14 June 2012

Birthright, Entitlement and Yard Sales

This past Saturday morning, I went to some yard sales with my grandmother. When we arrived at one particular house, there was a family with three little girls looking over a small assortment of Barbies. They all, of course, pleaded to get their own but their mother declined. I wasn't actively keeping up with the conversation, but I did hear her say something about how the girls only had $X and for each of them to get a Barbie would wipe out that amount. Once they left, the sellers began to grouse about the mother.

They perceived the issue to be that by spurning their used Barbies, the mother had thumbed her nose at all used items in general as not being good enough. There were complaints about how "people today" insist on having only the finest of things, on demand, etc. You know the complaints. They're recycled daily on TV, where you work and probably at your own dinner table. Just recently, they masqueraded as profound words in a commencement speech at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts given by David McCullough, Jr.

In fact, they're much older complaints than we generally consider or admit. I've cited it before in this blog, but I again invoke the memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln. She began writing a diary at the age of 40 in 1690, in which she complained frequently about the ingratitude of her children and the lack of work ethic and sense of responsibility of their generation.

Watching Dallas last night, I was struck by something. J.R. Ewing was always motivated by his sense of how to provide security and prosperity for his family, but his son John Ross has couched his ambitions in the name of claiming his birthright. Clearly, John Ross is a selfish snot who needs to be taken down a peg or two, but I've gotten to wondering: Just why have we as a society become so hostile toward the concept of birthright?

"Nobody owes you anything!" It seems the people who shout this the most passionately are the ones who have kept very close score over the years of when they were denied something by others. "Entitlement" has become one of the ugliest words in American politics.

What, then, was the point of doing well in a capitalist society? What was the point of all that collective accumulation of wealth, land and material items if not to provide for the security and prosperity of one's family? Who would participate in the rat race if not for the promise of having something to show for it at the end?

That brings us to the nature of birthright. When one grows up in a world where previous generations have contributed to building an inheritance, what's wrong with someone actually claiming it? Wasn't that the point? Should "people today" have to start from complete scratch, unaided by previous generations? Put another way: Would you want your children to have to do without reaping the fruits of your own labor? Why would you work so hard at all, if not for their benefit?

Perhaps the issue is not that "people today" have a distasteful sense of "entitlement," but rather that too many of us don't want to admit that birthright claims have inflated along with everything else. That is to say, it's not the sense of "entitlement" that's the issue, or even how it's expressed (though, certainly, many people - of all ages - could stand to take a course on manners). Rather, it's that all of a sudden, that birthright dwarfs what previous generations even aspired to achieve or accumulate.

Sure, "people today" consider the lives of their grandparents' generation quaint and primitive. Our entire way of life is built on that very message. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, our economy is built on the concept of disposability, from razor heads to cars. We complain about the work ethic of "people today," but what we don't talk about are all those hard-working forbears who were let go just before they got their gold watches, denied the pensions they had counted on and thought they had worked for decades to ensure. "Sorry, but we're outsourcing this plant. It's strictly a business decision, you see." Shareholders cared more about themselves than loyalty to the employees whose lives they could affect. Yet, when "people today" assert that they will not pledge decades of their lives to the whims of shareholders the way previous generations did, somehow that's an affront to those previous generations?

One laughs at an actor scoffing, "Oh, what, being a contract player isn't good enough for you?" or an athlete being dressed down by a golden age player for filing free agency. Somehow, though, we can applaud those kinds of workers (that's what they are, you see) for standing up for themselves and getting theirs, but we resent anyone of our own ilk who dares to follow their example.

Perhaps the real problem is that "people today" haven't been as hungry as previous generations think they ought to be. We as a society like to see people working for things, "earning" what they get. We exempt from those demands anyone who was born into the lap of luxury because, "Good for them." Why? Because those people have a greater birthright than our own. Ergo, they're the fortunate ones. Oddly, though, it seems when we realize our own people have a greater birthright than our own, we become indignant.

My Facebook timeline has often been inundated with chain statuses boasting about people from Generation Whatever didn't have XBoxes, iPods or DVD players in cars, but they did have respect for their elders, safe communities and solid values. There are infinite variations on this, but that example list should be recognizable enough. Should this generation be punished for the existence of technology? Should no one under the age of 18 be allowed to play video games or have an iPod because no previous generation of kids or teens had them? That's absurd. Also, I'd like to point out that if Generation Whichever grew up in a safe community, that was the doing of Generation Whichever's parents. Generation Whichever have become the predators and threats to today's communities so they really should shut the hell up about that one.

Anyway, after the family with the three little girls left the yard sale I had to refrain from defending the mother because it wasn't worth it to me to become ensnared in such a debate at the time. Here, though, I would like to point out that the mother had taken the girls to yard sales. I don't see how that possibly supports the charge that she was somehow too "uppity" about used Barbies. Moreover, she had the girls on a strict budget. That seems to be completely in defiance of the sense that the mother's generation didn't "know the value of a dollar." Quite the contrary, it showed that even when it would only have cost a couple dollars to indulge her daughters' wishes to have Barbies, she wanted to make them hold out through the day to ensure they got their money's worth.

I for one am unimpressed by the resentful elderly sellers and their ilk, but I am very encouraged to think of the kind of women those three little girls will grow up to be.

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