[On Sundays, this blog examines the world beyond careers in “Sabbath.”]
Children of Cain
A few days ago, I read a great profile of the conservative pundit David Frum, which was written by Mark Oppenheimer in The Nation. It’s clear that Oppenheimer admires Frum, even if he disagrees with his politics. At the same time, the author tries to understand his subject by contrasting him with his mother, who was one of Canada’s leading liberal politicians. He finds the answer in an insight from another Nation writer, the great Naomi Klein, who summed up the difference between mother and son in one word: compassion.
Feeling for others. Frum is not alone in calling for a world where people have to make it on their own (while he was collecting a $100,000 salary from the American Enterprise Institute). Republicans and Democrats argue policies as if their sole purpose was to win an election. Their language seldom touches on compassion or sympathy. No one wants to give the poor a “free ride” (no that’s reserved for the super rich and corporations). The poor need to be responsible (You know, like the bailed-out banks and automakers were).
I posted a blog yesterday about the bottom 50% of Americans who have seen their wealth decline from 3% to 1.1% over the last 30 years. Maybe that’s not a big deal to some. It could be argued that the poor are still poor, just a little more so. But it’s hard not to wonder what it means – how it feels – to go from having a little to having even less. Once upon a time, our society had a safety net, social programs to help the poor, disabled, and elderly. More and more, that protection is going away, replaced by the simple message: “You’re on your own.” More to the point, we as a society are looking at our brothers and sisters and saying: “We don’t care.”
The same people who condemn the “Me” generation of the 1960s often preach the gospel of self-reliance. They say things like welfare makes the poor dependent. College grants and loans make students stay in school to avoid work (jobs that don’t exist for young people today). A few months ago I read a book called Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez. Rodriguez is a great thinker and writer, but when it comes to having sympathy for people who don’t have the advantages he did, his solution is simple: I made it – why can’t you?
It’s disturbing how people who enjoy advantages of wealth and power – especially recently acquired wealth and power – have little sympathy for those with less. These people often forget how their achievement was not solely their doing. Rodriguez was lucky enough to be born to parents who put him in a good school. His family lived in a middle class neighborhood. It is absurd to compare his upbringing to that of a kid growing up in poor community attending a school where most of the children share a heritage of poverty, illiteracy, and violence. A child can want to succeed. However, her odds are minimal if she’s growing up in a gang-infested community where there are no jobs, most girls have babies in their teens, and most boys go to jail instead of college.
They need to be more responsible and make good choices. Those words are easy to say. They absolve us of any responsibility for our fellow human beings. We don’t need to sacrifice for others if we can simply say, “Go get your own.” Community means living together. Compassion enables us to feel others’ suffering. We have lost our sense of community and compassion. Think about the alienated young men turned killing machines in Columbine and Virginia Tech and Aurora, Colorado. When we cannot feel sympathy for others, is it any wonder that we are going mad?
“And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel they brother? and he said, I know not. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)