Monday, July 7, 2014


In the book I am currently listening to, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit, Goodwin mentions that Teddy Roosevelt had been a member of Harvard’s exalted and monumentally exclusive “Porcellian Club.”

My (cursory) research unearthed two tidbits.  One – that the “Porcellian Club” is believed to have been established in 1791, meaning that a mere fifteen years after the “Declaration of Independence” proclaimed that all men were created equal, students at Harvard established an organization proclaiming that by the immutable standards of the “Porcellian Club” they in fact actually weren’t. 

My second cursorily unearthed tidbit reveals that one of the greatest presidents of all time – Franklin Delano Roosevelt – once confided to a friend that having not been accepted into the “Porcellian Club” was “the greatest disappointment of my life.”  Making that rejection, in F.D.R’s mind at least, to have been more devastating than contracting polio.   

To me, this is sad.  Really, really sad. 

As well as quite stupid.

But I get it.  It hurts to hear “Not you.”  (Even if you wind up with the “Consolation Prize” of being president.)  By that is simply the way it is.

By its definition and nature, the institution of “In” demands the ex-titution of “Out.”  You cannot have one without the other.  And to many people, apparently including the man who ended the Depression and won World War II, being found unworthy of acceptance into a social club named after a pig, really matters.

Of course, this stuff does not upset me.  Because I am a superior kind of person.  (Please know that I am currently rolling my eyes.  At least as best as I can.)

I was once asked to pledge a hard-to-get-into high school fraternity.  Not because they liked me; my brother had been a member, making me an automatic “legacy.”  I pledged the fraternity for a while.  But then I quit.

I had concluded that it was not worth suffering the humiliating degradations of the pledging process in order to ultimately get in.  I know it feels good to get in, and I do not deny the perks and potential pleasures of being in.  

It appeared to me, however, that the primary reason my co-pledgees wanted to be in was not because being “In” was particularly wonderful, but because it allowed them to escape the unwanted ignominy of being “Out.”

I have never been comfortable with the idea of distinctions based on status, class or rank.  If I die… Freudian Slip…when I die, what I want most for people to say about me is,

“He treated everybody the same.”  

No delineating categorizations.  No “Us” and “Them.”  For me, the ideal is the “Universal Us.” 

Think about this for a second.

If you are “In”, it is only because some earlier “In’s” invited you in, thus placing you entirely at the mercy, whim and potential arbitrariness of those “In’s.”

What if something you say or do alters the perception of those “In’s” towards you, and now, no longer wanting you in, they summarily, instead, boot your ass out? 

If your security as an “In” is contingent on other people’s uncertain standards of personal acceptance, in the final analysis, how “In” actually are you?

Then there is the issue of the “Outs.”  What is the “Out’s’” reaction to your being “In”?  Now it is quite possible – even likely – that an “In” does not give a hoot what the “Outs” think of them. 

Keep in mind, however, that the exclusivity of the “In” organization insures that there are an overwhelmingly fewer number of “In’s” than there are “Out’s.” This means that, while you were winning the acceptance of “The Few”, either because of what “The Few” stand for or because you have uncaringly left them behind, you have incited the hostility of “The Many”, resulting in your now having more people who hate you than who believe you’re okay.

More interesting, at least to me, is, once you become an “In”, what then is your perception of the “Out’s”, of which you were just recently a member?  Is it not inevitable that you will start feeling – unconsciously, perhaps, but “feeling” nonetheless - that you are better than they are?  Or at the least, indisputably,

“No longer them”?

You worked hard to become an “In.”  There was an undeniable selection process involved in which you were deemed to be “In-Worthy” whereas the masses (now using the derogatory definition of the word) were adjudged “not.”
It is possible that that doesn’t mean anything – your acceptance could have been a fluke, or an accident of birth.  But whatever it was, it happened.  And now, you’re “In” and they’re “Out.”  Being a decent and compassionate person, you might believe, or at least believe you believe that, “I am not better than anybody else.  Nothing has changed.  Except that I’m ‘In’ and they’re ‘Out.’”

In practice, however, it does not seem to work that way.  “In-ness” and “Out-ness” engender meaningful consequences.  Consider an example.  Wait, why be stingy?  Consider two examples:

I am attempting to engage this guy I have just met in conversation, and he is unequivocally blowing me off.  He cannot get away from me fast enough.  Twenty minutes later, after apparently Googling my impressive television writing credits, he returns, beaming:

“I know who you are!”

You see what happened there?  First I was “Out” and then I was “In.”

While all the time being exactly the same person.

Example Two:  (Surprisingly not about me.)

A wonderful new acquaintance reveals that her longtime companion was of a lofty status, allowing her access to his “A-List” community.  When he died, they immediately cut her off.

You see that? – It’s the same story turned around.  First, she was “In” and then she was “Out.”

Remaining throughout exactly who she had always ever been.

I know the “In” and “Out” paradigm appears innately hard-wired and runs historically deep.  Mel Brooks quintessentially capsulized it when, as the “2000 Year-Old Man” he intoned his cave’s unapologetically “In”-inflected Anthem:

“Let ‘em all go to hell, except Cave Seventy-Eight!”

But to paraphrase – and remove much of the poetry – from the inspirational speech by Dr. Martin Luther King,

“I look to the day when a person is judged by the content of their character… and that’s it.”

Any chance of that happening, do you think?


Anonymous said...


JED said...

I try to be optimistic about these sorts of things but this is one case where I have to agree with your previous commenter, Anonymous. Most people are deeply into making Us/Them distinctions.

Just the other day, when I had the audacity to pull out onto the road when the next car was at least 100 yards away, the driver of that car (who, in my judgement, had been traveling the speed limit of 40 mph), roared up to my bumper and followed dangerously closely for the next few miles - even after I had sped up to over 40 mph (to appease them I hoped) rather quickly.

The other driver had apparently been born on this road and was not about to allow some riff raff in front of them. I hadn't been invited into this traveling fraternity so this couldn't have been a case of hazing. I think I was being met at the border and told to go back to my own kind. For all this driver knew, I might just let other interlopers onto the other driver's road. That's the trouble with letting one outsider in the club.

So, in agreeing with Anonymous, I have to say, "No. Even if a larger number of us want to try to follow your and Dr. King's paraphrased statement, there are just too many people adamantly opposed to it that are only too ready to throw us out, too."

Jim Dodd

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think there's some biological imperative here, that resources are always limited and we share them with *us*, not *them*.

As for FDR, don't rejections in your teen years, when your ego is at its most fragile, often hurt more than they do later, when you have more experience and perspective? A friend who ran one of the oldest online communities once commented that she thought that a lot of the behavior we see online is working out high school angst. Sounds right to me.