by Barry Edelson
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Just One Big Unhappy Family


this baby bounced on mommy's hip
will likely never know what ship
       delivered him – ancestral fluke –
       not seventh earl or eleventh duke

adrift on the genetic sea
oblivious to heredity
       nor compassed toward the unhatched swill
       that swim and swerve as flotsam will

colliding by some lucky shove
dividing at the mercy of
       the insistent protoplasmic fizz
       of every living was and is
Ode to Procreation, B.E., 1994


In Cat's Cradle, the late and greatly lamented Kurt Vonnegut gifted to us the word "granfalloon" — meaning an association among people that induces pride among its members but is in fact utterly meaningless — one of those rare, indelible creations that makes us wonder how the world could ever have existed without it. Vonnegut's expansive concept ranged from the mainly harmless (e.g., Hoosiers, of which he was one) to the potentially catastrophic (e.g., nation-states), thus neatly equating the grandest of mankind's many projects with the most trivial forms of self-regard, and dismissing in a mere three syllables the folly and delusion of all human organizations.

The inextinguishable tendency to distinguish ourselves from one another is at the root of two recent essays. The first, "Your Ancestors, Your Fate" by Gregory Clark (The New York Times, February 23, 2014, based on his book The Son Also Rises), is a rather fascinating study of social mobility as revealed in the predominance of particular surnames over time among both the upper and lower classes. Clark and other researchers followed the hereditary path of family names in a number of different countries over hundreds of years and found that the social status of one's distant ancestors is a very strong indicator of current standing. Even in highly egalitarian societies, as in the Scandinavian countries, there is surprisingly little social mobility over the course of generations. If one's multiple-great-grandparents were wealthy aristocrats, then one is not only more likely to be a wealthy aristocrat oneself, but also more likely to find oneself among the over-represented descendants of the upper classes among high-ranking government officials and in the most lucrative and highly regarded professions, as well. This appears to be true in each of the various countries in the study (Chile, China, England, India, Japan, South Korea, Sweden and the United States).

The conclusion is not that dreams of social mobility are doomed, nor that the persistence of either success or failure in certain families down through the generations makes efforts to promote equality pointless. In fact, Clark's overall message is surprisingly egalitarian: if heredity is so determinative, then there is no point to the discriminatory practices or lopsided accumulation of wealth that are designed to preserve the social status quo. Justice and economic prosperity are worthy objectives in themselves, and the social status of particular individuals can and does change. But by and large it takes a very long time to break the barriers of social class, and even the compulsion to strive and thereby take advantage of a society's opportunities for advancement may be largely hereditary. A review of a different but related study in the Economist reinforced the presumption that the tendency of men and women of similar backgrounds and experience to marry one another is the primary reason why social mobility is so limited and income inequality is so great. Ironically, greater opportunities for women may actually be making inequality worse. There was a time when doctors married nurses and bosses married their secretaries because there weren't many women of their own professional status. According to this study, we seem now to be reverting to an earlier time when marriage across social strata was comparatively rare, which would seem to bolster Clark's argument about the durability of family names.

If true, Clark's findings would call into question a great many theories about how societies are organized and how best to make them more equal. For an obvious one, the brutal enforcement of social engineering appears to be even more wantonly cruel in light of its uselessness. His blunt assertion, "Mao failed", alludes to the finding that certain rare surnames are as overrepresented in the Chinese elite today as they were in the 19th century, despite unprecedented social upheaval. This is a welcome additional blow to the remnants of Marxism, but is a somewhat belated acknowledgement that Communism's claims of social superiority were unmasked even while its practitioners were in the ascendant. Discriminating students of human society knew quite early (for example, George Orwell in the 1930s) that Communist totalitarianism was a sham from the outset, just another scheme to supplant one ruling elite for another, and keep everyone else working solely to enrich the upper echelons of society and ensconce their rear ends in the seats of power. The ideological underpinnings may have been different from 'traditional' tyrannies, but even in the two gargantuan Communist police states upon which all the others were modeled, Maoist China and Stalinist Russia, the international solidarity of the proletariat never quite achieved supremacy over national and ethnic identity. Minorities were suppressed as brutally as anywhere else, and national interests were pursued as vigorously against those nations that were sympathetic to the socialist ideal as to those that disparaged it. Nonetheless, Clark's surprisingly simple and perceptive discovery about surnames and social mobility does very effectively demonstrate how futile are any attempts by governments, whether right or left in their orientation, to impose social change on a large scale. We still may not know enough about the particulars of human nature to know which characteristics will prevail over time, but we do know that granfalloons like "workers" and "countrymen" are a cold comfort for the oppressed and starving billions of the world.

One wishes that Clark had delved into the internationalism of social class. Cross-border relationships among individuals would also seem to follow class divisions. If anyone had studied the surnames of all of the bureaucrats and high officials in the European Union, for example, he would probably have found a preponderance of surnames that mirrored those in their respective countries of origin. Thus, international relations across boundaries only reinforce national class divisions by the interbreeding of like with like, thus entrenching the upper classes in power and the lower classes in poverty everywhere. Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, a compelling film about World War I, was a brilliant illustration of how class divisions remain strictly intact even amidst the most ardent nationalist hoopla. In the movie, the commander of a German prisoner of war camp finds that he has much in common with his counterpart, the ranking officer among the French prisoners. As educated and elite Europeans of their generation, they share many cultural tastes and traits and pointedly have little interaction with the lower-class soldiers under their command. Being enemies seems little more than an accident of circumstance, but it nonetheless leads to a dramatic and violent climax during an escape attempt. It is not difficult to understand how the lower classes of one nation can be compelled to fight in the trenches against the lower classes of another, but Renoir's stroke of genius was to show how the ruling classes were also induced to destroy themselves for the sake of king and country. (Nationalism was also something that international communism was meant to put an end to, but turned out to be just another way in which it singularly failed, among all of the other ways in which it singularly failed.)

In the movie's concluding scenes, two French soldiers who manage to escape take shelter for the winter in the remote farmhouse of a young German woman, with a daughter, whose husband has been killed in the war. One of the soldiers and the woman have a touching love affair and find they are similar in many ways, even though each can hardly speak a word of the other's language. Their heartbreaking farewell provides a stunning counterpoint to the earlier, fatal confrontation between the German and French officers: both episodes make short work of the granfalloon of nationalism, but also highlight the imperative of human affection across artificial boundaries of language, religion, politics and ethnicity.

This brings into question another widely held theory of societies: that culture inhibits meaningful social change. This may be true in a general sense, as writers like David Brooks frequently point out, because habits of culture are deeply ingrained and tend to survive even the most ruthless efforts to instill change (e.g., church-going in Eastern Europe or sex selection in India). But the argument for culture as a predictive factor in either national or individual success is undermined by the realization that within any nation there are several cultures operating simultaneously and, to varying degrees, independently. Determining which of these cultures is predominant, if any, is so complex that it seems absurd to suppose that a particular country, for example, is incapable of embracing a less repressive political or social system because of its history. Societies are indeed highly resistant to change, but we are able to understand so little about the cultural currents that are hidden from view, especially from ourselves in our own society at any given time, that making predictions about the fate of nations based on their cultural history is as much a fool's game as predicting the life trajectory of any particular newborn infant. The patterns are only obvious in retrospect.

Keep Your Cousins to Yourself

The surname study makes a total mockery of another essay in the Times' review just a few weeks earlier, (A.J. Jacobs, "Are You My Cousin?", January 31, 2014) which posited that a worldwide awareness that all humans are related to one another through one genetic pathway or another ought to lead to a generally more peaceful world. The article descended into silliness rather quickly, as the author succumbed to the fatuous fascination with being related to celebrities. If we are indeed all related to one another, and every human being's family tree overlaps somewhere with everyone else's, then we can in fact claim the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Quincy Jones and Jackson Pollack as distant relations — as Jacobs does rather too gleefully. But it takes only a tiny leap of imagination to realize that such notables as Adolf Hitler, Meyer Lansky, Pol Pot and Lee Harvey Oswald are also cousins no more than a few dozen steps removed from most of us. It's hard to imagine that many people using genealogical websites to compare their family trees with those of other people's are actively searching for members of the Stalin or Mussolini families — or would admit it if they accidentally discovered any of them perched on a nearby branch.

More to the point, the central premise of "Are You My Cousin?" is preposterous on its face: that we aren't as likely to harm other people whom we view as 'family'. Really? Universally harmonious relations among relations is alien to the experience of nearly every member of our species who has ever lived. Has the author never heard of fratricide? Civil war? Do the multitudes of English speakers named Smith who are scattered across the globe, or the millions of Han Chinese who share the surname Wang, all view each other as part of the same family? These would be granfalloons on an astonishingly large scale. That we are all interrelated in some abstract way is self-evident. The commonality of human experience is reason enough to pause before inflicting harm on others, as every worthy poet, dramatist and novelist has been telling us since the invention of literature. Yet it is hard to fathom how the randomness of our relations to one another can produce anything but sentimentality, which has been known to inspire little besides bad writing and crocodile tears.

The predilection for emphasizing the differences among ourselves even where they are superficial is constantly at odds with even well-intentioned efforts to bridge them. Family and tribal histories many generations long are more than likely to overwhelm the most sincere acknowledgements of genetic togetherness. Even people of very low social status are often deeply proud of their heritage and passionately defend their way of life, however self-defeating they may seem to others (as tax collectors and prison wardens the world over will attest). Whenever we hear an office-seeker say, "We're all in this together", or any other empty phrase that implies a common purpose for everyone, an alarm should go off in our heads. Among all of the uncertainties in this world, one thing that is absolutely clear is that "we" are inherently disinclined to accept the notion that "we" are in anything together. Perhaps the most difficult reality to face is that "humanity" is the grandest granfalloon of all.


March 2, 2014


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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.