Sunday, September 25, 2011

Shall we be callous or shall we be people? There is hope.


Charles Blow, who appears every Sunday in the New York Times, is one of my favorite columnists. He is terse and articulate. His column always features a fascinating graphic with data that presents additional insight into his topic. Sometimes his topic is overtly political, as when he recently wrote about the disappointment many, including African-Americans, feel in President Obama. Frequently it is about people, especially poor people, especially children, and the incredible challenges that they face in this land of “everything for the rich and squeeze the most needy”. His colleague, Nicholas Kristof, often writes about the plight of children in the rest of the world; between them, we learn a great deal of about the desperate situation of so many, as in On Top of Famine, Unspeakable Violence, September 25, 2011.

So, on September 24, 2011, it was uplifting to have a column presenting something good happening for these children, It Takes a Village. Blow describes his visit to the Dorothy Day Apartments on Riverside Drive in West Harlem, a “former drug den” converted in 2003 to housing for destitute and homeless families. Most of the adults were drug addicts or are HIV victims or mentally ill or all. He writes about the cheerfulness of the design of the entire building (including the art gallery on the top floor with views of the Hudson River), of the yoga done by “wee little legs that barely have kneecaps” on mats placed in a courtyard that was previously 6 feet deep in garbage.  It has been successful by any measure – no teenage pregnancies, successful graduations from high school and entry into college, as well as done at a cost less that “housing” people in prison, shelters, or mental hospitals.

Blow quotes Lady Bird Johnson saying “Where flowers bloom, so does hope”. I am reminded of the song (taken from a poem by James Oppenheim written in 1911) “Bread and Roses”,Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too!” The poem is associated with the women who struck the textile mills in Lawrence, MA in 1912, and since the name of many projects and organizations, including an “integrated arts” high school in Harlem.  If I am disappointed in anything in Blow’s column, it is that he fails to mention who Dorothy Day was. Day, who died in 1980, co-founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933, “a nonviolent, pacifist movement that continues to combine direct aid for the poor and homeless with nonviolent direct action on their behalf”. If anyone wonders if Catholicism is focused only on anti-abortion, anti-contraception, and child abuse, or that there are those practicing the precepts contained in the New Testament rather than greed, prejudice, and selfishness, the Catholic Worker Movement is a good place to start. We are very fortunate to have such a center, Shalom House, in my town of Kansas City, KS.

On the same page as Blow’s op-ed is one by Theodore R. Marmor and Jerry L. Mashaw, who are academics rather than columnists. “How do you say ‘Economic Security”?” discusses the situation in the Depression in 1934, and how the government was seen as the vehicle for helping those in need to achieve a dignified life. They talk about how the discussion has changed in the last 50 years. In 1934, the focus was on people, family security and the risks to family economic well-being that we all share. Today, the people have disappeared. The conversation is now about the federal budget, not about the real economy in which real people live.“  They go on to say that “In 1934, the government was us. We had shared circumstances, shared risks and shared obligations. Today the government is the other — not an institution for the achievement of our common goals, but an alien presence that stands between us and the realization of individual ambitions. Programs of social insurance have become “entitlements,” a word apparently meant to signify not a collectively provided and cherished basis for family-income security, but a sinister threat to our national well-being.”

There were selfish bad guys with lots of money in 1934. But they were unable to control the debate, hard as they tried, with their control of the media (Hearst newspapers, anyone?). Somehow today they do. Occasionally, there is a burst of hope, the mass rallying of regular people to contribute to and work for Barack Obama in 2008, and the dashing of hope as this figure too seems to serve those with the most power. Marmor and Mashaw conclude  Over the last 50 years we seem to have lost the words — and with them the ideas — to frame our situation appropriately. Can we talk about this? Maybe not.”

I’d like to say “maybe yes”. Maybe we can look at the Dorothy Day Apartments and the Catholic Worker movement and Shalom House and the dozens of groups called “Bread and Roses” and the thousands of organizations and millions of people who really want to make this country and this world a better place for actual people, and have hope. And, if we want to look back for inspiration, let me offer a few passages from FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech of January 6, 1941:

“The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all.
The enjoyment -- The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living….

Many subjects connected with our social economy call for immediate improvement. As examples:
We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance.
We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.
We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it….

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor -- anywhere in the world.”

Are we now such a different people that such aspirations are no longer possible? I hope not.

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