noblesse o·blige n. - Benevolent, honorable behavior considered to be the responsibility of persons of high birth or rank.
[French, nobility is an obligation : noblesse, nobility + oblige, third person sing. present tense of obliger, to obligate.]
What's wrong with people today? What's wrong with our society?
A couple of questions I both hear and ask a lot. It occurs to me that there are, of course, many answers to these questions, but two really stand out as the core reasons. First, the shrinking of the traditional middle class and second the increasing wealth of a large portion of the country. On the surface, it may sound like these are contradictory, but I don't think they really are.
The eroding of the middle class has been happening for quite some time. Over the last few decades, America has shifted from a manufacturing and producing nation to something different. With this shift, many of the jobs that supported small families in a comfortable, but not extravagant, way have disappeared.
This loss is most clearly seen in traditionally blue-collar areas.
Cities like Milwaukee have been manufacturing hubs since their formation. That's not the case anymore. There are still many manufacturing jobs to be had, but the number is considerably less than in past years. As more and more of these jobs go overseas, or just disappear, the tradition middle class will slowly fade away - at least in America.
The sense of community that builds up in these lower middle class areas has been an unmeasured victim of this trend. Less and less people are working shoulder to shoulder with their neighbors and communities have fewer and fewer common workplaces in which to build the relationships that were once common. Also, as jobs become scarce in an area, people are forced to move elsewhere to search for work.
Movement and job migration have become the death of tight-knit communities in recent decades. Not just in the lower middle class, but even more so in the upper middle class. It's not uncommon today to work at a job in one part of the country for two or three years, then move to another part of the country to take a different job. Roots to the community are becoming more and more shallow.
Then there's the second part of the equation. The increasing wealth of a large portion of society.
While it's easy to bemoan the loss of jobs and opportunities, the fact is that more people today are what in days past would have been considered wealthy. Sure, there is plenty of complaining about how tight money is and how hard it is to get by, but for a large portion of America, life is pretty good.
At the beginning of the last century, owning a car was a rare luxury. By the 40s, 50s, and 60s, most families had a car, but two was a bit of a luxury. Now, it's rare for a family that's not poor to have less than two vehicles.
Along with the cars, there are now many toys too. A house, a cabin up north, a couple of ATVs or a boat, maybe a motorcycle for hubby, a big screen television, nice stereo...the list goes on. Americans today are enjoying the trappings of wealth more than ever before.
These things were traditionally reserved for the wealthy members of society.
Being rich not only included having toys and diversions, but also the time to enjoy them. This is certainly the case for many people today and it's sometimes been called the culmination of the American dream. Most people in America harbor this dream - the wish to someday be wealthy, or at least well off.
Is that a bad thing? I don't think so. But there is something missing.
What's missing is a little thing that came as second nature to those ofprivilegee in days past - the concept of noblesse oblige. With wealth, there is an obligation to others. It comes from the days when the noble class enjoyed certain privileges, but was also bound to the people of their land.
We often talk about the ills of feudal society, or much later, of the exploitive robber barons getting rich on the sweat of others, but we seldom talk about the gifts they gave back to society. The museums, universities and hospitals of today are here because of the upper classes of yesterday. It's the concept of noblesse oblige that spurred these gifts.
What we have today is a sense of entitlement - a sense that we should have all the luxuries that were once the province of the wealthy and we should have them right now.
But it's a sense of entitlement without a sense of obligation. And without that sense of obligation, it's nothing but greed and gluttony.
We're becoming a society of greedy children, whining about how hard it is to get ahead and once we do get ahead, never looking back to see who we can help. We're only looking ahead, chasing the next shiny object and not caring who we trample or what we break to get it.
There's no nobility in that.