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Greed Redux

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2013)

“It has always seemed strange to me…the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” John Steinbeck

This may be a stretch, but stretching is good for us, so…it seems to me that everything going on with our psychotic leaders in Washington these days is concisely echoed on the local level and in our personal lives. This week the propaganda peeps refer to the ongoing fiscal crisis as the sequester (how Medieval sounding!) as opposed to the fiscal cliff they scared us with a couple months ago, but the crisis is the same crisis: greed. And the emotion perpetuating this greed is fear: the fear of not having enough. The fear driving our psychotic leaders, alas, is very real, while the basis for their fear is imagined.

I’ve long been fascinated by statistics showing that my generation, the so-called Baby Boomers and primary beneficiaries of that mythic era known as The Sixties—a time renowned for sharing and love and connecting with Mother Earth—are the most materialistic, greedy, self-serving people who have ever lived. Of course The Sixties didn’t cause us to become so anti-Sixties in our behavior; our parents are responsible for that, and our parents were children of the Great Depression, a time when their fear of not having enough had some basis in reality rather than fantasy. And, as it happens, most of the psychopaths now holding sway in our federal and state and local governments and courts are children of the children of the Great Depression.

My parents, for example, grew up skirting poverty and survived the Great Depression to become solidly middle-class. Our family was never in danger of starving or being evicted, yet when my siblings and I were little kids my mother would frequently rail at us during supper, usually under the influence of alcohol, that if my father failed to bring home money that very evening we would be headed for the Poor House. To my inventive young mind, the poor house was a large stone building with a dirt floor strewn with rotting straw; and that’s where we were going if my father didn’t come home with money. I wondered if I would go to the same school I was currently attending while we lived in the Poor House or if there was a Poor House school with cruel teachers who would beat us for talking out of turn, which was my great failing as a student.

By the time I was in my twenties, my parents were unquestionably wealthy, and that wealth continued to grow for the rest of their lives, yet they never for a moment felt they had enough money, and this feeling was so strong in them that it was only with the greatest difficulty they would share their money with anyone, including their own children. When my father died, he left behind a letter to me he had lacked the courage to send while he was alive, a letter in which he enumerated the two reasons he had never given me any money despite his having millions of dollars while I lived on the edge of poverty for many years. First, he did not want to support me on what he considered a frivolous and wrongheaded path as a writer and artist, and second, he did not think he had enough money for himself.

“Leadership is a privilege to better the lives of others. It is not an opportunity to satisfy personal greed.” Mwai Kibaki

When I moved to Sacramento in 1980, the city council was stacked with people in the service of unscrupulous real estate developers, and my arrival in town coincided with the election of a new council member who had campaigned as a vehement opponent of the idiotic and shortsighted development that was laying waste to the Sacramento area. And then, quite publicly, within just a few months of his election, this fellow moved from a low rent apartment into a fine new home in the best part of town and went to work for the very developers he had vowed to fight. My environmentalist friends who had been so jubilant about his election were saddened but barely surprised by his conversion, for such dramatic ideological shifts were commonplace in that deeply corrupt city.

I, in my innocence, became involved with groups in Sacramento pushing for environmentally sensible alternatives to the New General Plan for the future development of Sacramento. But after a few years of attending symposiums and planning commission meetings, and realizing there was absolutely zero public support for any substantive change in business as usual, I watched in horrified fascination as a bunch of amoral sharks engineered a huge land heist under the guise of bringing an NBA franchise to Sacramento, a heist that obviated any hope of decent mass transit to the airport and improving air quality in the city. And once I realized there was no stopping the annihilation of the Sacramento Valley, and to save myself from the ever worsening noxious fumes engulfing our state’s capitol, I got out of Dodge, and none too soon.

“For greed all nature is too little.” Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Meanwhile, our psychotic leaders, who enjoy at our expense free and excellent healthcare and fabulous annual salaries, continue to call each other names and spout idiotic gibberish about the economy while failing to do anything to help the many millions of Americans who are in dire economic straits because of the actions of excessively wealthy people and corporations who paid for the election of said psychotic leaders, for whom those millions of struggling Americans are not people, but lower forms of life.

I used to be amazed when otherwise sensitive and intelligent friends would speak of homeless people as a separate species of hominid from housed people. And though I knew this gross insensitivity came from their not really knowing any homeless people, I still found their tendency to dehumanize people shocking, until one day I had a moment of enlightenment while sailing on San Francisco Bay in a little sailboat with five other people, the five of them homeowners with rental properties, I the only renter in the party.

As I rejoined the group after fastening down a yardarm or some such nautical thing I’d been told to do, I found the conversation had changed from harbor seals to what at first I thought must be a discussion of how to get rid of rats or vermin, but turned out to be a griping session about the terrible species of hominid known as Homo Renterus. And after five minutes of listening to these otherwise perfectly nice, liberal, educated, self-proclaimed Buddhists referring to their renters in highly distasteful terms, I could hold my peace no longer and said, “Excuse me, but I am a renter routinely abused by my landlord, and I find this discussion deplorable. Might we change the subject?”

Needless to say, I was never invited to that party again, on land or sea. And what I took away from the experience was that there is something so inherently hierarchical about our culture (or is it our species?) that most people tend to dehumanize those they perceive to have less than they, and lionize those with more. My parents did this and many people I know do this, too, and I probably do the same thing without knowing I’m doing it, and I wonder what possible value such behavior could have in terms of cultural evolution, other than to maintain the status quo of the haves lording it over the have-nots.

“Compassion is the natural response to an open heart, but that wellspring of compassion remains capped as long as we turn away from or deny or resist the truth of what is there.” Joseph Goldstein

In my readings of Buddhist dharma, I come again and again to passages concerning the universality of suffering, and how we develop compassion by opening our hearts, both to our own suffering and the suffering of others. And it occurs to me that by dehumanizing others we spare ourselves the discomfort of opening our hearts to their suffering. If those landlords on that sailboat opened their hearts to the suffering of their tenants, they would no longer think of them as enemies. And if our psychotic leaders could open their hearts (assuming they have hearts) to the suffering of the American people and people in other countries, they would not be able to carry out their entirely self-serving policies that are so cruel and hurtful to so many.

So I’m working on ideas for bumper stickers about this and I’ve got the gist of what I want to say, but I need some help here. What do you think about OPEN YOUR HEARTS, YOU ASSHOLES! Or HEY YOU INSENSITIVE POOPHEADS, YOU’RE NOT THE ONLY HUMANS ON THIS SPACESHIP. Or YOU’RE NOT OKAY IF I’M NOT OKAY.

But maybe that’s being too subtle.

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