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The American Aristocracy Lies Low

March 13, 2010

Imagine that you are an Ivy League freshman, opposed to affirmative action in admissions to elite universities. After all, a spot at an Ivy League is a fucking valuable thing, and you don’t just give it away for nothing. It’s only fair that the admissions decision be made upon criteria that are entirely under the control of the individual: GPA, not skin color. SAT score, not membership in a systemically disadvantaged group.

Your ethics professor challenges you: All of those arguments you just made can be used against legacy admissions. Are you similarly opposed to legacy admissions?

Now, you aren’t just any Ivy League freshman. You are a Ivy League freshman in Michael Sandel’s class on Justice, who is aware that his response is being filmed for the ninth episode of a series that will be aired on PBS and the Internet. With the eyes of the world upon you, you can demonstrate the coherence of your worldview and express your disapproval of both forms of group-based admissions. Or you can show yourself a flexible thinker, and say you now support both affirmative action and legacy admissions. Or perhaps you want to show yourself to be a practical man, and you argue that while legacy admissions are unjust from the perspective of egalitarian or duty-based ethics, the hard-nosed utilitarian must admit that legacy admissions are justified from the institutional imperative to encourage a steady flow of donations from wealthy alumni.

But these arguments would be the coward’s way out.

You remember that the professor had mentioned three justifications for affirmative action: amelioration for historical wrongs, adjusting for the cultural bias in instruments like standardized tests, and finally, the argument that cultural diversity in the university community is a good in and of itself. So with the eyes of posterity upon you, you declare that it’s not affirmative action but legacy admissions that are justified by the argument from diversity. Because who is to say that the other students don’t benefit from hobnobbing with the blue bloods whose great-grandfathers’ names are attached to the residence halls?


I want to make myself clear: I find this student’s argument from diversity entirely convincing. Before I watched this episode of Justice, I never would have suspected that, in the name of diversity, anyone being watched by a national audience would denounce affirmative action while supporting legacy admissions. So there’s diversity for you: I now know that not only does such a mindset exist, but that this mindset exists shamelessly.

I do have one quibble with our young (I can only assume) legacy admit’s argument: Legacy admissions keep all that diversity unfairly concentrated in the Ivies and their regional equivalents. Elite schools are going to have enough of this particular species of diversity even without legacy admissions. Who’s to say that 4th-tier university students wouldn’t benefit from listening to a would-have-been Yalie regale them with their grandfather’s Skull and Bones hijinks?

I think most Americans underestimate the inertia of the American social system. Yes, mobility is possible. But wealth begets wealth, status begets status, and power begets power. Hell, I’m a member of a discipline (rightly) obsessed with the inertia in America’s social system. But even I regularly underestimate the myriad of institutions that privilege those born into the right kind of family.

I attribute this to the preference of the American aristocracy to lie low. (Perhaps our freshman was playing hooky from boarding school the day this lesson was taught.) The aristocracy allows itself to fade into the background when things are running smoothly, so that the rest of America can forget that these enormously privileged people exist. It took two local news stories to really drive home to me the power of the well-born.


A Man’s Home is His Castle

Jerome and Bernadette Wodinsky (Picture by Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff)

The most sacred thing in America, I have heard, is private property. And when it comes to private property, nothing is more sacred than the family home.

Unfortunately for Jerome and Bernadette Wodinsky, not everyone in America respects their claim to their Back Bay home. Who keeps the Wodinskys from enjoying their private property, purchased by the sweat of their brow? A Communist? A Marxist? An anarchist? Why no, it’s Michael Kettenbach, who married into a $1 billion-plus supermarket fortune.

I’ll let Brian McGrory of the Boston Globe describe the situation in his January 2010 story:

Kettenbach [and his lawyer are] codefendants in a civil suit in which they are accused of scheming to drive an elderly Brandeis professor and his wife out of the Back Bay condominium where they’ve lived for 32 years. Think constant construction noise, astronomical assessments, and a decommissioned elevator that has left the plaintiffs constantly climbing the stairs.

In short, Jerome and Bernadette Wodinsky own the fourth floor of a magnificent Commonwealth Avenue building that Michael and Frances (Demoulas) Kettenbach seem to want all to themselves. The Kettenbachs have bought every other unit in the building, but the Wodinskys, who do not appear eager to sell, stand between them and what could be one of the city’s grandest single-owner homes…

For starters, contractors for Kettenbach and Crossen, who handles real estate issues for the family, summoned state inspectors last spring. They condemned the elevator, the Kettenbachs quickly removed it, and seven months later, there’s no replacement in sight.

That leaves the Wodinskys to negotiate four flights of steep and narrow back stairs (their entry point is in the basement) every time they come and go.

Jerry Wodinsky, by the way, is legally handicapped. At 82, he suffers from emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, peripheral vascular disease, high cholesterol, diabetes 2, and has three stents implanted in his legs, according to filings in Suffolk Superior Court. Except for that, he’s in perfect health.

“I make sure I only go out once a day,’’ Wodinsky said. “I can’t walk up. I crawl up. I rest on every level to catch my breath.’’

A new elevator, when they finally get it, is just one item in an extraordinary Kettenbach spending spree. When the roof leaked, rather than repair it, they put on a new one – even though it was only 10 years old. Leaky skylights? They got new ones of those as well. They completely replaced the building’s heating system and did a massive overhaul of the electrical system…

The result: More than $1 million in common expenses, and the Wodinskys, who didn’t want any of it, have been told they’re on the hook for 20 percent of the repairs and improvements. That comes to $209,000, and Kettenbach has already taken them to court demanding $31,000 of it…

He said his older brother, Walter, who lived with the Wodinskys over the last year, had it worse. He would sit at the front windows, looking down at the park benches and wishing he could sit in the sun, but was unable to navigate the stairs. He died last month, as Wodinsky said, “a prisoner’’ in the unit.

If, like Wodinsky, I am ever lucky enough to be married for 42 years, to be tenured at a university as prestigious as Brandeis, and to own a condo in a neighborhood as nice as Back Bay, I will consider myself to have made it. And while I would know that things like this might (equally unjustly) happen to families less well off than my own, I might be forgiven for thinking that I had worked hard enough in a system that rewards hard work, that I had been successful enough in a system that rewards success, that this sort of thing simply could not happen to me at age 82.

Enter our Hero and the Good Governor’s Scion

Fortunately, McGrory updated us a month later. The Wodinsky’s are still walking up and down four flights of stairs, but the court has ruled on their side and John Walsh has volunteered to help with both the legal and condo-rehab bills.

Who is John Walsh? Despite my beef with the term, I will describe John Walsh as a self-made millionaire, because he is a mensch. According to McGrory:

He is the owner and CEO of Elizabeth Grady Cos., a self-made millionaire who grew up in a Somerville housing project, dropped out of college, and emerged as a force in Boston business.

It seems that Walsh was willing to help out the Wodinsky’s because, despite all of his worldly success, he has also been on the receiving end of the disdain of America’s aristocracy:

In 2006, Walsh ran into his own housing conflict. When he and his wife tried to buy into a Beacon Hill cooperative building, the bluebloods upstairs looked at him like he was from another planet, telling him in a rejection letter that he “would not reasonably coalesce as a member of this cooperative community.’’

I think that last line means that Walsh has one of those funny working class accents. But the story continues: in more proof that there are markets in everything, it turns out we know exactly how much the residents of Beacon Hill value not living above someone who drops his R’s:

The fight, chronicled by my friend and former colleague Steve Bailey, led to a settlement: Winthrop et al. paid Walsh $2.2 million not to live with them.

Think for a moment: Does that name “Winthrop” sound familiar to you? Does it perhaps sound a bit … 17th century?

The chairman of that board was Jonathan Winthrop, a descendant of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

How to describe my joy upon reading that Jonathan Winthrop was related to John Winthrop? The direct descendent of the wealthy Puritan given the charter for the Massachusetts Bay Colony by King Charles I  in 1630 still lives on Beacon Hill, where he throws around millions of dollars to keep white ethnics from living next door.

There may be no justice in this story, but by god is it poetic.


PS – I don’t mean to be too harsh on this particular freshman. As my girlfriend pointed out to me, he was probably straight out of a not-so-socioeconomically-diverse high school and hadn’t yet had the time to benefit from the diversity of experiences among his fellow students. That, and he must have been nervous as hell as speaking in a huge auditorium in front of those cameras. So here’s to hoping that our freshman’s views mature over his 4 years at university.


From → Capitalism

  1. holly permalink

    You could have typed out what that kid actually said in your post, but then, I wouldn’t have gotten to listen to him sputter it out like he did. And now I’m scared of what teaching is going to be like when we’re no longer surrounded by our crazy hyper-articulate selves anymore and have to discern actual meaning from babble. I think we’re going to drown.

    • Getting to take liberties with a student’s response is actually a feature of teaching. If you watch Justice long enough, you realize that Sandel doesn’t reply to the argument actually made by the students, but instead does a very generous paraphrase, usually to the effect of, “So you don’t realize it, but you just made the very same argument that Immanuel Kant did. Let me tell you about Kant’s argument.”

      Sandel then gets to direct the lecture exactly where he wants it. So basically, pretend each of your students is a little budding Weber.

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