We’d done business over the phone for years, but I hadn’t actually seen her for at least a decade, and I was greatly looking forward to it. A businesswoman of immense energy, competence, and focus, she had worked punishingly hard for many years, and was now reaping the rewards. The promotion into upper management, the gauntlet of secretaries, the corner office with its panoramic view of the city, the elegant clothing, the resplendent coiffure, the aura of serenity and well-being-all these were new since my last visit, palpable evidences of her new status.

They couldn’t have happened to a more decent or deserving person, someone whose very life refutes the cynical (and stupid) idea that success in our day is merely a matter of impression management. After a disastrous divorce years ago that had left her saddled with the upbringing of two very young children, she found herself at the bottom of a formidable hole. But she proceeded to climb out inch by inch, without ever yielding to feelings of bitterness or grievance, instead showing an admirable tenacity, dedication to hard work, and boundless devotion to her children. There was no room for anything else. So her success was the fruit of many years of deferred hope and denied gratification, true grit and real sadness.

As we settled into our chairs and began talking, I spotted the glittering cluster on her left ring finger, and guessed that there must be another reason for her radiant contentment. Sure enough, she soon announced that she was to be married again, this time to a wealthy and politically connected attorney and businessman who moves in a glamorous world of entertainers, sports figures, and other high flyers. Her days as a lonely and struggling single mom would soon be the faintest and remotest of memories, crowded out by a life of skyboxes and high-powered board meetings and romantic getaways in exotic climes.

Clearly she was swept away by this tidal wave of good fortune, and who could blame her? I begrudged her none of it. For one thing, it was more than good fortune. Life had dealt her a rotten hand, and yet she had played it with triumphant mastery, turning her misfortunes to good use, never whining about her victimization but following a path of steady, dogged application.

My joy was not unmixed, however. I was a touch uneasy about some of her fiancé’s business associates, who, to say no more about it, didn’t strike me as her kind of people. Far more disturbing, though, were the occasional overtones of what can only be called “political correctness” coming out of her mouth. She had never uttered anything remotely resembling such things before, and it was jarring to hear them. They seemed so completely out of character that at first I thought she was joking, and chuckled appreciatively. When she responded with a reproving glare, my amusement evaporated. She was in deadly earnest, and I was expected to play along with this new earnestness. Her makeover was going to include a whole new set of political cosmetics-attitudes that were antithetical, in some ways, to the very values that had guided her to the place where she now sat.

She was especially strange in talking about a new school for one of her children, a subject on which she sought my insights as an “educator.” It turned out, though, that she didn’t really want advice. A prime stated criterion was that the school be “diverse” and “inclusive”; but when I suggested that the excellent public high school in her area (my own alma mater) possessed those very qualities in abundance, she waved aside the idea dismissively-it “didn’t have enough” for her child-and instead rattled off a familiar list of stupendously expensive private schools to which she’d narrowed her search.

Nothing wrong with that, of course, particularly if one has the money with which to play. But there was something bizarre about her inability to acknowledge the central role of prestige in her thinking. When I casually referred to one of the schools-an institution I know quite well-as “elite,” she became visibly agitated, and insisted that she’d been told the school had become “incredibly diverse and inclusive.” I was familiar with these claims of inclusiveness, which every exclusive school in America now feels obliged to make, and knew them to be, well, incredibly bogus and self-serving. How diverse could it be, I asked, with a total price tag approaching $20,000 a year? Who are they kidding? And, I might well have added, who are you kidding? But the conversation had now grazed a third rail, a matter too sensitive to be discussed honestly, and so I promptly dropped the subject.

This small encounter would not be worth relating were it not redolent of larger truths. It reflects the curious fact that, in America, a rise in social standing is often accompanied by the acquisition of what we are pleased to call “liberal” attitudes, and even “liberal” political views. This isn’t universally true, of course. But it is true often enough to call into question the near-universal assumption that wealth invariably makes people more “conservative” and complacent. And it is a phenomenon likely to persist and even grow in the years to come, whether or not explicitly “liberal” ideas come to enjoy a renaissance, because it has very little to do with the validity or efficacy of those ideas. Indeed, as the next generation of newly wealthy Americans begin to indulge themselves in the respectability game known as philanthropy, they are likely to be suckers for every bad guilt-discharging idea of the past fifty years, and new ones yet to be devised. (Ted Turner is a harbinger in this respect.) Veblen’s conspicuous consumption is still around. But it generally has to share the stage with conspicuous compassion, another form of compulsive display.

Such a development seems paradoxical. But the paradox is easily explained, though less easily addressed. As sage observers from Tocqueville to Lipset have pointed out, Americans are intensely devoted to the dual principles of liberty and equality. These principles are, so to speak, the oil and vinegar of American political ideology. To some extent, they can support one another, and in the right proportions even richly complement one another. But they always stand in tension, because they point in opposite directions and are ultimately hostile to one another. Given the vast range of human capacities, the exercise of liberty inevitably leads to social and economic inequality, as my friend had proved by her own success in career and (I hope) matrimony. Yet Americans’ simultaneous commitment to the principle of equality makes us extremely uneasy with the resultant disparities of wealth, power, or status-even though such disparities are the very marks of distinction that we crave, and toward which we strive.

Success in the American way of life, then, comes fraught with certain inevitable psychological tensions, and contemporary liberalism-or, to be more precise, a certain kind of liberal attitudinizing-offers itself as a way of managing those tensions. It allows one to be successful and to enjoy all the most conspicuous and pleasurable marks of distinction, so long as one is willing to pay the (small) price of verbally identifying oneself with underdogs and marginals. One is allowed to be a “winner” so long as one expresses solidarity with the “losers,” and blames the other “winners” for their inegalitarian selfishness and greed. Conspicuous achievement, then, has to be balanced by conspicuous projection. One discharges any guilty feelings one might have accumulated in one’s ascent, and banishes the weight of one’s sins, by projecting them onto designated scapegoats, real or imagined, e.g., racists, homophobes, rich Republicans, and the rest of the whole demonic host.

In this way the successful manage to pay their respects to both of the mutually jealous American gods, liberty and equality. That there is often an element of self-deception or worse in such a maneuver should be obvious. Think of the strange incoherence of a commonplace term like “underprivileged,” which implies that all life’s good things are both privileges and entitlements. Or think of the contortions that educationists go through to assert that the pursuit of equality and excellence are fully compatible-a sophisticated expression of the syndrome associated with Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, where all children are above average. That our compulsion to talk and think this way nevertheless prevails should suggest how profound are the psychological forces at work, forces impervious to mere evidence. And one should never forget that the sacrificial demonization of enemies, on whose heads the sins of the community come to rest, is an essential element in the moral economy of this peculiar arrangement. (Even sweet old Garrison Keillor is capable of being surprisingly nasty when he is talking about the Designated Demons who dwell outside the charmed circle of Lake Wobegon.)

Well then, you ask, shall we say that an ethos of naked self-seeking is better? Would I have been happier had my friend knocked off the diversity-cant, and simply asked me which school was the most prestigious? Of course not. Just as even a reign of furtive hypocrisy is preferable to a reign of unashamed vice, even a self-deceiving conscience is generally far better than none at all. More than that, though, I had to admit that there was a true generosity of spirit behind my friend’s sappy ideas, a spirit I cannot help but admire, and would not want to see extinguished. She can’t help it if the conjoined principles of liberty and equality operate to make us perpetually uncomfortable.

What is hardest of all for her to let go of, I think, is the illusion that she can still be “just folks,” despite her fabulous new life. Would that it were possible. But the fear of losing the very past from which one has fled, or the fond hope of carrying it forward into a world in which it simply has no place-these are among the most persistent if submerged themes of American history, dark threads discernible in the bright fabric of a thousand sagas of immigration, migration, and social advancement. Those dark threads remind us that even the change and mobility we cherish are never cost-free. On balance, the price is worth paying, particularly when one considers the alternatives. But there is always some price to be paid, and something precious to be left behind, as my friend is beginning to discover. The price is often greater than we imagine it will be. Such are the ironies of opportunity, and the hazards of new fortune.

Wilfred M. McClay is the Royden B. Davis Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Georgetown University for the academic year 1998-99.

Articles by Wilfred M. McClay

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