This Forgotten American Orwell Had a Lot to Tell Us

He who
lives among working people has to make his own way. No clothes, no manners, no
position, no reputation can help. There is no log-rolling [in other words, no
mutual back-scratching], no membership in clubs.… For the standards of those who
live without pretense are stripped bare of any values except what you yourself
are. That is, the unsophisticated you, deprived of all glamorous aides. That
cruel unflattering light, I suppose, is democracy. Many people in their hearts
despise or fear it. 

Although Ross probably
never met or even read Paulo Freire, the Brazilian, Christian socialist
philosopher and educator who was 20 years younger than he, Freire’s great book,
 Pedagogy of the Oppressedcontains passages that
could have been written, almost word for word, by the author of 
of a Yale Man, 
who certainly lived by Freire’s words: “A real humanist
can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their
struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.”

“My life,” Ross reflected
(almost as if he were responding to Freire!), “has been a constant oscillation
between feeling superior and being bumped into reality by the obvious courage
and mentality of people a peg or two lower in the economic scale.” Most Ivy
League graduates are somewhat insulated from the “constant oscillation,” whose
mixture of conceits and good intentions Ross captured well:

pleasant culture thrives in soil perennially watered by profits from absentee
ventures. Cherishing their way of life, the established families of the 1890s
and early 1900s closed their eyes to the crude operations through which wealth
passed before it was refined into money. This was not itself a mark of
heartlessness. It was a nice question in ethics, that matter of building up a
family’s comfort and security on profits siphoned by finance from the great
pool of human labor. Near at hand were a man’s first responsibilities—his
career, his home, his children.… Remote from his sight and experience,
belonging to a class he could easily believe less deserving than himself, were
the muckers, the puddlers, the mule-skinners, the bohunks, the roustabouts.… The head of the family thought of these men occasionally, and with a faint glow
of pride at his own capacity for sympathy. And who could criticize him for
sticking to his career instead of begging for ridicule by tilting at social

Who, even now, would
criticize the head of a privileged family for sticking to his career while
posting a “Black Lives Matter” sign on a website or a spacious lawn instead of
taking time to try to reconfigure an untrustworthy police department, a
corporate workplace, a school curriculum, or a particular affirmative-action
protocol? In a “pleasant culture” of privilege—like the one that I enjoyed
at the fiftieth-year reunion of my own Yale Class of 1969 in 2019 on the college’s
Old Campus, the very spot where Ross and his own Yale Class of 1919 had known
one another a century earlier—it isn’t often acknowledged that today’s
union-busting efforts and white-supremacist violence aren’t much different from
what he witnessed, reported, and resisted. Most at my reunion in 2019 were
all in with honoring our own classmate, the private equity emperor Stephen
, as
a benefactor and visionary of the university, of America, and of the
world. Most in Ross’s class would have done the same.