Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Who's In, Who's Out

New controversies about inclusion and exclusion in American life bring to mind Groucho's dictum, "I don't want to belong to any club that takes people like me as members."

At a recent meeting of social psychologists, 80 percent defined themselves as politically liberal, leading to a broader debate about under-representation of conservatives in academia.

On a more parochial level, nasty disagreement about who's in and who's out has roiled Manhattan's Century Club, a self-selected bastion of those devoted to arts and culture.

The issue of bias in higher education deserves serious discussion, but a lifelong Groucho Marxist on the subject of joining groups is prompted to ponder the broader question of the need to belong and its consequences.

Those who grew up early in the last century are instinctively wary of excluding people, remembering how religious, racial and ethic minorities were routinely shut out of so many areas of society back then.

Woody Allen satirized this impulse in a 1983 movie, wherein “Zelig” wills himself into becoming like people he sees in newsreels, because his own life does not seem worth living. In pseudo-documentary style, Irving Howe, a scholar of the immigrant experience, explains the fictional chameleon: “He wanted to assimilate like crazy."

In today's presumably assimilated America, the counter-need to define oneself as different persists to the point that a claim can be made that it's hurting the economy.

Even more worrisome is the us-against-them mentality of the Tea Party, which goes beyond challenging the ideas of those they disagree with but their legitimacy.

Sitting in a club chair among people you consider your peers in a campus lounge or a members-only enclave can be a comforting experience, but the price American society pays for that impulse may go far beyond the dues for doing it.

As someone who joined nothing else (including turning down an invitation to the Century Club), I can only point to my one experience of belonging to and becoming chairman of a professional group of editors, an open-minded group by definition.

When you put any group into a closed room, self-interest and low cunning come to the fore. I found less true congeniality and more self-promotion in the gatherings of "peers."

The price for associating with kindred spirits, at least for Groucho and me, is just too high.

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