Innocent Bystander March 2005

Feeling Entitled?

Huey Long's aspiration—"Every man a king!"—is at last within our grasp
More

"A genuine college degree in 2 weeks!" The e-mail offer from one of America's burgeoning diploma mills has been arriving almost hourly, although about thirty years too late. The sales pitch continues: "Have you ever thought that the only thing stopping you from a great job and better pay was a few letters behind your name?"—letters like B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. "Well now you can get them!"

It's tempting. But one could also just move to Italy. There, a few months ago, an administrative court ruled that students who had earned only a three-year university degree were nonetheless legally entitled to call themselves "dottore," or "doctor." This is of a piece with evolving social practice across a broad front. Elementary school teachers in Italy are entitled to be called "maestro." Teachers in middle school are "professore." A university rector earns the honorific "magnifico."

It may be that the country that gave us rococo pastry and the gilded interior of La Scala is especially prone to fancy titles. Beppe Severgnini, a writer for the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, speculates that the Italians, having been ruled for so long by outsiders, developed a predilection for titles as a kind of prosthetic self-esteem. But the surge in title inflation is in fact a worldwide phenomenon—in business, in academe, in government.

Title inflation has always been an occupational hazard for autocrats, famously parodied in the opening lines of Evelyn Waugh's 1932 novel Black Mischief: "We, Seth, Emperor of Azania, Chief of the Chiefs of Sakuyu, Lord of Wanda and Tyrant of the Seas, Bachelor of the Arts of Oxford University, being in this the twenty-fourth year of our life …" Haile Selassie, the longtime emperor of Ethiopia, styled himself "King of Kings, Elect of God, Conquering Lion of Judah." This is by no means a thing of the past. Juan Carlos of Spain, although an exceedingly modern monarch and an ardent democrat, lays claim to thirty-eight distinct titles, including "Duke of Athens" and "Sovereign Grand Master of the Order of the Golden Fleece." North Korea's Kim Jong-Il, "Guardian of Our Planet" and "Lodestar of the Twenty-first Century," has more than a thousand self-bestowed titles. When, recently, foreign observers thought they detected a lessening of the Great Leader's cult of personality, a North Korean diplomat testily told reporters, "It's false information. You cannot remove the sun from the sky."

America won't catch up with Kim tomorrow, but it's on the march. Though the U.S. Constitution explicitly forbids the awarding of feudal honorifics ("no title of nobility shall be granted by the United States"), in political Washington and elsewhere the courtesy title "Honorable" (which comes from the British "the Right Honorable Magnificence of Nobles") now applies to virtually anyone who buys a table at a charity event. Universities are adding honorific modifiers like sundae toppings to the names of professorships; the University of Illinois, for instance, offers the option of "Founders," "Jubilee," or "Centenary." High-tech start-ups have no patience with the bland job titles of yesteryear. Fast Company magazine's monthly survey of "job titles of the future" has come across actual people with the titles "idea ambassador," "knowledge sorceress," "chief reality officer," and "curator of the enlightened orchard."

The most pervasive form of title inflation is the extension of restricted honorifics to an ever widening circle of claimants. In 1950 the world chess federation, FIDE, recognized only twenty-seven people as full-fledged grand masters; today there are 930 grand masters. During the Kennedy administration only twenty-nine people held the coveted title of "assistant," "deputy assistant," or "special assistant" to the president; by the time Bill Clinton left office, in 2001, there were 141 such people. In the corporate world the title "vice president" is so common as to have become almost meaningless—a synonym, nearly, for "employee"—and the title "vice chairman" connotes what a vice president used to be. In his weekly column for NFL.com, Gregg Easterbrook noted recently that the front office of the Houston Texans has a chairman and CEO, two vice chairmen, five senior vice presidents, two ordinary vice presidents, an executive director, and fourteen regular directors. He made a calculation: "If General Motors had the same ratio of titles to revenue as the Houston Texans, GM would boast 1,928 vice chairmen, 4,820 senior vice presidents, and 13,496 directors."

Jump to comments
Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In