Sunday, February 17, 2008

Nepotism, Connections and You - Or Not

Edited on February 26, 2008.

There was a kerfuffle very recently in The Guardian. Apparently a young (19) man , one Max Gogarty, wrote a blog on the Guardian about his rambles. Whether it was good or not I will not say, but it doesn't appear to be anything special, nothing different from thousands of zero-readership personal blogs (this one included, ahem) and nothing better than any other university freshman could do. But and the travel editor has apologized for it.

Why? Did Gogarty say something offensive? No, it appears that he is nothing more than another of the multitude of well-off westerners who are unsettled in their early encounters with the third world. Whence the kerfuffle, then? It seems that many people had questions about why a teenager with so startlingly little to say -- and such a pedestrian way of saying that little -- would get such a sweet spot in The Guardian. It's a valid question: Why him? The qualifications put forward by his defenders seem to fit a few thousand other young men and women. What is obvious, though, is that England must be filled with young people whose qualifications are far, far better than Max's. We all know, we met them; the young flyers whose talent was obvious at even that age, and whose CVs made us cringe with shame: "gad, why haven't I achieved by 19 all the things that they have???". They're out there, but none of them, it seems, has this column. There seems to be no standout reason for Max being chosen; if there had been his defenders would have put it forward.

As you might have guessed by now, many of the people posing the question already have an answer: they believe that he got the gig through connections*. Max's father, Paul Gogarty, is a freelancer who regularly contributes to the Guardian; he appears to be a bit of an A-lister freelancer because his work appears in other large-circulation papers. He has even taken his family (including Max) to India previously, and written about it.

* - Note: for the purposes of this blog I will use "nepotism" to mean the exercise of power or influence to directly benefit one's family or cherished favourites, and "connections" as the use of your contacts or those of your family to gain the same benefit. It is usually implied in such cases -- and is usually true -- that the person for whom the favour is done would not win in a purely merit-based process.

Here in North America it is damned near impossible to get even the most pedestrian job without a university degree and an "in" with somebody. (As one of my acquaintances wittily remarked, "here even your patron needs a patron".) Competition gets more ferocious every year, especially in larger centres. (Some years back I saw a piddly research job for a nonprofit boil down to a battle between a lawyer and a Ph.D.; the competition is often that tough.) In the UK it is not quite so bad, but it is getting there, it seems: Peter Wilby, also of The Guardian, feels that the class privileges and advantages have actually been reinforced by the tools implemented to advance the meritocracy, making it even more difficult for non-Oxbridgers (which often also means people not from the best Public schools) to get into the protected circles. (One does tend to forget just how omnipresent the graduates of such schools are. I noticed recently that not one but both of the actors playing Octavian in the fantastic BBC-HBO-RAI miniseries Rome are old Etonians.)

So, it appears that Max got his job through Daddy's connections. No doubt he expected this to be a benefit; most of us would. What he didn't expect was the merde hitting the fan in such a shocking, startling and worldwide way. The Guardian's comments section lit up like a flare locker with a match dropped into it, prompting the editorial response detailed above, and that too was the subject of ferocious, angry attacks. (See Caroline Davies' article for an okay summary: "But within 24 hours of his first posting on the travel pages, the teenager was swamped by a tidal wave of internet hate mail as he became a victim of the phenomenon of 'going viral'. As the north London teenager was touching down in Mumbai, hundreds of comments - many vitriolic - were appearing not only on his blog, but on scores of message boards and social networking forums, including Facebook and high-profile gossip sites such as Holy Moly.") For examples, please see right here, and this one ("it’s about people standing up and shaking their fists at such obvious mediocrity and such bald-faced nepotism. It all really pongs") and some really bitchy, cutting stuff mixed with some devastating, accurate criticisms, and some worthwhile thoughts on whether he deserved it.

It also led, naturally, to some insiders whining that people were being too hard on the lad. (See Rafael Baer's truculent response, or a responding post purporting to be from Max's Dad himself as good examples of the type.)

My own view? If you want to take advantage of the benefits that nepotism and connections can get you then fine, most to all of us would in cases where no rules or laws are broken. The world is not nice and you must seize every opportunity you can. But, in doing so, you cannot complain when called out on it. You have received an ill-deserved benefit; you cannot in return claim about any ill-deserved maligning you get as a part of that package.

More importantly, this sort of nonsense is easier to spot and flag in the age of the internet. Max is a perfect example. Had this little bit of nonsense occurred, say, 10 or more years ago I never would have heard of it. It might have been discussed over a pint in Fleet Street bars, or some of Max's friends might have cut him at parties because they were jealous, but that would have been it. Now his embarrassment is spread across the world and people are commenting on it on different continents. It will, possibly, also make things harder for Max down the road. (Then again, given the ability of bad press to mutate into good careers these days it might also benefit him no end.)

But to return to whether or not the critiques were fair. Pete Ashton feels that the "nepotism charge is, I think, misplaced. Sure, Max got the job (if he's even getting paid for it) based on who he knew but that's generally how most of these things happen. There's nothing inherently wrong with networking to get opportunities, especially in the media. Sure, it's distasteful but it doesn't really mean anything."

I disagree: it does matter, and matter greatly, and Ashton is, contradictorily enough, the one to start to the counterpoint: "Max's blog was deeply authentic to his friends and family, which is why they're so upset by the reaction. But to everyone else it was bollocks. Both opinions are right. That post was the textual equivalent of sitting behind a bunch of annoying teenagers on a train. The teenagers think what they're talking about is vital and important - the rest of us wish they'd shut the fuck up about their holidays." If a self-important, favoured nobody gets to jump to the front of the queue and leave the better-qualified in his wake then it goes beyond "networking", no?

Furthermore, it puts the nail in the coffin of those who want to wag their fingers and say, "oh! you horrible, nasty, nasty bullies!" to all those who launched attacks on Max and the Guardian. How the readers respond was necessary to the process: If we accept blatant favouritism towards mediocrities we undercut the merit principle, completely. To say otherwise is to tell the deserving that they will always have to bow to the entitled. Large institutions filled with favoured people are notoriously resistant to reason and change and very inclined to brush off polite remonstrance. In this case it was the rapidity, size and vitriol of the response that got an instant win. The blog is dead and one young man who got something he didn't deserve -- and the people who slid him the goodie -- have been publicly humiliated. And, one notes and hopes, it is very likely that next time there may be second thoughts when some Bright Old Spark at the Guardian wants to do a favour for somebody's kid and to hell with things like applications and merit.

The bottom line is this: many people (some would argue "most") people get sweet jobs through connections or nepotism. It is common currency and can not and will not be wholly eradicated. That does not make it acceptable, nor something that can be tolerated. Like crime and poverty they will always be with us but we must not stop in our efforts to eradicate or -- more realistically -- minimize them. It is an uphill battle simply because in this increasingly savage and strained workplace world, the the need to find an edge, any edge, becomes more intense so does the use and exploitation of nepotism and connections. (Recently two Toronto-area school trustees got around the bar of hiring their own kids by hiring each other's children, to give just one example.) And as such conduct gets more and more common it also becomes more and more resented.

We either try to sustain meritocracy or we don't. We can't let people undercut it and claim that the meritocracy still exists; the surrender and the sham would be a thousand times worse than the struggle. Nepotism and Connections may always be with us, but the only thing that keeps them in check is a willingness to openly denounce them wherever found. These loud -- and, yes, sometimes disproportionate -- howls are one of the very few things keeping alive any hope for the meritorious but unconnected.

As for the people involved, it seems to me that there is a simple code of conduct: when you get a sweet gig through connections or nepotism you are obliged to "pay" for the privilege in two significant ways. Payment The Firste: do not act as if you got the job because you were better than anybody else. No-one is expecting you to put on sackcloth and ashes and then murmur "I'm not worthy". Just don't be an entitled little wanker about it. Paymente The Seconde: When an in possession of an egregious benefit through entitlement and then caught and called out, don't make a stink about it, nor should you permit surrogates to make a stink about it. You made a good effort, but you got caught. Deal with it and stop whining.

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