Class and Privilege from One of the One Percent

I opened Nick McDonell’s new book, Quiet Street: On Privilege, (NY:Pantheon,2023), fully expecting to find an insider’s tell-all, enumerating all the advantages bequeathed to someone who’s within the rarified ranks of the upper class. I was not disappointed. The author spelled out how these privileges manifest themselves, both in terms of superior formal educational opportunities but even more, in the acquisition of the all-important cultural capital.

Given some of his earlier work, I also hoped against hope that McDonell had undergone a Saul-to-Paul experience and become a class traitor. A cover blurb, by one Maggie Nelson, was encouraging as she opined that the book “left me believing in the prospect (and necessity) of drastic change.” And in a Zoom call to Town & Country magazine (August 3, 2023) prior to publication, McDonell said, “One of the things I think a lot about is American foreign policy and the consequences of American power abroad.” Alas, although we are treated to an entertaining explication of life in the fastest line, not a single sentence is devoted to naming capitalism as the root cause of these consequences or how, in light of that, how begin the process of righting the massive injustices that McDonell readily attributes to his own class.

McDonell (b.1984), grew up in New York City’s tony upper East side, raised in the sheltered bubble of privilege among Manhattan’s cultural elite. In the book’s preface, he notes that he was in the one percent which means an income threshold of $500,000 per adult. According to a reliable online tool, he locates himself in the 96th percentile of wealth holders in the United States and the 99th worldwide. In the pages that follow, McDonell sets out to write about “ his own people” and specifically,“what it means to be of the one percent — what is owed to the other ninety-nine, and ourselves.”

After attending The Buckley School, a top tier private school in New York City (Tuition: $55, 500 per year), he went on to Riverdale Country School (tuition: $54,545), a feeder school into the Ivy League and in his case, early admission to Harvard, followed by a stint as St.Anthony’s College, Oxford. (I don’t know if McDonell’s parents had entered him in the brutal race for the “right” pre-school for ages 3-4 at $15,831).

The book’s title derives from a right turn that Buckley’s chartered bus made through East Harlem on the way to the school’s playing fields. The story goes that long ago a boy had yelled a racial epithet out the window and a Black pedestrian had the pelted something at the bus. It was McDonell’s recollection that over his decade at Buckley, no one had uttered a sound on Quiet Street although the practice has been discontinued at some point. For the author, Quiet Street is a metaphor for a subculture that avoids any conversation about class and race.

At Buckley, the students were admonished to “give back, to serve.” A recent graduation speaker (head of the FBI and a Buckley grad) quoted the Gospel of Luke “to whom much is given, much is expected” and the school’s website lists “The moral development of the boys is also a chief concern.” The publisher also promises that Quiet Street is “ultimately full of compassion”.

McDonell knows full well that he’s benefiting from what the country’s domestic and foreign apparatus is doing to people here and abroad; on the latter, he writes that by the end of their formal education, the one percenters knew about “genocide, rape and pillage of whole other communities” but ignored or tool advantage of this knowledge. Later in the book he writes, “I began to see how, in the United States of America and elsewhere, success almost always, and predominantly, depends upon wealth—and frequently comes at the expense of the less wealthy.” And further, that “the one percent maintained a monopoly on violence through it cultural ties to – as well as financial and political control of the apparatus of state violence.” He’s certain that the ruling class will never surrender their power and privileges and that no one outside their Fortress will ever be handed the reins of power.

The author states the obvious point that the oligarchy fears losing its wealth and what that means for their lifestyles. However, McDonell goes further and concludes that members of his class view their sense of self as virtually identical to their wealth. That is, they believe their accumulation of things validates their lives so that “If I lose this, who am I?” To the extent that this is true, it further bolsters their resistance to change and one wonders if there are any limits to that resistance? Of course, this insightful revelation also begs the question whether McDonell shares this fear?

From an interview in 2018, after the publication his book The Bodies in Person: An Account of the Civilian Casualties of America’s Wars, McDonell said “I care about what’s being done in my name…I didn’t used to think about the relationship of my country and the lives of everyone else in the world.” In an interview published by the New York Times, McDonell mentioned that while a student at Harvard: “I had a sense that the war in Iraq was run by people not so different from myself.”

After Bodies… we learn that he was encouraged to “lighten up” in his writing and perhaps for that advice, he wrote, The Council of Animals (2021), a post-apocalyptic, often whimsical fable in which a representative gathering of the species holds a meeting to decide whether to save or eat the small number of humans remaining after “The Calamity.” This tale doesn’t approach Jonathan Swift’s biting political satire in his A Modest Proposal but a generous generous interpretation of The Council… suggests that humans can and should do something about their possible extinction. I may be mistaken but McDonell still seems to be finding his personal moral footing.

Finally, what McDonell avoids saying (or thinking?) in Quiet Street, is that those making decisions are doing so on behalf of the predator, capitalist-imperialist system. They are absolute moral monsters, psychopathic war criminals who — in a just world, would be standing in an international tribunal docket. So, on the one hand, while I welcomed McDonell’s seeming attempts at self-awareness, I also found them stunning in their naiveté. Paraphrasing the late Susan Sontag, after a certain age (McDonell is 39) and possessing all sorts of educational and travel opportunities, access to alternative information sources and, well, extraordinary privilege, there’s simply is no excuse for this kind of ignorance. On the other hand, can we dismiss McConnell as a hopeless case? My inclination to pass judgement is tempered by the fact that most of us on the actual left were once liberals (but only a few from McDonell’s one percent) who only sought gradual reform of the system.

Interrogation of the upper class from within its own ranks has been done before and with more depth, diligence and foresight. Arguably, the best example is Wallace Shawn (B.1943), an artist in the areas of film, writing and theater. Shawn is also from a highly privileged background, McDonell’s fellow Harvard grad and has been described as the “American theatre’s most insistent class traitor.” For starters, I’d recommend the following: Aunt Dan and Lemon (1985), The Designated Mourner (1996), The Fever (1999), Why I Call Myself a Socialist (2011), and Night Thoughts (2017).

Finally, toward the end of this slim volume, McDonell tells us that he hears a voice telling him to “take a stand” and I sense that that Quiet Street may be his tentative first response. It may raise some eyebrows in a few select zip codes but he needn’t worry about getting sterling reviews from mainstream publications or invites to exotic destination weddings. For burning those bridges, we must await his next book.

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. Contact: Per usual, thanks to Kathleen Kelly, my in-house ed. Read other articles by Gary.