Like a drumbeat, the news these days delivers a repeated shock to the moral and ethical system of our body politic, calling out an answering question: do you believe this? How is it that the guardians of entrenched privilege, who have already seized so much of our commonwealth, are so shamelessly and persistently willing to claim even more? And how is it that our elected officials are so shamelessly and persistently willing to give them what they want?
Warren Buffett’s provocative New York Times op-ed, “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich,” has been rocketing through cyberspace this week. Buffett is so rich that his name evokes King Midas, but he hasn’t lost his capacity to perceive the suffering of others:
OUR leaders have asked for “shared sacrifice.” But when they did the asking, they spared me. I checked with my mega-rich friends to learn what pain they were expecting. They, too, were left untouched.
While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks.
Many years ago, I took part in an extended project in the deep South. A state arts agency had asked for advice and help in addressing the burn-out problem reported by small-town arts organizers receiving grants to support local activities. People started out enthusiastically, but a kind of exhaustion quickly set in.
Visiting the organizers in their own habitat, it wasn’t hard to see why. The state was one of the most racially polarized in the country. The rural counties in which these organizers worked had resisted repeated integration orders. Often, the powers-that-be had chosen to shut down public facilities—movie theaters, swimming pools—rather than integrate them. Most white parents had sent their kids to substandard Christian academies rather than integrated public schools. And so on.
The arts organizers tended to be relative newcomers to these rural communities—many of them were women who’d married into local families, or whose spouses had been transferred to local jobs—who brought enthusiasm and experience from other places. But after months of trying in vain to enlist what one woman described as “a-a-a-a-l-l-l-l the community,” frustration overcame them.
We employed a type of action-research that relied heavily on people’s own accounts of their own communities, convening participatory dialogues and carrying out many individual interviews. We asked people to describe their hometowns: Who lived here? What did they do for work and fun? Where did they go? Who was included? Who was left out?
In community after community, the same distortion emerged. White people would describe their towns as just fine for everyone. In what came to seem emblematic of the whole problem, they also described them as primarily white. In fact, when we asked for population estimates, they typically reversed the proportions we’d learned from Census figures (which notoriously underreported people of color). If the Census Bureau reported that a town was 70 percent African American, for instance, most members of the white establishment would describe it as majority white: “Oh, 60-70 percent white, I guess.”
It reminded me then of a rabbinic story I’d learned many years before, in which a rabbi visits the town’s richest man to ask for alms for the poor, and is repeatedly refused. Finally, before he turns to leave, the rabbi asks the man to look through the window of his house and say what he sees. The man sees other people, of course, going about their business in the town. Then the rabbi directs the man to gaze into a nearby mirror and report what he sees. “Myself,” the man says. “That’s how it goes,” the rabbi tells him. “The human soul is clear, like glass, allowing us to see truly; but when we cover it with silver, all we can see is ourselves.”
I thought of this when a friend directed me to an interesting report on Dacher Keltner’s research, showing that people in lower socioeconomic classes respond with greater empathy and compassionate social behavior to depictions of suffering.
It’s tempting to attribute this distortion to wealth, but as in my long-ago experience in the deep South, the “silver” that turns clear sight into narcissism is the feelings of entitlement and superiority that easily attach to privilege of any kind, whether it derives from wealth, from racism, or from anything else that creates an inflated sense of self-importance among members of certain groups. It comes down to this: entitlement creates incapacity, a distortion of vision that amplifies our own egos, rendering others invisible in comparison.
I wish Buffett (and fellow Patriotic Millionaires) luck in getting the super-rich to step up and do their fair share. Awareness of one’s own blind spots if the first step to correcting them. But most of all, I wish our elected officials—and we who elect them—the moral courage to do what is right, even when it incurs the wrath of the entitled.
Here’s Booker T and The MGs telling it in so many words. Lyrics by Bob Dylan, lead guitar by Steve Cropper, Gotta Serve Somebody.”