All in the Family

What’s the big deal with being self-made?

Petri Dishes

They are the luckiest of the lucky, the most favored of the favored, the crème de la crop. As I sit in limbo waiting for “America’s Most Wanted” to return my calls, they are waltzing off to book contracts and movie deals and exercising royal dominion over small islands. They are the new elite. They were also the old elite. They are the people whose parents work in their chosen professions.

Some of them are sneaky. Every so often I become excited by someone who appears to be a fresh new talent rising on his own wings, and then he turns out to be Oscar Hammerstein’s nephew. It’s not that they are less talented than other people or that they are more talented. They still have to work hard and possess some degree of skill. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a significant metaphorical foot in the metaphorical door.

On an episode of the British television series “A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” Hugh Laurie observes: “I was Princess Anne's assistant for a while, but I chucked that in because it was obvious they were never going to make me Princess Anne, no matter how well I did the job. It was a question of who you were, rather than how well you did, you know, and I hate that.” This about sums up the feelings of the rest of us as we watch people pelt Kennedy scions with political offices whenever they try to go outdoors.

“I don’t ask for much,” I rail to my parents. “I know you’re attached to me after raising me—or is it rearing?—for twenty-plus years, but I think I’m ready to learn that I was actually deposited on your doorstep as an infant, the surprise product of a torrid affair involving Stephen Spielberg, Maureen Dowd, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and whoever it is who runs the publishing industry these days. Right? Just tell me, so that I can go seize what is mine by right.” They are always depressingly silent at this juncture. “It would explain my hair color and face shape,” I add, holding up a series of diagrams. “Also my love of cats!” They sigh. (“I think I know a guy who ate lunch with George Clooney once,” my mother says, finally.)

Of course, this problem is as old as time itself. It’s always been easier to succeed in an industry if you’d have family in it before you. Look at George W. Bush, Sofia Coppola, Luke Skywalker, Michael Corleone, Harry Potter! Would he have been a famous wizard if his parents hadn’t been so up in the wizarding world? He even had that unsightly scar! And what about Jesus? I’d be able to start a world religion, too, if people thought God was my father. (As it is, Petrism isn’t really taking off. “There shall be no Thursdays!” I declare. “Go turn fish into more fish,” my roommates say, leaving to light their Zoroastrian fire altars.)

So what about the rest of us? Somehow, we are expected to get ahead on the force of our own ability. Who do they think we are, Barack Obama? Right now, for every delighted scion of the right industry there’s dozens of mismatches. So many kids want to break into terrorism these days, and here’s Osama Bin Laden’s son going off to be an i-banker.

There’s got to be a better way. Celebrities looking to pluck someone from deserved obscurity or Stephen Kings seeking to pass the pen to their scions, please, hold an open audition. Remember all those times your son refused to take out the garbage or said your new haircut made you look like a chrysanthemum? You and I don’t have that history! I’ll gladly clean my room, wash the dishes, and, Leona Helmsley Estate, I wouldn’t dream of peeing on the carpet (unless, of course, you would like me to). I won’t bring home strange men or get ill-advised tattoos—at least, not ones that say anything other than Lorne Michaels Is A Wise and Kindly Mentor, Like Yoda, Except Attractive, And With A Better Sense of Humor, Ladieeees… Also, He Is Taller! That’ll fill up a whole ankle!

The finance guru Warren Buffett once argued for the inheritance tax in front of the Senate Finance Committee by saying: “The resources of society I don't think should pass along in terms of an aristocratic dynasty of wealth…I believe in keeping equality of opportunity as much as you can in this country.” Warren was right. But it’s not just wealth. There’s also celebrity, shelter, and the quality of being Miley Cyrus.

Right now, connected parents are one of society’s most inequitably distributed resources. But technically, we are all each other’s thirty-fifth cousins, or something like that. Let’s spread the gifts around. Sure, we should strive for equality of opportunity. But why be self-made? There’s an uncle for that.

Alexandra A. Petri ’10 is an English concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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