Thursday, September 18, 2014


      --A right, privilege or possession to which a person is entitled by birth.

Birthright means what you get just for being born who or where you were. The "right" part of the word causes some trouble. Kings thought being king was their birthright. Being born on U.S. soil makes American citizenship your birthright. Inheritance is your birthright...unless you piss off the family or they blow it all before they die. Golf at the country club was my birthright. That is I got to play because my dad was a member, and kids whose dads weren't members did not. A college education was also my birthright, although I almost blew that.

Those who are born well usually think they deserve what they have, while everyone else thinks they just won the conception lottery. This creates arrogance in one group and resentment in the other. Sometimes the arrogance morphs into noblesse oblige, which has given us many fine black-tie charity affairs. Sometimes the resentment morphs into vaulting ambition, which has given us many fine department stores.

The circumstances of our birth classify us. By wealth, religion, education, city block. And they divide us. I can't think of many examples of their having brought us together, or even fostering compassion or empathy. We are born with what we have and we cling to it like immigrants clutching tattered suitcases.

Sometimes, when there is almost nothing to hold onto, we walk away from our birthright and make something new of ourselves. These are the great stories of self-made men and women, of triumph over adversity. On the other hand, if we are born with a lot, we hang onto it. These are the stories of selfishness. If we have way more than we need, as we get older we may begin to loosen our grip on worldly goods in the hope of improving the odds of landing good accommodations in the next world, or out of a lifetime of feeling guilty about how much we have and how little so many others have. These are the stories of philanthropy.

Karl Marx had a grand notion that we could all share. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. That didn't work out so well. An approach that socialists like is to tax inherited wealth heavily so that we all come closer to starting from the same point. That hasn't been embraced in America, primarily because those who have wealth want to keep it and those who don't think they might someday and don't want it taken from them after they've worked all their lives to get it.

So we continue to have classes. We don't like to think of ourselves that way, but there is no other word for them. We want to believe we are a land of equal opportunity, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, it is so far rom the truth that it makes me wonder why we have continued the delusion. It's not our only one, I suppose. We are prone to delusions.

The truth is that if you are born into wealth, you are likely to end up well-educated and have a prosperous life. If you are born into poverty, especially if you are a black boy, you are likely to end up in prison.

If I said to you that the birthright of a poor child, white or black, is a life for struggle and paucity, you might say he or she just has to work hard to raise himself or herself up out of those circumstances. That is our common delusion, the Horatio Alger story we tell ourselves to justify looking away. If you were prone to split hairs over semantics, you might protest that that being born into a life of struggle and poverty is is not a right, it is a curse. And you would be right.

1 comment:

  1. There is a difference between being poor and being broke. Being broke is just having no money. Being poor is no money, and no hope. You're not helping labeling someone as poor, even if you think they are.