Friday, February 26, 2010

hard times

On the car radio yesterday -- it must have been the BBC -- I caught a segment of a story about an upcoming vote in an English district that had previously been considered a "Labor bastion." The thrust of the story seemed to be the impact of the dismal economy on voting preferences.

The reporter, while not pretending to a scientific poll, talked to various people on the street and sure enough, many who had voted Labor in the past were now leaning towards the Conservatives. But beyond that, some (who sounded older than merely outraged teenagers) said they would simply stay home ... a pox on both their houses.

The weariness imposed by the economy seemed apparent in the report. The same people who brought us the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now had a chance to overthrow those who were spending vast sums trying to clean up the fiscal mess left in the wake of a deregulated frenzy of banking and insurance and stock-brokering greed.

And of course none of this money -- either the money being spent to prosecute wars or the money accrued by those who found openings for their greed -- belonged to the people amassing it. It belonged to the people who were now feeling the pinch and had put their trust in the governance they were being asked to vote for...again.

On every side there was a bid for "trust" when any credible basis for that trust had been severely eroded.

More than the social mewling and hand-wringing, what interested me in the report was the fatigue those interviewed seemed to feel -- the beaten and beaten-down attitude that spoke to me of a wearing away of even the convenient and savvy cynicisms.

It all made me think of the half-remembered report that the government here in the United States had contingency plans in place for the possibility of civil unrest. Frustration and sorrow might make such an option seem sensible -- throw all the assholes out! -- but were that to happen, how would the country show itself as much better than some tin-pot South American dictatorship? How would that honestly ease the honest pinch that voters are feeling?

Funny how those who have created the havoc are often the children of privilege. Well-educated, well-coiffed and imagining that that privilege is somehow a right instead of an obligation. But the greed of those who rule and the greed of those who don't rule is the same greed. And I imagine that those better-versed in history could make a pretty good case that it had never been much different.

On BBC television last night, there was a clip about a medical school in Cuba -- one that was educating people from all over the world to be doctors. The education was free and the only request made by the government-sponsored program was that those privileged enough to receive the education would return to their often-destitute countries and lend a hand there. Sure, it is a propaganda weapon, a way of showing that a dictatorial Cuba can offer a blessing as well as a curse, but the bald fact is that people in need would actually benefit. The clip did not dig into the ways in which ordinary Cubans might be deprived in order to pay for such a program, but on the surface at least, there was a decency to it all.

And it made me wonder in what ways individuals might offer their own medical programs to the world. Greed has palpable effects -- people go hungry, people go blind, people die as a result of greed. It's not new or novel or likely to change any time soon. There is no stopping it in others. But there are ways -- and they don't have to be high-profile, virtue-laden exercises -- in which we too can offer our privileges to an environment that has run out of trust and distrust, that is tired, that is uncertain. For starters, let's stop calling it "good" -- that just muddies the waters.

If greed starts at home, under my own two feet, then the place to begin is under my own two feet. No need for flag-waving and whining. Just start at home and revise the notion that because we were born on third base, we must have hit a triple. It is easy to point out the screw-ups of others -- the well-educated, ignorant, arrogant rulers -- but their mistakes don't have to be our mistakes, whatever base we were born on.

It's not a matter of high-falutin' philosophy or religion. It's a practical matter, one that affects both the one who makes the effort and the one who may benefit from it ....

Gautama Buddha said, "It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern. It is what I do and do not do -- that is my concern." And this is not just more feel-good, religious horseshit. It is not just some activist lollygagging. It is a practical observation in what may be verifiably difficult times. To start where you can make a difference is to make a palpable difference everywhere.

I'm not kidding.

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