About a century ago, Walter Judd was a 17-year-old boy hoping to go to college at the University of Nebraska. His father pulled him aside and told him that, although the family had happily paid for Judd’s two sisters to go to college, Judd himself would get no money for tuition or room and board.
His father explained that he thought his son might one day go on to become a fine doctor, but he had also seen loose tendencies. Some hard manual labor during college would straighten him out.
Judd took the train to the university, arrived at the station at 10:30 and by 12:15 had found a job washing dishes at the cafeteria of the YMCA. He did that job every day of his first year, rising at 6 each morning, not having his first college date until the last week of the school year.
Judd went on to become a doctor, a daring medical missionary and a prominent member of Congress between 1943 and 1963. The anecdote is small, but it illustrates a few things. First, that, in those days, it was possible to work your way through college doing dishes. More important, that people then were more likely to assume that jobs at the bottom of the status ladder were ennobling and that jobs at the top were morally perilous. That is to say, the moral status system was likely to be the inverse of the worldly status system. The working classes were self-controlled, while the rich and the professionals could get away with things.
These mores, among other things, had biblical roots. In the Torah, God didn’t pick out the most powerful or notable or populous nation to be his chosen people. He chose a small, lowly band. The Torah is filled with characters who are exiles or from the lower reaches of society who are, nonetheless, chosen for pivotal moments: Moses, Joseph, Saul, David and Esther.
In the New Testament, Jesus blesses the poor, “for yours is the kingdom of God.” But “woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.”
In Corinthians, Jesus tells the crowds, “Not many of you were wise by worldly standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”
Under this rubric, your place is not determined by worldly accomplishments but simply through an acceptance of God’s grace. As Paul Tillich put it in a passage recently quoted on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, “Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.”
This inverse hierarchy took secular form. Proletarian novels and movies made the working class the moral bedrock of the nation. In Frank Capra movies like “Meet John Doe,” the common man is the salt of the earth, while the rich are suspect. It wasn’t as if Americans renounced worldly success (this is America!), but there were rival status hierarchies: the biblical hierarchy, the working man’s hierarchy, the artist’s hierarchy, the intellectual’s hierarchy, all of which questioned success and denounced those who climbed and sold out.
Over the years, religion has played a less dominant role in public culture. Meanwhile, the rival status hierarchies have fallen away. The meritocratic hierarchy of professional success is pretty much the only one left standing.
As a result, people are less ambivalent about commerce. We use economic categories, like “human capital” and “opportunity costs,” in a wide range of spheres. People are less worried about what William James called the “moral flabbiness” of the “bitch-goddess success,” and are more likely to use professional standing as a measure of life performance.
Words like “character,” which once suggested traits like renunciation that held back success, now denote traits like self-discipline, which enhance it.
Many rich people once felt compelled to try to square their happiness at being successful with their embarrassment about it. They adopted what Charles Murray calls a code of seemliness (no fancy clothes or cars). Not long ago, many people covered their affluence with a bohemian patina, but that patina has grown increasingly thin.
Now most of us engage in more matter-of-fact boasting: the car stickers that describe the driver’s summers on Martha’s Vineyard, the college window stickers, the mass embrace of luxury brands, even the currency of “likes” on Facebook and Reddit as people unabashedly seek popularity.
The culture was probably more dynamic when there were competing status hierarchies. When there is one hegemonic hierarchy, as there is today, the successful are less haunted by their own status and the less successful have nowhere to hide.