Waggish

William Ian Miller on Academic Aristocracy

(Or why graduate school may be counterproductive in preparing one for not entering the academy.)

The story is an old one: the seller and his quest for money was believed to dissolve values, status, and dignity into a soup of tawdry slop, one spoonful as bad as the next. The trader disrupted certain useful illusions; he created and fed cravings. He offered everything for a price; he was a pimp, a go-between, a purveyor; money went a-whoring or made everything and everyone a whore; nothing meant filthy lucre and holy dollars anything because everything was for sale. Selling for a price polluted the thing bought and sold, the person buying and the person selling.

This is an irony that should give some pause about the company one keeps: the antimarket, antitrader, anticommercial, antibourgeois spirit of the left academic makes him or her the heir of the old aristocratic distaste for working in trade, whether that view is embodied in the person of an Achaean warrior, a sixteenth-century English duke, or a nineteenth-century impoverished habitue of St. Moritz looking for a rich American heiress to fund his uselessness. The people? Hoi polloi? They higgle and haggle, or in more successful guise they were the fathers of those rich American heiresses, men who hawked their daughters to old European blue bloods at fancy watering holes to gain grandchildren who would soon learn to be ashamed of them for having been in trade.

It should hardly need to be pointed out that money is as money does. The antimarket people want money, too, but they want it to know its place and to be devoted to purposes deemed dignifying, or paid out indirectly via various subsidies, just as aristocrats wanted it via inheritance or by marrying rich spouses and felt it should be devoted to the glorifying, because wasteful, purposes of sumptuous display. If through its history money has been demeaned as barren metal or filthy shit – it is never quite clear whether sterility or fecundity is what makes it revolting – at least as excrement it can fertilize schools and the arts.

That said…

But the discourse of hard-nosed economists, the faux toughness of the marketeers, of those economists who wish to measure commitment and caring by a “willingness-to-pay-in-dollars” standard, is no less parasitical on dignity talk than the apples-and-oranges position is parasitical on fairly healthy amounts of filthy lucre. The everything-is-about-self-interest crowd, the market priests, the willingness-to-pay guys, know that their game is played for pretty safe stakes, not just because they make a living by flattering and being serviceable to the rich and powerful, but for the very reason that no one will kill them for their tastelessness and bad manners, for letting money speak with a megaphone in our ears, for telling us that we are motivated by nothing more than a painfully risible view of human behavior as driven solely by self-interest.

(From Miller’s Eye for an Eye.)

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