Saturday, February 4, 2012

Of Camels and Needles

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into the kingdom of God. - Matthew 19:24

You may want to print this blog post as a collector’s item. I have a hunch, as we go into the Presidential election madness, that this may be the one of the few times that you’ll see my deep empathy for Gov. Mitt Romney. To be clear, Governor Romney is a contender for the Republican nomination not because he’s the greatest civic leader the party can field. He’s not the front-runner because he has the courage to truly confront the nationalist denials which keep us from confronting the structural problems facing our economy and society. He’s not getting media attention because he can evidence leadership based on the power of an American ideal of liberty over the recent legacy of anonymous drone-laden assassinations of our ideological foes. He’s on all of our radar screens because, among other attributes, he’s rich and in our society, that means he can buy our attention.

My heart truly aches for him this week. In what will undoubtedly be a defining moment for all of the wrong reasons, his careless comment seeking to highlight his commitment to addressing the priorities of the middle class has been ravenously devoured by those who love nothing more than to begrudgingly envy wealth only to decimate its incarnations the moment they see any alloy of inhumanity. I do not know Governor Romney but I am certain that he “cares” about the poor. And watching pundits from the Utopian left to Pharisees on the militant right pile onto this gaffe reflects not our vigilance for social justice but our most distasteful lust for gladiatorial butchery.

In a meeting yesterday, one of the world’s leading private wealth managers observed that, “Being just a little bit richer is not as good as being a lot poorer is much worse.” [For those of you not given to word puzzles; consider this. If you have $100,000 and gain $10,000 your happiness does not increase at the same proportion as the disappointment experienced if you had $200,000 and lost $90,000. While you’re still, in the moment holding an absolute $110,000, the instance of gain pales in comparison with the agony accompanying the perception of loss.] The wealth manager’s firm handles in excess of $4 trillion and, as such, he’s seen the emotional tsunamis of perceived loss eclipse countless apathetic compounding years of modest and stellar gains.

The manager’s comment echoed off the cavernous walls of inhumanity perpetuated by relentless media drumbeats on the too-late penitent Governor. But as I contemplated this present dissonance, I was invited to reconsider one of my life’s most poignant lessons.

My recollection of an event in India (described in a blog post last year) raced into my consciousness. The idea that we can place ourselves in a position of feigning sympathy or empathy for those we deem to be “poor” or “disadvantaged” while expressing none of the same impulses for those we deem as “rich” or “privileged” says more about ourselves than those we judge. The only reason why Mitt’s apparent insensitivity is garnering so much attention is because we hold up an artificial standard. Somehow we convince ourselves that because we’ve acquiesced to the illusion that with his wealth comes some level of insulation from careless insensitivity or simple misstatements, his comment becomes far more than it is. To be clear, it was in poor taste and lacked sensitivity. You know it as does he. But equally lacking in taste is the elephant in the room – namely, our frequent incapacity to see that position (either granted by merit or purchased by money) has never assured an evidence of perpetual refinement or grace. Regrettably, what the events of the past week demonstrate is that we’re far more likely to pillory those whom we’ve exalted rather than engage in genuine, respectful critique of the deeper questions we all face as a society.

And by the way, enough with the temporal and moral relativism! Let us recall that the same Bible that is embraced Governor Romney and so many liberal and conservative self-proclaimed Christian adherents reports a crusading Jesus being equally dismissive if taken out of context: Matthew 26:11 records the statement that, “the poor you will always have with you.” And lest you think that there’s any air-gap between the mis-contextualization of a week ago versus two millennia ago – let’s be clear. This Gospel account has been frequently used by those who want to rationalize non-engagement or discontinuation of purposeful, compassionate action when it comes to those who society has most marginalized. Isolating statements uttered in error or in malevolence as a point of dogmatic contention is inappropriate as it masks the genuine issues that are pleading for attention. Remember that from 1980 – 1988, those officially under the poverty line increased during what we called the Reagan revolution – worst among the urban disadvantaged and children (can anyone remember “the least of these…”?). But with 1980s gas prices low, official unemployment low, and wealth transfer for the top 5% of asset holders expanding at a then-record rate, our indifference allowed this gap to widen to a point where now we’ve expanded the ranks of those left behind to levels unimaginable under the Actor-in-Chief. We’ve spent three decades “not caring about the poor,” so when a careless statement utters the truth of our consensus behavior, we may be well advised to take care in casting the first stone.

Governor Romney is a wealthy man. I am a wealthy man. I know a bunch of wealthy men and women measured in every dimension by which one can measure wealth. I’ve never met anyone on Earth that has enjoyed the breadth of experience; the dynamic range of joys and sorrows; the access and privilege that I’ve had as I have been fortunate to participate in the lives of what likely numbers in the millions by now. While I have chosen a mode of transacting my life that has consciously elected not to be dependent on money – the object of so much violent conflict, aspiration, derision, fear and hatred – this choice in no way alters the truth that I have unfathomable wealth. And, if you’re reading this blog post, you’re probably among the world’s most privileged if you truly measure your life in all dimensions of value.

With wealth – in any form – comes accountability. And it is in this spirit that I would kindly suggest that to Form a More Perfect Union, those of us who seek to transform the tide of inhumanity hold a touch of discerning Mercy. Whether Governor Romney is a man of compassion, I do not know. Whether he would embody that quality of mercy that, in Shakespeare’s eloquence, “becomes a throned monarch better than his crown,” I do not know. But what I absolutely know is that attacking any person for a moment of insensitivity – particularly when the energy animating that attack is at times amplified by a deeply suppressed schizophrenic envy which seeks to accumulate the artifact of derision – serves to destroy our humanity. I trust that we don’t deepen our poverty of spirit by standing in self-incriminating judgment on a man and his ill-considered utterance. After all, it is We the People who have allowed his currency to buy our attention and until We the People lessen our idolatry elevating everyone from kings to Kardashians, we will be standing behind the asses of a lot of queuing camels.

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Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave