Thursday, April 17, 2008
Greed: It's a shame!
In the February 24th edition of Progressive Magazine, historian Howard Zinn is reported as saying that though elections can make a difference - think of the difference between Roosevelt and Hoover in responding to the Depression - usually there isn't that much difference between the Democratic and Republican candidates.
What matters instead are grassroots movements that pressure elected officials of either party to change.
Zinn cites the actions of farmers after the Revolutionary War, many of them veterans of that war, who couldn't afford to pay their taxes and were in jeopardy of losing their land and homes. They gathered by the thousands at courthouses, refusing to allow their properties to be auctioned.
A movement like that needs to arise in the current mortgage crisis, says Zinn.
I have been intrigued by this quote ever since I read it a few days ago. It's been buzzing around my head like a new fly in spring, appearing from out of nowhere and interrupting my thoughts.
I've been watching the deepening furrowed brows of folks in the check out line at the super market, as they gaze into their carts and realize that they are paying more for less food. You can almost see them wonder if they can afford to put gas in their car for that long weekend trip to the Jersey Shore AND pay their child's orthodontic bill this month.
I've been noticing that the parking lot in front of the local Starbuck's (or "Fivebucks" as we call in in my house) is not as full as the one over at the Dunkin Donuts, and the lines at the Cold Stone Creamery are not as long as at the Dairy Queen.
The owner of the local Cafe tells me that people aren't coming in for an afternoon gourmet pastry and decaf latte like they once used to, but the guy over at the town Pizza Parlor says in his thick Middle Eastern accent that business is not too bad, not as bad as he thought it might be.
People will purchase no-name brands to cut costs. They will stop drinking Starbucks in favor of Dunkin' Donuts coffee to save a few bucks. But, would these same folks organize a political movement to save their homes from foreclosure?
What? You don't think it could happen here, in the affluent white suburbs? Let me tell you that there are more people than you can imagine who live in this town who are two paychecks away from financial disaster. In some ways fear is felt more deeply by those who do not often have it as a companion in life - like, say for example, those who live in the gritty housing projects of my former neighborhood in Newark.
So, will suburbanites suddenly understand the systemic problems of the financial crisis and join together in solidarity with each other to form a grassroots movement to protest the obscenity that has become the mortgage industry?
I'm thinking: Not so much. Don't be expecting any protest rallies or demonstrations about the mortgage foreclosures. Not here. Not in the 'burbs. Even though foreclosures will come. Here. In the 'burbs.
Now, protests in the Cit-tay? You bet! The sistas and brothas be out there soon as the preacha start to sing, "This little light of mine." But, affluent folk from the burb's? Ain't gonna happen. No matter how important or effective it might be.
And, according to Howard Zinn, it's a grassroots movement like that which will ultimately bring the sort of change that will be a benefit to everyone.
If - when - that movement begins by the working poor in the cities, the folks who will benefit the most are the folks in the 'burbs. I suspect it was ever thus
I've been slowly recognizing that what I'm seeing on lots of people's faces, besides anxiety and concern. It's this: shame.
I've been thinking that the shame of the anticipated loss of the status of being a homeowner is a very powerful force - even more powerful, in some ways, than the actual loss of one's home. I suspect the shame of anticipating the loss of one's home is more powerful than the energy it would take to actually admit to the anger necessary to form a "grassroots movement that pressure elected officials of either party to change."
But, I've been thinking that the real shame is the greed that is driving up gas prices, and the cost of food. It's that same greed that charges $4 for a cup of coffee that also fuels the seduction of the appearance of status and the illusion of affluence.
Bottom line: it's just a cuppa joe in a cardboard cup. But, it looks so much better - YOU look so much better - sitting on the benches outside the classroom, waiting for your son to finish his private session at the Kumon Learning Center with a cup that is obviously Starbuck's Coffee as opposed to a cup emblazoned with the Mac Donald's Golden Arches, which tastes far better anyway, in my estimation, but it is, after all, 'only' from "Mickey D's".
Greed feeds on greed and feeds greed, which is insatiable. Allowed to feed itself unabated, at some point, greed sparks the flame of arrogance and begins to build a bonfire of vanity and false sense of security.
We call that 'conspicuous consumption.'
Shame is different, of course, except for the fact that it does grow deeper the more one loses economic status or slips lower even in the perception of place on the social ladder. At some point, however, shame can spark the flames of anger and the bonfires of violence and destruction begin to be built.
We call that 'social revolution.'
Does an over-abundance of conspicuous consumption lead, necessarily to social revolution? Is a grassroots movement which leads to systemic change more effective than a political process?
Greed and shame. Does the impulse for greed arise, in part, out of a defense against shame? Are they just different sides of the same coin? Is one fuel for the other?
This is a theological reflection. These are theological questions.
I'll let you figure out why.