[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)
[Sabbath is a Sunday feature that examines intersections of life and work.]
13 Ways of Looking at Occupation
On Thom Hartmann’s Big Picture, the author Naomi Klein talked about the power she felt being among the protesters camped near Wall Street. She described one man who was carrying a sign with these words: “I lost my job and found an occupation.” The play on words is significant in more ways than one. Pundits, including former President Clinton, keep asking what this group wants, what it stands for. What the wise ones can’t understand is that some actions speak a language that belies simplicity.
The word occupy is not easily defined. In one sense, it holds the definition of taking something, best seen in a military occupation. In another, the occupant lives in a place – to occupy is to be at home. The definition I find most interesting, however, is occupation as engagement: What occupies you thoughts? The protesters in New York, and their supporters across the U.S. and several other countries, are engaging a culture that is stuck in a rut. Rather than try to provide a simple answer (think 9-9-9 or “Drill, baby, drill” or “Change”), they are opening a space where questions are possible. What’s next? Who knows?
Writing in the October 17 edition of the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg captures this movement of open questions: “Occupy Wall Street is a political project, but it is equally a cri de couer, an exercise in constructive group dynamics, a release from isolation, resignation, and futility. The process, not the platform, is the point.”
Yesterday, the process spread to cities in other countries. There was a riot in Rome, which the corporate-owned media took great pleasure in reporting. But, as this post in the Daily Kos indicates, the crowds that marched in Time Square, America’s blaring shrine to the media, indicate that this movement – whatever it is – is growing. People want to engage in the process. They want to occupy the space our leaders have abandoned in their weakness, greed, and small-mindedness.
My lens for understanding this phenomenon is Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. When I first read this poem as an undergraduate, it struck me as nonsense. But, as I wrestled with it – and with Stevens – it became clear that sometimes it’s about not being clear. We constantly experience complex, beautiful phenomena. But our practical world, our Ben Franklin common sense, makes us segregate and simplify.
"A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Reality is all about how we look at something. The media wants a simple story that can be told in a few seconds (leaving more time for commercials). Occupy Wall Street hasn’t given in to such simplicity. Neither did the people who occupied Tahrir Square in Egypt and those who camped in the streets of Tel Aviv, the protestors who have marched in Greece, Britain, and the brave souls in Syria who remain strong in the face of bullets.
What do we see? How do we see?
"When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles."
We don’t see the full of reality, just the “edge of one of many circles.” We try to make sense of a reality that is moving around us like a black bird flying in the snow. The protest movements crisscrossing the world are about a different way of seeing. Will they change the way we live?
[On Sundays, Career Calling looks away from careers to other aspects of life and work.]
Scary Things – Good & Bad
Boo! It’s Halloween, and children are dressed as ghosts, goblins, and superheroes. The weather is getting colder, but that doesn’t detract from the happy squeals of young people chasing candy and other goodies. Adults celebrate this holiday more and more each year. I was out with friends yesterday, and we saw many interesting costumes, including men dressed as a nurse and Wonder Woman. Halloween is funny – scary fun.
We’ve seen a different kind of scary work over the past few months – political commercials. It seems that all politicians from both main parties can do is try to tear each other down. We as voters have the great responsibility of hiring our leaders. How is that possible when all we get are attempts to scare us that the other “guy” (or gal) is a monster. I think of this in the context of what I do every day as a career coach and resume writer. My job is to discover and sell my clients’ strongest talents and skills. Our politicians today do the opposite to their opponent. Tear the other guy down, and hope the employer will pick me. What employer would hire such a person?
We are a society more and more driven by fear. Some tales of fear (horror movies, vampire tales) are just entertainment. We suspend our disbelief and let go in a world of monsters and terror. However, that same emotion has taken over the way many adults view all aspects of reality. The mere mention of 9/11 sends many people back to the emotions they felt on a tragic day nearly 10 years ago. Their fears often twist into paranoid political arguments and shrill anger. In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein has shown how these emotions let cynical politicians make voters dance like puppets on a string.
In some ways, children are braver than adults. They go through the haunted house without being scarred. They’ll go back next year and enjoy the same dark rooms and ominous music. Too many adults have come to be paralyzed by fear. They accept a belief that gives them comfort, and then they refuse to test or challenge that belief. Juan Williams was fired from NPR for saying that he felt fear when he was on a plane with people in “Muslim garb.” That’s a Halloween problem with serious consequences (not for Williams, of course, because Fox gave him a $2 million a year contract extension). People wearing turbans (Sikhs, not Muslims) have been beaten because ignorant, fearful people think this is “Muslim garb.” As many of Williams’ detractors have pointed out, the terrorists on 9/11 were not dressed in any kind of ethnic clothing. They looked like every young male on the plane. However, that fact will not sway the fearful adult mind, especially in this political climate where ignorance rule. Fear trumps facts. Emotions overwhelm reason.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand that there are many legitimate factors causing Americans to be afraid: unemployment, foreclosures, wage cuts, and a broken political system. My problem is that we are not solving those problems the right way. Most historians point to Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt as two of our greatest presidents. Lincoln, facing a war that could split the country, called on his fellow citizens to live with “malice toward none, with charity for all.” FDR, at the height of the Depression, said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” They challenged the American people to be better, stronger. Too many of our leaders today (following the example of snake oil salesmen like Glen Beck) want only weakness and fear.
Tomorrow the Halloween decorations will start coming down. Happily, the next night the political commercials will stop running (except here in Chicago where we have a mayoral election in February). Children will start looking forward to Christmas. Ghosts will give way to Santa Claus. Their scary days will be gone for a year. Sadly, for too many adults, being scared is all they know any more. It’s all cynical politicians want them to know. Boo! Don’t vote for the other guy – he’s a monster (or a Kenyan, or a socialist). Fear-fueled insults and name-calling have become a type of political discourse. The grown ups need to take a hard look at the kids – and grow up.