Friday, December 20, 2013

“Habits Of The Heart”

In some ways I can understand why 3-in-5 Republicans responded “no” when asked in a nation-wide poll last week if “the federal government should pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans (select party ID in drop down.)”

While decidedly out of step with the majority of other Americans, including Independents like me, I suspect most of those who responded that way are not wealthy.

While they may tell themselves another story today, like me, most were beneficiaries of policies such as this that greatly expanded the middle class between the end of WWII and the 1970s.

However, many Americans all along the political spectrum believe the safety net is in need of an overhaul to deal with “cheats.”  But the numbers who fit that category are few and it will take more money - not less - to ferret them out.

Just trying to starve them out is inhumane to the vast majority in true need.  It hasn’t worked anyway.  Failing to distinguish “cheats” from others in the safety net who may just have a bad attitude or an irritating sense of entitlement robs us of our humanity.

If shunning those with these attributes were a condition of receiving a hand up, we’d need to first purge the far greater numbers who display them while in positions of leadership at every level of our society where they are far more costly in both treasure and productivity.

Over the years, friends of mine in Durham, NC have participated in a joint-venture called Share Your Christmas, that for more than three decades has connected needy families (including 2200 children) in our community with families who want to provide presents.

Individuals or families who sponsor a needy family are given a list of items each member would wish to receive for Christmas.  The stories are heart warming.

Even though they may qualify more as “compassion by anecdote,” to use a phrase coined by conservative commentator Joe Queenan who was raised in poverty, if for only a moment they also clear away the ambiguity of virtue to borrow the title of a forthcoming book.

One year I was taken aback to see that one of the adults on one of the lists had asked for a flat screen television. This stood out because on the same list it only asked for socks and underwear for the children of that household.

It is probably narratives like this that underlie the negative responses to that question in the poll.

The forthcoming book I cited earlier is one of several recently, including Countrymen, that tell the story of what happened in Denmark during WWII.  Denmark was one of several countries where ordinary citizens stood united and refused to surrender Jewish countrymen to the Gestapo.

Bulgaria was another while neutral Switzerland, by contrast, turned away tens of thousands of Jewish refugees at its border to face certain execution.  The story of “what the rescue of the Danish Jews teaches us” is told in an incredible article in this month’s issue of “The New Republic,” entitled “How Decency Happens.”

One lesson is the huge difference between cooperation and collaboration.

The author, Dr. Michael Ignatlieff (shown in this blog,) a former member of the Canadian Parliament who now teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, notes that:

“It is a story that reinforces an old truth: solidarity and decency depend on a dense tissue of connection among people, on long-formed habits of the heart, on resilient cultures of common citizenship, and on leaders who marshal these virtues by their example.”

Maybe instead, prior to enacting policies that once again re-hydrate the middle class by closing the gap in wealth inequality, we need to revive policies that thicken the dense tissue of connection, form habits of the heart and engender resilience among those of us with bounty.

We need to ensure that the safety net is meant only for an occasional bounce, but to do that we must heed Qweenan’s first hand advice that poverty “is a pathologically enduring, immutable condition. Not a lifestyle choice.”

Poverty must also be incredibly depressive and when addressing it, we are also well advised to remember a statement by Dr. Andrew Solomon, an author and lecturer at Cornell Medical College as well as TEDMet this past October:

“The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality.”

I hope you and your families are blessed this holiday season with heart-warming exchanges.  I’ll be taking a short break from blogging next week.  Thank you for reading.

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