Entitlements: A brief history personalized

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Imagine how surprised––and confused––I was to learn that I had extraordinary blood coursing through my body parts. From my father I learned that the original “DeGrazia” probably came from some backsliding nun who delivered (no doubt in swaddling clothes) the very first DeGrazia to the Mother Superior of some nunnery in the south of Italy. “Where did this infant come from?” asked the Mother Superior. “De Grazia,” replied the pious-sinner nun. By the Grace of God. God only knows.

Imagine how high-minded my feelings became when I later learned that my heart also might be pumping noble blood. To descend from an aristocratic line seems more classy than to be a mere child of God. If I were entitled to a noble title, what else would I be entitled to? The question is especially important in a political climate where some use the word “entitlement” as a bad word.

Because I minored in French as an undergrad I knew that the prefix “de” identifies certain famous individuals with an aristocratic family name that carries with it special perks. As “DeGrazia” am I, therefore, a bastard child of God or a nobleman, or both? If the backsliding nun was no more than a low-down sinner and I’m just the offspring of her original sin, it would tarnish my claim to being God’s gift to the world. But if I’m the scion of nobility then what does the world owe me?

The answer to that question became more complicated when news arrived that I was (indeed?) one more great-great-great-great-etc. ordinary grandchild of a long established noble line. On receiving this news I started drinking imported beer. My first cousin Louis, a born genius, discovered through a grapevine that my grandfather’s sister Maria had been banished from her village for giving non-virginal birth to a bastard son. In her exile she mothered into being a sizeable (and wonderful) alternative DeGrazia clan that kept her maiden name, DeGrazia. This exiled part of the generic DeGrazia clan did some genealogical research that fleshed out my father’s legend about our family origins. From my newly discovered cousin Rick (in Toronto) I learned that, “We are in fact descended from the famous Baron DeGrazia family.” The family palace, I’m told, still exists somewhere in Italy, with an engraved family emblem dating back to before 1600. Someday when my ship comes home, I tell myself, I’ll go searching for it.

Now that my nobility issues are well-enough resolved, I’ve turned to worrying about my Social Security. This is, I’m told, an “entitlement,” as if I don’t deserve it. If I’m supposed to feel good about my aristocratic “blood,” I’m supposed to feel guilty as a thief for expecting a Social Security check every month. Some politicians are also suggesting that I’m like a common thief for taking Medicare payments. These, I’m told, are like “welfare” payments I don’t deserve. They say, rather loudly and persistently, that it’s their money I’m spending. So while genealogical research makes a child of God and nobleman of me, I’m a real bastard for believing I’m entitled to Social Security and Medicare.

Because I’m still entitled to my own opinions, I began thinking about how people in the past went about the business of entitling themselves. Though they had no noble titles such as “duke,” “baron,” or “earl,” and only a few called themselves “kings,” the heroes of Homer’s Greece entitled themselves to honor, respect, gold, slaves, and the sexual services of women and men. How did the heroes become heroes? Mainly by killing rivals and invading cities and villages where they killed rival heroes. Some would call them mass murderers, especially when they routinely put whole populations to the sword to secure their hero-rights.

These heroes fathered many bastard children, with some of the descendants inheriting the bloodlust of their hero-fathers. Not always willing to do the dirty work themselves, the next breed of heroes forced peasants and village youths into armies that did it for them. They made names for themselves this way, and entitled themselves to the honor, respect, gold, slaves and the sexual services of women and men that came with the glorious victories of their armies. They built fortresses and palaces with their profits, hired high priests to explain their laws and divine mysteries, and passed their profits on to family members, all male, as if by blood transfusion. They also were fortunate to have Disney reinvent their history for us.

Was Baron DeGrazia one of them? Am I entitled to a portion of the Baron DeGrazia’s lost treasure, or do I owe his victims a share of my Social Security and Medicare?

The morality of nobility is a tricky business.

That’s one reason why I’m so sensitive about how brief this history is––how, for example, I fail to mention noblesse oblige, the exceptions to the general rule, the noble families that were spendthrift sponsors of religion and great art, and the names of the millions who died in their wars.

We, as Americans, should be proud that our Revolution of 1776 changed the course of this history. When the French, in 1789, caught the American fever for revolution they took a radically new view of entitlements. Their cry was “Liberte! Fraternite! Egalite!” (Liberty, Brotherhood, Equality). With the American Declaration of Independence declaring that all men (not women yet, thought they were allowed to drive plows) were created equal, the high-born had to confront the fact that their entitlements were coming down to earth. At long last the revolutions secured the right of people to participate in a democracy, the legal right to divorce, legal rights for “illegitimate” children, and the abolition (in France) of slavery. Obscured by these accomplishments was the abolition of an entitlement dear to the heart of noble families: Primogeniture, the right of fathers to pass an entire estate to the oldest son. The abolition of primogeniture, the first law Thomas Jefferson passed as president, leveled the playing field for family members, including daughters trying to taste a piece of the family pie. The end of primogeniture was a win for democratic economics, the horizontalization of wealth that contributed to the rise of the middle class. It signaled the end of entitlement programs for “great families,” noble or not, that systematically concentrated wealth in the hands of a few, all first-born males.

I say “God bless America” for this. It entitled all of us to a fairer share of Liberty, Brotherhood, and Equality.

Other democratic entitlements followed, some of them (welfare payments, food stamps, Medicaid) intended to help the needy. Others (Social Security, Medicare, and the new national health insurance plan) help keep people in the middle class from slipping into poverty or dying in the streets outside hospital emergency rooms. These programs are intended to extend the horizontalization of entitlements signaled by the abolition of primogeniture and the vertical concentration of wealth it promoted. For those who believe in this system the words “equality” and “equal opportunity” are not cuss words.

Those who don’t believe in this system want us to go back to the old class warfare days when heroes and aristocrats called the shots. With this difference: The new breed of heroes and aristocrats are the big-shots. William Graham Sumner, currently sainted by the few who religiously observe Wall Street rites, narrowed American freedom to two bipolar choices: We either could be “free” or we could be “equal.” He decided for us that we could not be neither, or both, or on our way toward a happy medium. A hundred years ago the big-shot profiteers who achieved the title Robber Barons loved William Graham Summers too.

Was Baron DeGrazia a Robber Baron in his time, one with a title? With traces of his blood coursing through my body parts, what am I to do?

What would Jesus do?

The big-wheels of fortune currently seem prejudiced against Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare payments, food stamps, unemployment insurance, and national health insurance. The unemployed, those living below the poverty line, the disabled and old, the uninsured, war veterans, those of modest middle class means––the vast majority of Americans––are facing a new American counter-revolution that aims to re-verticalize the nation’s wealth. This vast majority of common folk is being asked to both vote and pay for this re-verticalization that will do them in, and they’re being give two reasons to prop up the big-shot few: First, we’re supposed to believe that people at the top work harder than factory workers, bean pickers, teachers, retirees, police and sanitation workers––and therefore deserve every penny they can wrest from the commonwealth. They don’t call their behaviors class warfare. They don’t think of absurd salaries and excessive profits as taxes on ordinary citizens.

Secondly, while they sip the finest imported wines and export jobs they believe that, if they keep their money, good jobless Americans will magically end up with it. It’s become an article of religious belief that everyone will have jobs and we’ll all live happily ever after if millionaires live tax-free.

Where are the jobs? Enormous tax breaks on capital gains were enacted by the Bush administration in 2006, and Nobel Prize economists blame current deficits not only on the con artists who ran the housing market schemes but on the enormous tax breaks given to millionaires. Corporate profits are up, and CEO big-shots command kleptomaniac salaries.

Five years later after tax-break time where are the jobs?

Meanwhile, as the unemployment lines get longer and the middle class keeps falling, wealth keeps trickling up. We find ourselves inflicting on ourselves a new age of entitlement, one based on greed, the ownership of mass media, the ability to buy elections, the erosion of civic responsibility, and the exploitation of the low morale of a beaten-down majority blaming itself for being victimized by a small minority of big-shot profiteers who one day may begin wondering why their children and cities are trashed and why someone isn’t showing up to pick up the messes they’re leaving behind.