Power Prestige and Wealth

By Sam Low

Friday, August 6, 2004


Our relatives, the lower primates, are forthright about the social standing of members of their troops. The alpha male achieves dominance by physical prowess. But during an earlier incarnation as a professor of Anthropology at Hunter College , I learned that human societies value not only physical but also mental and spiritual qualities in assessing the standing of their members. Tribal societies, for example, revere shamen and chiefs as well as warriors.


On Micronesian coral atolls there are even three kinds of chiefs – one who specializes in spiritual matters, another who is an orator, and a third who makes all the political decisions. Folks are also revered as healers, fishermen, navigators, canoe makers, weavers, gardeners and even the souwenet – or “master of dividing” - who parcels out the communal catch of fish equally among all the atoll's families.


Anthropologists divide the concept of status into three components: power, prestige and wealth. Power is the political component – it is given to our leaders - our presidents, senators, selectpersons. Wealth is economic power. Prestige is status that flows to folks who embody a societies' moral code – its ideals and aspirations.


A person may be powerful in all three ways. President John F. Kennedy, for example, came from a wealthy family, achieved prestige as a writer and thinker, and during his all too brief tenure in the White House was arguably the most powerful man on earth. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he said in his inaugural address, “but what you can do for your country” – inspiring a generation of folks who lived by the value of “giving back” to their society. For some time, I have been thinking these concepts of status – political, economic and moral - may help us understand trends on the Vineyard.


For generations, our island has been home to many powerful and wealthy people who have earned our respect by their generosity – national celebrities such as Carly Simon, Mike Wallace, Art Buchwald and Walter Cronkite come immediately to mind as do all those wealthy folks who so generously donate land to conservation and funds to worthy organizations. They are only the tip of a social pyramid that includes thousands among us who give back what they can. But those at the pyramid's tip – like the chiefs of that Micronesian atoll - set the example.


For the last dozen or so years much has been written about the “new elite” in our country – an emerging power block who have forgotten the ethic of “giving back” by pursuing wealth and power for its own sake. For some time I have worried that the Vineyard might be overwhelmed by such folk and we might lose our sense of moral values. Recently, however, there are encouraging signs that the wealthy among us are a different breed who understand the gossamer value of prestige, of belonging to a community and of earning the respect of their neighbors.


Take the recent “Houses on the Move” fundraiser, as one example. A dozen or so alpha families chose to open their homes for an evening of socializing to raise 180,000 dollars for affordable housing. Or the auction for the Historical Society, or the annual “Possible Dreams” extravaganza. David Letterman parking cars is a reversal of status that members of primitive societies would understand well – a small ceremony that perfectly reflects the ethic of giving back.


Societies that harness the universal human urge for status by providing opportunities to achieve prestige are on the right track. Should this trend continue on the Vineyard, our future looks bright.