This post is certain to do short shrift to the topic of individual character and cultural values. As you’ll see in due course, a long-standing friend, Professor Amar Bhide, sent me an encomium for a mentor of his, John McArthur, who among other things, was the Dean of Harvard Business School from 1980 to 1995.
What is striking about Amar’s description isn’t simply how rare it is for America to produce someone who was deeply engaged with the people around him, yet was also a first-class mind with wide-ranging interest, but that we no longer seem to aspire to produce people (outside immediate families) whose attentiveness and concern can and often does have a fundamental, positive impact on those around them. Amar points out that McArthur knew the names of all of the service staff in every restaurant and club he frequented. Now that I am in the South, one thing that really is different is that most people are courteous almost out of habit. Some of it can be a bit tricky, like men who seem overly eager to behave chivalrously, particularly in public spots like restaurants. But the behavior isn’t a regional variant to the grating “Have a nice day” that too many hotel and restaurant managers require employees to say (and it shows). Even if the attention is fleeting, the desire to make contact is genuine.
Admittedly, few are in the sort of career or societal role to have the impact that McArthur did. But there doesn’t seem to be much societal interest in producing elder statesmen or rabbis or pastors or skilled counselors, or individuals who could sometimes play pieces of those roles in narrower circumstances. Instead, too many people simply want to get theirs and devil take the hindmost.
And the costs when this posture become acceptable, as opposed to marginal, are significant. As David put it in our latest post on Brexit:
I hate to say this, as a lifelong Socialist from a very modest background, but the British system worked in the past because it was pretty homogeneous. I don’t mean literally everyone came from the same background (they let me in, after all) but rather there was a cultural homogeneity in the civil service, in politics, and even partly in the media, which had its origin in a certain upper middle class sense of duty, honesty and competence, inherited from the serious professional classes of the nineteenth century. (It had its analogue in the ethos of the honest tradesman, which we’ve lost as well). This culture was never universal , of course, but it was very powerful, and it coped quite well with the social changes after 1945, as more women and people from much more diverse backgrounds entered the public sphere.
It changed not because the origin of its members was different (May and Johnson both came from Oxford, as did Blair, and for that matter Thatcher) but because their ethos came from elsewhere. It came from the City, from Management Consultancy, and from that part of the British Establishment which was always more interested in Making Money than in Doing Things. It’s almost as though the disreputable younger sons of the Establishment, sent off to make money in Hong Kong after some scandal, had all returned to run the country. You can mock the old High Seriousness of the public sphere if you like (too white! too male!) but the fact is that it wouldn’t have got us in the mess we are in today, because it had both the scruples and the competence to avoid it. Now, it’s open season. I remember thinking how bitterly ironic it was that the government which got the country into the worst peacetime crisis in modern history was also the most inclusive, and led by a woman at that.
I’m not sure the end of homogeneity was the driver of diminished respect for what was once called character. In the US, I hazard that a bigger factor was the widespread acceptance of libertarian/neoliberal values. As we’ve documented, that world view was marketed aggressively and very successfully by a loosely coordinated but well funded right wing campaign, whose seminal document was the Powell Memo of 1971 which laid out the vision and many of the tactics for their war on the New Deal and the community values that supported it. For instance, it would have been well-nigh impossible for a Mike Milken, who’d gone to prison for securities law violations (and was widely believed to have engaged in considerably more questionable conduct) to have rehabilitated himself to the degree he did.
John McArthur, in memoriam
He was one of a kind — and his kindness and empathy (a much used word I know) was unbounded. It touched all from dining and custodial staff to taxi drivers. My parents apart, few other people have had such an influence on me. (And he did me the honor of reading everything I read: every book every article, every draft, the pages a sea of yellow highlight)
He was also astute, ruthless and got things done. His mind was extraordinary and his reading voracious and eclectic — although you would never guess it from his aw shucks manner and country bumpkin style.
I first actually talked to him in my second year as assistant professor. We had a long long lunch at his corner table in the faculty club. We talked about everything — except why we were having lunch. At the end he said, “Perhaps you’d like to know why i asked you to lunch. Well I’ve been reading your stuff and I wanted to put a face to the writing, to know who this person was who was writing this stuff.”
A few days later a copy of Knight’s Risk Uncertainty and Profit arrived in interoffice mail with one of John’s classic handwritten notes, which went something along the following lines. “I think this will suit the way you think of the world.”
I had never encountered the book in my doctoral studies, and it was revelatory.
We had lunches, lasting 2-3 hours nearly every year for the last 20 years after I left HBS. Always at the Charles (“If we ate at HBS there would be someone stopping by every minute” he said. At the Charles it was only every 10 minutes. And of course he knew every single waiter and waitress by name).
The stories he told at the lunches.. Such a pity he did not put his wisdom into a memoir. But that was not his way.