (UTC) (Link)

Isn't it?

Came to have their acquaintance via Untermeyer and Mosbacher, as I recall.
velvet_tipping From: velvet_tipping Date: January 5th, 2008 11:01 am (UTC) (Link)
i've just read the first sentence: "For example, I rather notoriously like Americans,"

and i just have to say, well, of course you do, we rock. what's not to love? if i weren't american i think i would be miserable.

*goes back to reading wemyss' essay*
velvet_tipping From: velvet_tipping Date: January 5th, 2008 11:09 am (UTC) (Link)
"The blurring of the fine distinctions between privileged classes or persons, and (in sociological terms) an elite that is not necessarily coterminous with the limits of the privileged class, is all too common and equally slipshod."

i just think it isn't very important to be worried about this distinction. it doesn't really matter anymore if you're old or new money. what matters is if you have money, period, because that (can be) a tool to obtain the important/necessary educational opportunities. maybe this is, like, an attitude that is characteristic of a particular type of american. or maybe i am being narrowminded and focusing too much on my experience. but i think this is generalizable. i do not know that there are many arenas anymore where an old name counts for much. but money always talks, makes things easier, cushions. and sometimes it does this to such an extent that you fail to notice. but you need to take notice. because if you don't, you forget that there are human beings who don't live like you do. this is the prelude to the worst thing.

(which is the point of that meme - to get people who care about this kind of thing to pay a little attention to the way they are living their lives.)

(and i am kind of writing down my thoughts as i am going through your essay, so i see that you agree at least a little bit with me.)

"he is and will be regarded by the inattentive as ‘privileged’" not by the inattentive. he is privileged socioeconomically if he has money and is respected. there are ways in which, as a black man, he isn't privileged. there are all different kinds of privilege, and its the way in which they interact (intersectionality) that the people who study this kind of thing are interested in.

"Privilege? There is something intellectually incoherent in this."

honestly, only if you are adhering to an old/outmoded definition of privilege. i think that privilege must have evolved in its meaning. i mean even the fact that he feels that tory principles are his means that he has attained to a certain level of privilege (or it would, if tory meant the same thing it used to mean).

"I don’t at all mean to be flippant, but the awarding of an MA or DPhil – for some occult reason, the Yanks seem to prefer the Tab version, ‘PhD’ – to persons who have never construed a line of Latin, let alone Greek, in their lives, seems to me to be fraught with ominous portent."

*laughs* this is quite a ridiculous thing to say and mean, but i guess it is because you would say it and mean it that i like you.

"And he will have amassed social and intellectual capital in ways very different to that of the American scholar, which will pay unexpected dividends, no matter what he does with his life."

you are vastly overestimating the caliber of english public schools and vastly underestimating the caliber of american private schools. the AP/IB curricula impart knowledge comparable to what you'd obtain through a levels on individual subjects (where they can be compared, since i know there are some a levels that dont correspond to either APs or IBs). and i think that all of these syllabi are great preparation for a good university education. if there is a difference, it's probably that in the US people are expected to, and can, do more of them. and i know this isn't exactly what you're talking about, but comparing choate or exeter or andover or even where i went to school to eton, i'm pretty sure the americans would come out ahead. we have better resources and teachers and i will stop now bc it is kind of embarrassing to be such a nationalist. but it is completely true.

also, yes, i had a "classical education," and i retain more than just bits and pieces of it. and it was useful because it trained the same parts of my brain that i use for things that matter in this day and age. but wemyss, you can't seriously be telling me that a classical education is valuable as an end in itself. i know we are supposed to be kind about this and offer respect to these disciplines (or at least, that is what i tell myself). but if i were honest i wouldn't be able to defend the fact that i spent time reading catullus when i could have been learning another computer language (or even a living language).

Edited at 2008-01-05 12:05 pm (UTC)
velvet_tipping From: velvet_tipping Date: January 5th, 2008 12:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
"Whereas an MBA from Harvard allows its holder only to make money"

this is an unfair comparison, and you know it. first of all, violinists and composers in this country definitely have as much, if not more, in terms of opportunities to interact with people at the forefront of their areas. and could you really have picked a degree with less depth to compare to?

anyway, to conclude: we agree that it is merit that matters, but i absolutely disagree that the uk is superior when it comes to the nurturing of it. maybe it is especially obvious that you're wrong when it comes to what i study, but i think you'd be really hard-pressed to find any purportedly objective measure that pits the best in the uk against the best in america and doesn't have the latter come out on top. i know that it is trite to talk about america as a country with more opportunity and resource than anywhere else in the world, but it is true. this doesn't mean that i don't enjoy england because i do, but the merits of one country are what they are, and the merits of the other are what they are.

ps i know this was kind of blunt and ooc for me. but i still <3 you. and i am starting gate of ivory, gate of horn today!

Edited at 2008-01-05 12:25 pm (UTC)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 5th, 2008 12:51 pm (UTC) (Link)


I do think that distinctions and nuances and the way in which we use words, matter; I rather find that if the centre cannot hold and words slip and crack and lose their meanings ... well, it was Humpty-Dumpty who first exposed the totalitarian danger: when words mean what one says they mean, arbitrarily, it really is a question of, Who is to be master, that's all. Lenin could not have said it better. In any case, I was responding at that point to a question from a prior post.

As to your statement, 'he is privileged socioeconomically if he has money and is respected': well, this rather goes back to the prior post's argument that 'socioeconomic' is a false compound. Outwith the US (and Australia, I think, and some other areas of the Anglosphere), economic and social status are not linked or indexed in a direct one to one ratio, and may often be very different and even inimical things. That is precisely why applying the academic concept of privilege in societies that have actual privileges can be misleading. It also indicates one of the things that we both love best about America and Americans: that for all the rubbish talked about them by everyone from Rowan Cantuar to that bugger who edits the Lancet, America and Americans remain fundamentally committed to an open and egalitarian society in which anyone can rise as far as he likes from the humblest of origins, simply on talent whether scholarly or sporting or fiscal.

I am glad you've retained your Latinity, far better, I imagine, than any twenty Cheltenham Old Girls or any fifty Old Harrovians (or any eight Old Etonians, to be sure). There are diferent measures of utility, and no doubt it wd be convenient to have another language to one's credit, living or mechanical, but I can never conclude that any humane and liberal education is a waste of time, or that any humane and liberal education is NOT in itself a positive good and an end in itself.
(Deleted comment)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 5th, 2008 12:29 pm (UTC) (Link)

Well, naturally.

Admirable thing, loyalty. (This is not at all irony: I'm by way of being a Blimp myself, after all.)
serriadh From: serriadh Date: January 5th, 2008 04:48 pm (UTC) (Link)

Nit-picking rather...

...but I feel I should, for the sake of honesty, point out that I have an MA (nearly... a few more years and the 'administration fee') and a higher degree from Oxford wthout having read any more Latin that half a book of the Aeneid for GCSE, of which I remember almost nothing (declensions and princple parts I'm a bit better on). I have no Greek, except a smattering of Koine I picked up during the course of my BA. It is entirely possible to take a DPhil from Oxford without having any Latin or Greek whatsoever.

(And I don't know any computering languages, either :D)

But you're right about merit, I think, and about what happes to people once they are assumed to be 'privileged'. An ex-boyfriend of mine was at Christ's Hospital. Now, he is viewd by most as beng incredibly privileged because he went to a school with a gloriosly anachronistic and silly uniform, sings English choral music (in a rather unattractive tenor, I must say) and has a first class degree from Oxford. However, his parents have practically no money, and are not what anyone would refer to as upper class (not an old family, he's an out-of-work vet, she's unemployed) and are certainly not in good (mental) health and he's saddled with looking after his (adopted - before his parents got bad again) brother and sister emotionally, if not financially. Is he priveleged? His parents encouraged learning and books and the importance of education, and he's phenomenally bright, and he was lucky to gain a place (it was awarded on merit, yes, but you have to be spotted/apply/be sponsored or whatever) at CH. He now has an impeccable RP accent and is widely derided for being a Hooray Henry.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 5th, 2008 06:36 pm (UTC) (Link)

But in fact you DID have that bit of Vergil, I note.

Which was all the point I had.

And your former boyfriend is a perfect example, and one amidst thousands, of what I mean.
sgt_majorette From: sgt_majorette Date: January 5th, 2008 09:28 pm (UTC) (Link)

In Defense of "Yanks"

...two words: Staffordshire spaniels.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 5th, 2008 09:37 pm (UTC) (Link)

Wally dugs.

fpb From: fpb Date: January 6th, 2008 09:27 am (UTC) (Link)
I foresee we shall have more clashes than agreements, but I would like to friend you anyway. And for one thing, I would like to carry on the discussion about Kingsley Shacklebolt's speech patterns that we had on the review thread. I will probably post on the matter in my LJ in the next few days.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 6th, 2008 08:10 pm (UTC) (Link)

Your pigeon, m'boy.

My friending policy, if you are asking, is not to have one. It seems a bit presumptuous, not to say pretentious. I can't recall any occasion of my not having returned the gesture, and I don't defriend people shd they choose to defriend me. Of course, as I have locked perhaps two posts in all my time here, one needn't friend this journal to read it in any case.
fpb From: fpb Date: January 6th, 2008 10:49 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Your pigeon, m'boy.

Heck no, I was not asking about your "friending policy" - I was asking whether it was all right for me to friend you. I always do. (One or two people actually objected.) And since there seems to be an "all right" buried and wiggling somewhere under there, I have gone ahead and friended you (attributing you a midnight blue colour).
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