Sympathy for the Meddle

"Men have died from time to time but not for love," Shakespeare pointed out, balancing irony with understatement. Homo sapiens over the years have indeed had a distinct tendency to slaughter one another. A more insightful author than I could suggest reasons for the rivers of blood over the eons. I will merely mention that as our species expanded, everybody else seemed to vanish. If writing has existed 70,000 years ago, "don't go into a dark alley with a Homo sapien" would have been the most cogent graffiti. Maybe there aren't any more Neanderthals because they were intermarried into oblivion. But the "Replacement Theory" suggests genocide as a possibility. And there has been rather a lot of "Kill the pig!" since then.

There seems to be a pronounced "us versus them-ism" in all the slaughter. Balkanization is one word representing disparate groups, each of which holds only amity for the others. I understand that there is still some grouchiness between Shia and Suni, hutu and tutsi, Protestant and Catholic. Which is not to suggest that there is anything biological or inevitable about all the hatred, only that it seems fairly widespread.

Some poets have suggested that our only hope resides in accepting and embracing. "Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another." Religious traditions seem to emphasize treating each other as we would be treated ourselves.

Whereas class distinctions--“hatred" is only a mild exaggeration--don’t move us forward. Any sentence beginning with “those people" is more divisive than healing. Nobody every chose to live on the wrong side of the tracks; indeed, the tracks were designed and installed by those wishing to keep the "others" elsewhere. "We must all hang together or, most assuredly, we will all hang separately" must now apply to more than just the folks about whom Benjamin Franklin first said it.

So what is to be said for the latest class of “them? You will immediately recognize those whom I describe. Those wealthy people. Those who take shortcuts. Those who lie and cheat on behalf of their children. Those who don’t understand that overcoming setbacks is part of growth. Those who take advantage by giving their children unearned advantages.

We are sensitive to low socioeconomic status families. We side with John Valjean stealing a loaf of bread to feed his children. Nobody roots for Goliath. We applaud those who make good, go straight, learn from mistakes. And while ignorance is no excuse of the law, the law does make distinctions based on intent. Manslaughter and premeditated murder have different consequences. In evaluating penalties, we want to know why children committed an infraction, whether or not they have learned from their failing. Are you sorry you did something wrong or are you sorry that you got caught?

A parent takes a shortcut, breaks the law, bribes a coach, hires someone to sit for an exam. Should we consider the most charitable explanation? Maybe the internal monologue was as follows: "My child learns differently. My child cannot do things on her own. I have not been there for my child. I have been on the movie set, emotionally unavailable. I have been in the office rather than going hiking with my child. Of course I'm going to lie and cheat so that she can go to a good college. I want her to have advantages that I did not. I suffered coming up the hard way; I want to spare her those difficulties. It's not her fault."

Or, to the contrary, was the thinking along the lines of: "We deserve more than our fair share. The usual rules don't apply to us. I have been abundantly successful. My child is entitled to be admitted to USC. And to hell with all those other students who are actually smart, work hard, and sweat through lacrosse practice in the sun. Let them eat cake. Let them eat cake sitting on hard chairs in the dingy cafeteria at a no-name college."

We try to give our children the benefit of the doubt. To help them grow up healthy and whole, we give them a way to save face. "I know you didn't mean to make your brother cry." Shouldn't we find a way to be sympathetic to entitled parents who lie and cheat to proffer advantages for their kids? Aren't the wealthy worthy of our sympathy?

Do we all share some responsibility for the excesses? I teach objective versus nominative case pronouns. I edit essays for my students who are applying to college. "Let's keep this a secret between you and I" writes a 17-year-old applicant. "No," I instruct. "Prepositions like 'between' take objects. 'Let's keep this a secret between you and me' is correct." Aren't the wealthy and influential just turning the dial, helping their kids to have an advantage?

There is a significant difference between correcting a pronoun error and inventing a resume out of whole cloth. Everyone knows the rules. Proof reading is okay. Hiring someone to write your entire admissions essay is not. The broader question of what to do with the liars and the cheaters remains. How should they be punished? Should their children be taken out of their mansions and placed in foster care? Or should we just hire some Homo sapiens to take those unfortunate wealthy folks for a one-way walk on the savannah?

5 thoughts on “Sympathy for the Meddle

  1. Martin

    Not to quibble, but I’ll bet the Philistines were rooting for Goliath. Who wouldn’t want a big strong guy up front to protect you from those nasty Hebrews who believe their god gave them this land that Baal gave to us? Like that big strong guy with the blond (or orange) hair protecting us from those brown people pouring across the border to take away our land.

    And my child IS entitled to be admitted to Stanford! I’m not that impressed with USC. It is no more than she deserves. She is beautiful and I love her. This is not more than our fair share. It’s the least we can do. We have the money. What’s the problem? As for the others, “Are there not community colleges? State universities?”

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  2. David Craig

    We seem to have a love/hate relationship with the rich and famous (and others we envy). We buy “People” magazine, watch Entertainment Tonight, watch all the award shows (Does anybody care who won “Best Cinematographer” or are we just looking at the dressed up celebrities?), etc. We semi-worship these people but then experience great glee when they mess up. Turns out, they’re like the rest of us, except sometimes even worse. (At least they have the resources to be worse.) Strange creatures, we (those) human beings.

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    1. Richard Schlesinger

      Your child is entitled to be admitted to Stanford if your child is up to the level of admission to Stanford. Your child is not entitled to be admitted to Stanford because you are rich and she is getting Bs and Cs in high school, and 1200 on her boards. And if you falsify her grades, have someone take tests for her, or bribe school officials to get her in, then you my friend should go to jail with the other drug dealers.

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    2. Richard Schlesinger

      I think, David, an appropriate punishment would be to fine these people $10 million each and use the money for a scholarship fund for deserving applicants who otherwise cannot afford USC, Stanford, Yale and the other colleges involved. The amount of the fine should be matched by each one of the institutions involved. Felicity Huffman and these other folks can afford the $10 mil and so can the schools. The scholarship fund would end up being endowed at somewhere near half a billion dollars. A lot of kids would benefit.

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