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We Deserve A Better Class Of People To Be Our Upper Class

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Someone has to say it.

We deserve a better class of people to be our upper class.

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Everything in nature has a purpose—so much so that things that do not serve a purpose do not last. So what is the purpose of the upper class?

There was a time when it was fully understood and accepted that with great privilege came great responsibility. In accordance with the noblesse oblige tradition of European aristocracy, it was accepted that the upper classes bore the final earthly responsibility for the well-being of the lower classes. In addition, there was also the idea that the privileges the upper class enjoyed enabled them to cultivate humanity in an exemplary way, not only through their patronage and connoisseurship of the arts, but also and more importantly, through their maintenance of the highest standards of personal behavior.

Of course, America always thought of itself as an aristocracy of merit. The idea was that people of power and privilege would have risen to the top in a fair and open competition, earning their position as a result of their superior efforts, talents, and accomplishments. It was believed that anyone of similar talent, effort, and accomplishment could achieve the same results. But this was all exposed as sham when recently it became clear to almost everyone that those who earn tens and hundreds of millions of dollars a year on Wall Street do so not as a result of their superior efforts and contributions, but as a result of their mastery of the four C’s—Connections, Corruption, and Campaign Contributions.

Even the notion that these “masters of the universe” provide employment for the rest of us has fallen away, revealing that they do not give employment but rather exploit it. They have been morally busted, and their mug shots reveal a group of greedy and shamelessly self-serving individuals who seek as much as possible for themselves no matter what the cost to others. This is what I mean by a lack of class.

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This goes beyond economics. I saw a snippet of a TV show this past week that brought this home to me. The show had something to do with a cheating scandal and about how a teacher had tried to fail twenty eight students she caught cheating. The brief part of the show I saw involved an interview with one of the students. Smart, handsome, and self-possessed, he was explaining why he cheated. He did not see it as a moral issue. He simply saw it as something he needed to do in order to get into an Ivy League school, which he thought was necessary in order to succeed in society. He figured his competition was cheating and benefiting from doing so, so he felt he needed to take the same advantage.

Now in old-fashioned, pre-quantum thinking, questions are framed in terms of binary oppositions. Trying to explain this student, we would ask whether it was nature or nurture that led him to cheat. Who is to blame, we would ask, the individual or the society? In the post-quantum world, modeled on the fact that light is not either a particle or a wave but rather at different times acts like a wave and then acts like a particle, breaks down the ontology of binary oppositions. To explain this student’s cheating, therefore, we would need to take into account both nature and nurture. Accordingly, we would not treat his cheating solely as a fact about him personally, but would also factor in the dynamics of the social system into our explanation.

And here is the sad part. The same behavior that got him flagged in high school would get him millions in bonuses on Wall Street.

Interestingly, the difference between liberals and conservatives has much to do with which half of the binary opposition—individual or society—is accepted as the most important explanatory factor. Conservatives tend to be blind to the larger social factors and explain everything in terms of individual behavior. Liberals, conversely, tend to explain things in terms of the dynamics of the larger social field the individual operates in, often seeming thereby to be making excuses for the individual.

What we now need, however, is not to flip from one side of the binary opposition to the other. We need to rise above the opposition to a more quantum, wholistic understanding. And when we do that, we can see that the classless CEO’s are stealing more than our money. They are also degrading our culture.

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John Bardi teaches philosophy and religious studies at Penn State-Mont Alto. He is also a musician and has been playing blues and rock guitar since 1961.

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