Last night I read something that accurately describes American society in 2017… and it was written in 2010.
Lengthy periods of economic stagnation or decline have almost always left society more mean-spirited and less inclusive, and have usually stopped or reversed the advance of rights and freedoms. A high level of national wealth, Friedman writes, “is no bar to a society’s retreat into rigidity and intolerance once enough of its citizens lose the sense that they are getting ahead.” When material progress falters… people become more jealous of their status relative to others. Anti-immigrant sentiment typically increases, as does conflict between races and classes; concern for the poor tends to decline.
I’m reading Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy, which was first printed in 2011. The quote above is on page 64, and it’s from a 2010 article in The Atlantic which quotes a 2006 book.
You know what this tells me?
1. People knew this was coming. It’s happened before, it’s happening again. We have the opportunity to learn from the past and respond differently in the present to create different outcomes. (That may not exactly be news, but I find that a reminder like that inspires a deep breath and breaks the worry cycle, enabling curiosity and creative thinking.)
2. The most important thing we can each do in our current social and political climate is to hold onto our kindness and compassion for everyone. And I do mean everyone. Black, brown, white, citizen, immigrant, queer, trans, poor, rich, political, apolitical, sick, well, optimistic, pessimistic, privileged, in denial, in power, angry, beaten down, you name it. No exceptions, not even for the man who will be sworn in as President in a few days. (Lest anyone think I’ve lost my mind: Compassion wears different faces in different relationships, but it never looks like letting letting bullies have their way.)
3. Yes, we must do everything we can to protect the rights of minorities of all types and those who are traditionally more vulnerable and discriminated against in our society and we must also do everything we can to protect the rights and address the needs of the “citizens [who have lost] the sense that they are getting ahead.” Most people who are going to read this already know that growing wealth inequality is real, but for some reason the national conversation tends to focus on the big picture instead of on the individual impacts.
Look at it this way:
When a black person is killed by police, they become the poster child du jour. It’s personal. That movement has faces, names. They did everything they were supposed to do and still got shot.
When entire communities lose their livelihoods, we don’t hear much about it. When we do hear about it, it’s in the context of a larger conversation about the national economy, globalization, regulations, trade, etc. But for the folks who live in those communities, it’s personal. Their neighbors have faces, names. They did everything they were supposed to do and still lost jobs, retirement plans, and houses.
As a thought exercise, how would things be different if wealth inequality protesters had poster children?
Another thought exercise: What happens when you’re someone who believes wholeheartedly in personal responsibility and then you can’t get ahead and/or lose everything you worked for due to forces outside your control? How do you make sense of that experience? I think the quote I opened with provides some suggestions.
Pain is pain. Suffering is suffering. Poor and middle class white folks are suffering from systemic injustice too. Comparisons are worse than useless because they separate us. The ol’ divide-and-conquer trick is working well.
This isn’t an either/or situation. It’s a both-and situation.
Yes, as individuals there is only so much we can do. Maybe you reading this feel called to march on Washington with feminists, or stand with Standing Rock, or put your energy into Black Lives Matter. It’s all important. It all matters.
But one other thing we can all do, individually and collectively, is to change our way of thinking and talking about systemic injustice. Even as we each choose the work that matters most to us, we need to keep in mind that racism and economic injustice (for example) are not different beasts. They are different faces of the same beast.
We are all in this together. Many of our allies don’t know that yet, or perhaps they’ve forgotten. We need to keep inviting them to join us at the table and on the streets and show them that we take their concerns seriously too.
I think, underneath everything, most of us are afraid that there’s not enough to go around. Not enough justice. Not enough resources. Not enough jobs. Not enough equality.
But that scarcity mentality is exactly what keeps us fighting like dogs over scraps in the yard when the door to the banquet hall is wide open.