when too few have too much and too many have too little, we do not have a sustainable societyThe words are from Bernard Rapoport, known to his friends simply as B.
I have been reflecting upon them for the past few days, because of having attended his memorial on Tuesday, about which I wrote yesterday in this post, which I think may be as important as anything I have ever posted here.
We are seeing the continued development of an America were too few do have too much and an ever-increasing percentage have too little.
The situation will be made worse if the Affordable Care Act is overturned by the Supreme Court.
The situation has been made worse by a series of decisions about campaign finance, going back to Buckley v Valeo equating money with speech, and when combined with the idea that corporations are persons culminating in Citizens United, along with the existence of 527s, Super Pacs, and the abuse of 501(c)(4) organizations by the likes of Karl Rove.
B Rapoport once asked a close friend "Moyers, what can I do to make this world a better place?" I have some thoughts on this, and they are combined with the third of the three things he learned from his father, that he needed to have a sense of outrage at injustice.
I invite you to continue to explore some ideas with me.
I do not seek to level society. I see nothing wrong with some degree of differentiation - in wealth, in ability, in knowledge, in skills in various domains. I can admire someone who starting with some skill develops into a superb athlete beyond what I could never imagine as possible for myself. While I have a fair amount of talent as pianist (and used to as a cellist as well) I did not choose to dedicate myself to the development of those talents. I admire those who did, and see nothing wrong with their benefiting from that development and dedication.
I would, had I ever met B Rapoport, been prepared to argue that such development can make the world a better place. It is why I think PUBLIC schools should be places that students explore ALL their capabilities, including athletics and arts, but also domestic arts like cooking and sewing, industrial arts like auto mechanics, as well as literature and social sciences - science, technology, engineering and math are not the only skills a society needs.
I grew up in an upper middle class household, in an upper middle class neighborhood. Some of those I knew in elementary school went on to prestigious non-public schools - St. Grottlesex, as the New England Prep Schools were sometimes labeled, or Jesuit prep schools for the Catholic Boys like my next door neighbor Tom Schneider, 1 year older than me to the day. I remember the father of one of my elementary school classmates saying that he had had his experience of democracy in elementary school, now his dad shipped him off to Le Rosey in Switzerland "to help prepare him for his proper place in the world." I thought that was obnoxious.
I played on a Babe Ruth League baseball team funded by the mother of one my classmates (he didn't play baseball, as tennis was his sport).
We knew craftsmen who were skilled, who made good livings. The carpenter brothers who redid our basement, for example, one of whom had been in the Battle of the Bulge with a relative of ours. The tailor whose shop was next to the movie theater. The mechanic who maintained our family car for many years.
There were working class kids in our high school, even a few who were poor, although not like those who were really poor in urban ghettoes, or the rural poor who were completely out of mind as well as being invisible by distance.
My sister and I had classmates whose fathers (and it was only fathers) ran major corporations or major educational institutions. One of my classmates had a father who was a world-reknown conductor, another whose father was one of the best-known performers on one particular instrument. I went to dinner and parties or picked up dates at houses that dwarfed our substantial (around 3200 square feet, and now valued well over a million dollars) residence - some had indoor pools, one had an indoor basketball court, and more than a few had private piers on waters leading to the Long Island Sound). Yet we went to classes together, we socialized as individuals and groups. Some even married one another.
American society in the 1950s and 1960s when i grew up had a great deal of inequality. Yet we recognized it, and strove to ameliorate its worst effects. We had seen the development of Social Security in the 1930s to help prevent desperation for seniors. During my young years we got national educational programs, recognizing the importance of education to enabling those without family resources to advance from poverty. As a society we attempted to address the discrimination of race - I write these words on the Anniversary of Plessy v Ferguson, and one day after the anniversary of Brown v Board. We made an attempt to overcome the divisiveness of race. Later we would attempt address sexism as well.
Somehow we have lost the idea that all are entitled to pursue the American Dream.
Somehow we as a nation seem willing to abandon the notion that all are created equal entitled to rights that include the pursuit of happiness.
Somehow we seem to willing to accept a notion that some can succeed only by preventing the success of others.
Too many seem to think they did it on their own, failing to recognize that their success was not possible without the framework of a nation and a society to which all have contributed.
To put it bluntly, some think that their wealth and their position entitle them in ways that are obnoxious
- to dictate the lives of others
- to make them immune from the consequences of their own actions
- that their shit doesn't stink.
They divide - by religion, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, wealth, school or college attended, or any other means that makes them in their own eyes "superior" and those not like them "other" and "less worthy"
They seek to have ever more and when they do somehow see nothing wrong with using what they have to gain still more - money, and through that money power and exemption from social responsibility, starting with paying a fair share in taxes to the society that enabled their accumulation of wealth (even if inherited from family). They want different rules from them, exempting them from the burdens they are willing to impose on others they view as less "worthy."
They have, as B Rapoport would say, too much.
They are willing to keep too many with too little.
Such a society is not sustainable.
What then can we, can I, do about it?
I can give back - by paying my taxes, by working for programs and policies that make things better for more people, by only supporting those politicians who are willing to commit themselves to the greater good, by not patronizing businesses that abuse their employees, do not support their communities.
The responsibility for a just society falls upon all of us.
For me, if I do not start with myself, I have no grounds on which to accuse others.
Far better to live what I believe, even if it costs me.
If I benefit, I should want others to have the same opportunity to benefit.
Moyers, what can I do to make this world a better place?
B Rapoport lived his life attempting to answer that question.
He never lost sight of the ideal of leaving no one behind.
The third, and most important thing he learned from his father was this: most important, have a sense of outrage at injustice.
That sense of outrage is a starting point, something with which we can each motivate ourselves to make a difference.
B Rapoport was a proud Jew. I come from similar Eastern European Jewish background, and my family taught me many of the same values.
I am a Convinced Friend, a Quaker by choice.
To those values I add the ideal of George Fox, that we are to walk gladly across the earth, answering that of God in each person we encounter.
That includes the oppressed, the poor, the ignored.
It also includes the oppressor, the rich, the ones who already get far too much attention.
I am required to challenge, starting with myself as an example, but others as well.
I can ask them the question B posed to Moyers, but really asked himself: what can I do to make this world a better place?
None of us will be without failure.
At which point I remember a tale from the Desert Fathers. The novice asked his master what they did in the desert, and the answer was that We fall, we pick ourselves up, we fall, we pick ourselves up, we fall, we pick ourselves up.
Years ago, when I was an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I used to visit Mount Athos, the peninsula in Northern Greece that has been a monastic republic for more than a millenium. Often when I traveled between the various monastic houses I would forego the opportunity of vehicular transportation to walk the ancient footpaths through the wooded terrain. I came to realize that the point of a pilgrimage is as much the journey as it is the destination. I came to understand the point of the words of the Gospel which asked the question of what good it was for a man to gain the whole world if he lost his soul.
I think that is what B Rapoport not only understood, but tried to live.
Even more, it is what he tried to make possible for others.
Ultimately, it is why I became a teacher.
It is why I write.
Teaching is at its best co-learning.
Life is a pilgrimage.
Remember, the journey is as important as the destination.
And I will never lose my sense of outrage at injustice. It gives me reason to keep on striving even when exhausted, tired, feeling a sense of despair.
So long as too few have too much and too many have too little, our society is NOT sustainable.
So then comes the question:
What can I do to make this world a better place?
Not a bad question to keep before me, is it?