February 2nd, 2010 11:29 EST
While The Predators Grind US Down, Washington Pretends to Be Our Friend
Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough. "Franklin D. Roosevelt
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th Century author of The Social Contract, which revolutionized Western political thought, believed that a corrupt society betrays the individual and grinds him up in the interests of an elite. It`s the story of the last two decades in America, isn`t it? And, oddly enough, it`s something on which the left and some elements of the right might agree.
Maybe jobs or taxes or health care reform or war are the biggest items on society`s agenda. That`s the impression we get on television and in print, but I have a suggestion for our churchy nation: how about selfishness as topic number one? Everything would be all right, the talking heads declare, if only the housing market would revive. How about the milk of human kindness? Might we have a little more of that instead of Alan Greenspan`s enlightened selfishness and the pure damned hoggishness of the haves in the midst of a burgeoning population of have-nots?
What is admirable about American churchiness is our characteric longing for a direct, personal relationship with God, unfettered by hierarchy and dogma. Ambitious preachers and politicians, acting as traffic cops, get in the way, promising to set us on the right path while picking our pockets, but that doesn`t mean our yearning is less genuine. It just means our innocence is sorely tested.
But does this yearning license selfishness? Did God somehow misfile Jesus under miscellany along with his teaching of love and compassion for others, for the poor and discriminated against? Did Ayn Rand, with her stick-figure novels about enlightened " selfishness, somehow supplant Jesus?
What did that *rgy of self-gratification and overreach in the 1990s get us? Where did it get us? And is the answer to our current misfortune more of what the 90s encouraged? Greed? Grab? Entitlement? Me first? Is that the message of the Tea Party movement? Are we destined to pray at the altar of trickledown and Wall Street predators?
What America do the Tea Partygoers wish to return to? The 90s, an era of unprecedented selfishness? Or the 1890s, an era of baronial piracy? The 1970s when we emptied our mental hospitals and dumped their unfortunates into the streets, where they remain to this day? Can anyone imagine that is what the Jesus who ousted the money-lenders would have done?
Or perhaps the late 1940s and 50s when the American Dream was still intact, when we believed we could have an affluent middle class and could lend a hand to the poor? The dream of the Greatest Generation.
Somehow or other our obsession with taxes "we are the least taxed of the developed nations "has made a bad marriage with the notion that greed is good and that we are entitled to things for which we are unwilling to pay, such as good schools, roads, bridges, health, safety, security and the visionary development of a diverse economy.
Somehow we have come to believe that if we let bankers steal and corporations party on our middle-class ruins, they will in the goodness of their great hearts give us all these things without further taxation. This is Ronald Reagan`s and George W. Bush`s promise. This is the promise of the supply-siders, the trickle-downers. And it has been ringing hollow for so long that we have actually begun to think of it as the bells of Saint Mary`s.
I cannot as a Christian believe that selfishness is ever enlightened. I believe it has nothing to do with light and everything to do with darkness. I believe we should be ashamed of dumping the mentally ill into the streets. We should be ashamed of failing to care for our returning veterans whom we sent to war frenziedly waving flags and feeling self-righteous. We want to see them go, but we don`t want to see their awful wounds, both mental and physical.
To empty the public mental hospitals we painted a false picture of their uniformly appalling conditions. The truth, as always, was more complicated. Some hospitals were terrible, but many provided a safe haven for the people now suffering on our streets. We bought a package of half-truths and lies to indulge a selfish desire not to have to pay for other people`s misfortunes. And now their misfortunes are mocking us and we must cross the street to avoid the stink of our own hypocrisy.
You don`t have to drive around America long before you encounter signs that say, Repent. It means to turn around. And it`s dirt-cheap. Doesn`t cost a cent in tax money. But to do it we have to stop blaming the bought-and-paid-for politicians and own up to our own selfishness, to the bill of goods we`ve bought and are now stuck with. We`re to blame for our current mess, for the wholesale exportation of our economy to cheap-labor markets, for the crooks and hacks in government, for high property taxes, for the lot of it, because we bought the snookerish idea that tax cuts and laissez-faire extremism would solve everything and to hell with the other guy. We bought the idea, in other words, that we don`t have to share each other`s burdens. We bought the idea that corporations could cheat like on hell on their taxes "the reason Switzerland thrives "and everything would be alright because these high-rolling predators would share the wealth with the rest of us instead of putting us out of work in their quest for cheap labor. We bought one bad idea after another because it suited our prejudices, our fixed idea that everything goes wrong in Washington first, whereas in fact it first goes wrong in our hometowns, our state capitals and Wall Street.
A big part of the problem is our debilitated media. It`s easier for them to cover Washington than local and regional government, and a lot cheaper. That`s why Washington gets more attention than the messes in Sacremento and Albany, where compromised government has ruined our two greatest states. And as for corruption in our hometowns, what press is left to adequately investigate it?
If we persist in being in the market for simpleminded solutions, how about more jobs with good pay, how about moral corporations? Or is that too much to ask? What the predatory lenders have done to us we have done to the poor, the ill and the desperate. But we are far nobler than our mistakes make us out to be. We can transcend this mess by insisting on ordinary decency and compassion.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.