The New York Times, the grandest of the grand old media companies, has a new publisher: He’s a Sulzberger, same as the old publisher. This is bad. All dynasties are repugnant. It doesn’t matter if you think they’re nice or not.
In a note to readers, 37-year-old new Times boss A.G. Sulzberger, who takes over control of the company after a 25-year reign by his father, writes that he will continue to ensure that the Times is “fiercely independent, dedicated to journalism of the highest integrity and devoted to the public welfare.” This statement is an interesting window into the mind of royalty. The man who has been handed an empire imagines that the empire is independent, and devoted to the public welfare. At least all parts of the empire except for the job interviews that determine who gets to be in control.
Passing control of very important institutions down on a hereditary basis is a dumb idea. History offers overwhelming evidence for this. Most obviously, it is dumb because there is no guarantee that the son of the boss will be wise, or kind, or prudent, or insightful, or blessed with any of the other characteristics that would make him a good boss. (There is also no guarantee the father was a good boss in the first place.) The history of European kings or the Bush family is ample proof that family lineage is an ineffective standard for producing good rulers. It is why writing “I was a lucky sperm” on a blank piece of paper does not tend to get you hired at jobs that actually demand demonstrable skills, like airline pilot or neurosurgeon.
Even when you can find a qualified child to take over for a parent, there is the issue of justice. Handing off control of important things to people solely because they are related to someone is unjust. It is unjust because it is not earned, and, more importantly, because for millions of other people who are willing to put in hard work and intelligence and wisdom and all of the other characteristics that we claim to value, it forecloses the possibility of aspiring to run some great organization, merely because those people do not possess the right parents. That is old-school backwards discrimination of the first order. In most areas of public life we (legally, ostensibly) eradicated such embarrassingly straightforward discrimination years ago. But when it comes to the family dynasties that sit atop many of our most powerful public and private businesses and political organizations—the Sulzbergers, the Murdochs, the Clintons, the Bushes, the Kennedys, etc.—we seem to have a blind spot. Many people have an irrational affinity for royalty, in much the same way many people have an irrational affinity for a particular religious icon. That’s their business. Let’s not pretend it makes any sense.
If we were a nation that actually believed half of the shit we say we believe, it would not be considered socially acceptable to hand off, say, America’s most influential media outlet, or a major party’s nomination for a Congressional seat, or the stewardship of a major corporation to your son or daughter or wife or cousin. It would be considered an anachronistic practice on par with a “No Dogs Or Mexicans Allowed” sign. Because it is, of course, a practice that flaunts the perpetuation of power by an undeserving hereditary elite while locking out the rest of humanity. It’s ridiculous. It’s not an “honorable tradition” or a representation of “family values” to be applauded. To believe that would be to believe that none of the billions of other people in the world are capable of running a powerful institution, deserving of the chance to do so, or—here’s the thing—possessing of new ideas that might improve said institution. It is to believe that democracy is bad, and monarchy is good. It is the groveling serf mentality.
Institutions of great public importance are implicitly accountable to the public. They influence the public, they operate with the public’s blessing, they exist to enrich the lives of the public, and they profit by doing so. Their management is a matter of public concern. Our greatest institutions should reflect our greatest values. One of those values, in America, is equality of opportunity. Do you think that you, or even the single most qualified media intellectual in the country, had an equal opportunity to become publisher of the New York Times? Quite the opposite. This institution that trumpets its concern for the public welfare is run in the most undemocratic, antiquated, unequal way that you could ever conceive.
This is not a partisan issue. It is not that the Bush dynasty is bad, but the Kennedys are good. All family dynasties are loathsome. They are unhealthy in a democratic society. They are like huge flashing billboards that loom over an entire nation, reading “You Need Not Apply.” They crush aspirations, hopes, and dreams. They reinforce ludicrous ancient tendencies to mythologize the powerful. They are not just symbols of inequality; they are inequality in fact. They represent the thwarting of opportunity.
Anyone who claims to believe in the most rudimentary form of justice must admit that great power should not just be passed down to the fortunate few. Conservatives and liberals alike claim to believe that such things should be earned. Every single family dynasty is an active countermeasure preventing this rudimentary justice from every being achieved. Upon being offered the seat as publisher of the Times, young A.G. Sulzberger could have demurred, opened the job up to the best person in America, and kept right on doing journalism. But he didn’t. Don’t worship the people who believe that they have divinely inherited the right to control our world. The clouds that they live atop are also your ceiling.