For a long time, it was an article of faith that Americans shouldn’t tolerate a system of preferential treatment among white men. Family name, title, class status, role in the clergy, property holdings — the theory was that no one deserved a bow and a scrape. You made your way on merit and fair-dealing.
Walt Whitman became a pop star for reminding his countrymen of the duty never to truckle: “Take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men.” You can never stop the snooty and boorish from asserting superiority. But abasing oneself before them was long considered un-American.
Of course, this American model of egalitarianism was predicated entirely on the exclusion and oppression of people of color and women. But what if racism and misogyny are only part of the story of the failure of the egalitarian ideal? What if the American imperative has even failed among white men?
Slowly but surely, in the last few decades, Americans have come to accept — against the odds — a wholesale system of preferential treatment. Sometimes, in fact, it seems as though we normal law-abiding taxpayers — of every gender and stripe — have been charged with taking off our hats to those framed as far, far above our station.
And what absurd figures we’ve genuflected to.
Jimmy A. Williams, an accused serial child abuser, was described as being “God” to an 11-year-old he allegedly raped. He was a horseback-riding coach. Harvey Weinstein, who was recently indicted on rape and sexual assault charges, was routinely called “the most powerful producer in Hollywood.” Larry Nassar, the convicted child molester, was “the almighty and trusted gymnastics doctor.”
Coaches, producers and doctors? I get that people want to win athletic competitions and Oscars, but the nation was founded on the rule of no curtsying to royalty. That a consensus ever decided guys like Weinstein deserved dispensations shows only contempt for the nation’s first principles.
Slowly but surely, in the last few decades, Americans have come to accept — against the odds — a wholesale system of preferential treatment.
Just 40 years ago, in novels and sitcoms and popular songs, we were less craven. Bosses, for example, were considered not divine — but pathetic in their petty tyrannies. They were management. They were capital. They were squares. They existed to be subverted, opposed, overthrown. Think of Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or Mr. Bledsoe in “Invisible Man.” Or, for Pete’s sake, Dolly Parton’s whole 1980 hit, “Nine to Five.”
Why would we possibly come to believe that just because someone was in charge, they deserved worship? Certainly not because of intrinsic merit. People like Williams and Weinstein and Nassar have a McStatus so dumb it makes the European nonsense of marquises and barons seem like the natural order. We classified monsters as VIPS.
The fact that we even use that daft acronym without irony is pathetic.
Once upon a time, first class on airplanes afforded the rich just a few extra treats; it was assumed Americans wouldn’t stand for a pronounced distinction between haves and have-nots. Strawberries, hot towels, giant armchairs and flight attendants explicitly instructed to brook the insults and whims of junior sadists with AmEx black cards and douchey Rolexes? And sweaty steerage for everyone else? No way.
But then we did stand for it. And before long, we stood aside for it. Very Important People coming through on this stupid acrylic red carpet! Clear the way!
In the movie “Jerry Maguire” in 1996, Renee Zellweger’s character reflects on the devil’s bargain airplane passengers had made when they put up with tiered seating.
“First class, that’s what’s wrong,” she tells her son, as she peers up the aisle from coach. “It used to be a better meal, now it’s a better life.”
A better life, the chief hallmark of which is you can act like a jackass. Pay for first class, and you can cut the line, dispense with courtesy, and get the rules waived. In Vegas casinos, we’re told, VIPs can even demand illegal drugs and sex with impunity because they spend a lot of money. VIP culture certainly gave us Weinstein, who was known for his ritual cruelty to restaurant servers, assistants and colleagues almost as much as his reported habit of sexual assault.
We all bear responsibility for an abject social order that is built on our collective willingness to accommodate VIPs. We don’t strike enough, and we don’t boycott enough. We seem resigned to encroaching feudalism. Somehow we have concluded that airlines, for example, couldn’t stay in business by treating all customers equally and humanely — and it’s our shared duty to participate in a lunatic business model that treats passengers like cattle so that others can buy their way out of mistreatment to full human dignity.
I can suggest a modest antidote, and it’s based on another system in air travel: TSA precheck.
Two years ago, I went to Elmhurst, Queens, in New York City, to be fingerprinted. A background check was run. My driver’s license was scrutinized. The official didn’t care how much money I had, or whether I was considered a god in my profession. He just wanted to know if I was a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen and good for the nominal fee of $85 for five years. And because I was, I’m less of a risk on airplanes, and I now get through security a little faster, a little more comfortably.
Imagine if it weren’t high rollers, guys in charge for one reason or another, who got the spiced almonds and smiles, but rank-and-file citizens, by virtue of the way they play by the rules. Imagine if, out of self-interest, some establishments and shared spaces gave a marginal advantage to people explicitly because they had no record of lawsuits, white-collar crime, or restraining orders? With just regular-people credentials, we could be prechecked back into full humanity in the public square.
What if, for once, the usual VIP crowd had to stand back for the regular Joes and Janes? That would be kinda baller. But I’d be very gracious about it.