It is tempting to go for payback when someone disses you. If you cut me dead on the street last week, or failed to respond when I as a neighbor asked for your help, the angry part of me might have wanted to hurt you. How could you do this to me? I probably wondered.
A five-year-old typically responds in just this way. Sammy pushed Johnny. Then Johnny hit Sammy. What happens next? In most kindergartens, it’s a fight. The same sequence often holds true for adults, though the offense and the reaction may be less physical—at least sometimes.
Isn’t there a better way? People can’t stay angry forever. There’s no use pickling resentment in formaldehyde. Ongoing animosity amounts to a stuck position.
In case you think these issues are petty, may I suggest you read your local newspaper—the one that has the best coverage of world events. It will show you that nations behave like individual human beings.
Nations that have been wronged seek leaders who will exact revenge. They retaliate with trade sanctions and military hostilities. Nations animated by greed lend money at exorbitant interest to impoverished others. Then, when the benighted borrowers default or beg for mercy, the lenders decline to relent, even when the consequences will punish the global community.
Consider the financial crisis in Greece and Puerto Rico. As one observer has written, “Forgiving debts is another way to lighten the dead weight on economies. Writing off debt can hurt banks, but defaults can also clear the system of doubtful loans and accelerate a recovery.
“Some analysts contend that extinguishing the mortgage debt of households bolstered the United States recovery. But lenders are not always willing to give big breaks to borrowers. Greece’s creditors have so far denied the country’s most recent requests for debt relief” (Peter Eavis, “Loads of Debt: A Global Ailment with Few Cures,” New York Times, June 29, 2015).
The solution, it would seem, might be some overarching international council of advisers able to assess the situation and listen to the concerns of all parties before making a recommendation. No blog post or even blog could recount all the failures of this approach in the last couple of centuries. The victims—of financial disaster, natural catastrophe, and human intolerance—are typically left to fend for themselves.
The newspapers I see in affluent Connecticut, perched on the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, have me scrolling through accounts of seemingly endless global suffering. I can read about the disregard of the haves for the tormented have-nots in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Or I can read about the greed and heartlessness of the very few in my own country who control the nation’s wealth while everyone else struggles to scrape by.
I have often wondered why we do not, we less affluent Americans, rise up in protest. Our nation was born in revolution. What has become of our capacity to protest and effect change? Surely the battle cry of “taxation without representation” applies in our time and not just in the eighteenth century.
As a psychotherapist I can document only the traits and behavior of the adults who sit on my couch, but here is what I see. We all want to believe we are special. We all want to believe we are normal, deserving, and loved. We also want to believe that we are right and that our opponents are wrong.
But when we Americans in the lower quintiles suffer collectively, a sort of paralysis sets in. We become curiously unable to stand up for ourselves. Like children we expect our parents or parent surrogates—our elected officials?— to protect and nurture us. When they fail to do so, we withdraw within ourselves, redoubling our efforts to survive as if success would follow once we overcame our own inadequacy.
In this connection I was interested in Thomas Edsall’s recent analysis of our national apathy (“Why Don’t the Poor Rise Up?” New York Times, June 24, 2015). Edsall, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, reflects on an important trend documented by other writers, namely the move away from collective action and common social ties and traditions toward individual autonomy.
In a process dubbed individualization, responsibility for citizens’ well-being has shifted from governments (public entities) onto the shoulders of individuals. Even the feminist, LGBT, and black power movements have tended to focus more on group membership and reputation than on broad economic interests.
Individualization nicely accommodates technological advance, international commerce, and the demise of the paternalistic or loyalty-based workplace. The unequal distribution of wealth means that the children of the rich have bright prospects, while the offspring of the less well off face a bleak future. Competition pits individuals against each other, further undermining the sense of community among the groups that need it most.
Rebellion fails to occur, Edsall concludes, because those bearing the most severe costs of inequality, being “political orphans in the new order,” are irrelevant to people in both political parties who set the agendas.
The flaw I find in this argument is the assumption that rebellion could ever elicit support from a major party. In fact, both have a considerable stake in maintaining the status quo—pace Hillary Clinton—and will therefore seek to manipulate public opinion rather than to promote mass revolt. As long as campaign finance determines election outcomes, surely the wealthy few will rule the rest of us and American politics will remain a large-scale game of Jeopardy!
For revolt to succeed, on the contrary, the common man and woman must join forces with the aim of restoring government’s concern for the public welfare benefiting all citizens, poor as well as rich. The new technology and popular culture offer organizers powerful tools. Before they can be effective, however, there needs to be a shift in local mindset.
Revolution can take hold only if it starts within each of us. We can voice a willingness to help each other, to recognize in interpersonal conflicts the opportunity for reconciliation, and to guarantee everyone the necessities of life regardless of wealth.
We can make a start by taking these principles from door to door. We can visit our neighbors, our schools, our churches, and our community centers. Together we can celebrate our victories one by one as they herald the new order. Representative democracy presupposes that there’s a community needing representation. If we don’t safeguard ours, who will?
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