WARNING: Planet Earth is not an atom. You can’t split it and hope to harvest new energy.
Hold that thought, please; we’ll return to it later.
“I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. Believe me: rich is better.”
If nobody ever said that, they should have! Who, given a choice, would opt for hunger pains over a good dinner? Being homeless over security, begging over earning an honest income?
Not everybody gets their wish. In Dayton, Ohio, 35 percent of the people live below the poverty level. One in three Greeks do also. From Venezuela to Vancouver, Madagascar to Mumbai, poverty is more than a statistic, it’s a daily experience. More than a billion people live on less than a dollar (U.S.) a day, says the UN Development Programme.
Does it have to be that way?
NO! a surprising, even dazzling array of powerful voices are joining in protest.
Pope Francis walked boldly into that shrine of the capitalist world that we call the United States Congress. Using words you don’t expect from a pope, he talked about “dung of the devil.” He likened capitalism gone wild to a dictatorship that enslaves those who ought to be free. Though he rejected simplistic paste-on labels like leftist and liberal, the question may be asked, Did he side with Democrats rather than Republicans? That’s for you to decide; he did call for stricter measures to curb climate change, a more welcoming attitude toward Middle Eastern and Latin American refugees and for getting rid of the death penalty.
While the Pope’s message comes clearly rooted in faith, Bernie Sanders’ is openly political. Running for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States in 2016, he focused on scandalous inequalities in wealth and income. His answer? A progressive tax code to help close the gap. Among those supporting that approach was Peter Taksøe-Jensen, U.S. ambassador to Denmark, who provocatively pointed out, “In Denmark, no one is ALLOWED to be poor.” When Sanders made the point that those who strike it rich owe a debt to society, he found support in Senator Elizabeth Warren. And, let us not forget, in millions of Americans who. even now, believe he would have been a good occupant in the White House.
John McCain made it clear that following principles of fairness crosses party lines. While a war prisoner in Vietnam, regularly tortured, having to live with a broken leg and two broken arms, getting minimal medical attention, never knowing when – or whether -- he would finish out his days on earth in lonely suffering, he was stunningly offered early release. Just as “rich” is preferable to “poor,” so living is better than dying, right? Being with loved ones is better than solitary suffering, right?
That’s where the story turns amazing. McCain shut the door to his own freedom. Why? Because he learned it was a special privilege: a release based on his visibility and family background. For him privilege had to be for everyone.
Years later he dramatically made it from his hospital bed to the Senate floor to vote – in defiance of his party – against repealing the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) based on his conviction that repeal would be to reject progress toward good health care for needy people. He made it clear: in America as in Vietnam, he stood for equality. And when someone holds to that high principle, they stand in the ranks of the righteous.
If you’ve never heard of Madeleine Barot, here’s a bit of her fascinating story. As a young French woman during World War II, she faced those long, dark nights of the spirit known as the Nazi Occupation. Determined to push back, she gathered like-minded people; together they became part of the French Resistance. “God’s Underground” they were dubbed, since they were young Protestant Christians. Here’s an approach to “getting into” their way of operating in a hostile environment: visualize them walking or biking to a secret rendezvous. Just one or two at a time, avoiding unwanted attention. Giving a password to gain entry. Behind dark windows. dividing their time between, say, preparing fake IDs for people in danger, and praying. Smuggling Jews and other targeted persons across the border to safety in Switzerland. That daring band of brothers and sisters came to be known as Cimade, a faith-based humanitarian movement that still stands up for the rights of the marginalized. (Personal word of disclosure: I was privileged to be a team worker with Madeleine Barot and Cimade, postwar.) The enemy stole her right to vote; they could not erase her effective action in support of equal rights for all.
If you’re a follower of this blog, you know the name of Arno Peters. Let me add this bit of background: As a specialist in world history, he was troubled by its lack of balance. Most textbooks and courses in “world” history didn’t deal with the whole world -- only parts of it. Western Europe and North America, mostly, to the virtual exclusion of other places and cultures. They concentrated on kings and generals and powerful men (yes, men) rather than the common people, though the latter formed the vast majority. They gave a lot of attention to certain periods of history to the virtual exclusion of others… even calling one block of time “Dark Ages,” overlooking the fact that in some parts of the world that was a period of brilliant advance in learning. With all this in mind Peters began preparing a world history that would treat all periods, all areas, all aspects of human life, fairly. That is, he thought outside the prison-box of “this is how we do it, so don’t ask questions.”
In the process he came to realize that our worldview is shaped not only by historical distortion but geographic. So he set about to create a map that would show every piece of the earth’s surface fairly. One square centimetre (or inch) anywhere on the map would represent a fixed number of square kilometres (miles) on earth – not the case with most maps still in common use today. Fairness to all nations, all people, no exceptions! Heated discussion broke out, such as not been heard in the long history of cartography. Some mapmakers, it seemed, couldn’t deal with the fact that an upstart had beaten them at their own game!
But Dr. Peters held true to his love for fairness. In fact, he went on to apply fairness/equality to other aspects of life: music skills and to how much people get paid for their work. His Musical Notation system is intended to help people learn to sing or play an instrument even without previous training. A professional cartographer friend took it up and in a short time was playing the piano for his own pleasure and the amazement of friends. He made the point that, even if the Peters World Map, which he strongly supported, will one day be surpassed, Peters’ approach to music education will still be going strong. (To date, that has never been tested; the Peters World Map gains support day after day.)
Whether dealing with maps or music, history or how you run a business, fairness is the key.
Novelists exist to entertain us, not take sides on issues. Or so some suppose. Charles Dickens had a different idea. In Victorian England, especially in the slums of London, he saw the damning effects of a greedy capitalist system on the working poor. Combining his creative gifts with then-new technology such as mass book production, he produced story after story calling attention to the underclass. Whether it was Bob Cratchit being demeaned by Scrooge, his grasping boss, for coming to work late on Christmas Day, or Oliver Twist holding out his bowl for a meager ration of food, saying, “Please, Sir, I want more,” Dickens wrote of what he knew. His father and members of his family had been imprisoned for being in debt. Dickens sided with the poor, and made a difference. If a profit-above-all Scrooge got converted, why not others? And with every retelling of any of Dickens’ stories, the beat goes on.
Even in our “civilized” 21st century, Africans and those of African descent know that the cards are often stacked against them. One who stands tall in the push for justice and equality is Nelson Mandela. After a series of arrests for his stands, he was sentenced to life in prison. When worldwide pressure to release him grew, he was able to walk out -- after 27 years behind bars. He was elected South Africa’s first non-white president. Then, leaving office, he continued to work against poverty and for justice. Choosing reconciliation among former sworn enemies over watching TV, he became a volunteer. Nobody claims that South Africa has reached the goal, but it has made great strides. Much of the credit goes to Nelson Mandela, prisoner of conscience and champion of freedom.
In contrast, Bill and Melinda Gates have never been incarcerated, never held political office. Ranking among the world’s wealthiest, they hold another kind of power: power to effect social change through their giving. In 2000 they established the Gates Foundation to focus on health care and extreme poverty globally and expand educational opportunity in the U.S.A. Warren Bufffett has turned over to the Foundation investment shares said to be worth over USD 24 billion. Previously known as the world’s richest man; he became the world’s most generous philanthropist.
What’s not to love about that?
Still, this is where things get complicated.
Each person named in this blog has critics. We’ll get to that in a moment. But first let’s recognize that this list of change-makers is far from complete. Time would fail us to list them all. We might start with Martin Luther King, Jr., then add Mr. Rogers, the popular TV host known for his“I like you just the way you are” attitude. How about Mohandas Gandhi, who narrowed the uncrossable gap between India’s most deprived and their British overlords? Would you name the Mennonite women who founded Ten Thousand Villages, marketing Third-World crafts at fair value? Or the volunteers in religious organizations and service clubs who, without fanfare, “pay forward” some of what they have received. Would you list UNICEF, the World Health Organization or Doctors Without Borders? Who would make your list, and why?
Even so, some remain skeptical.
When Pope Francis calls for a fairer way to manage the world’s wealth, many turn a deaf ear. “Let him first deal with the sexual scandal in the church,” they might say. They’ve got a point, clearly. But if a patient has cancer, does that mean you won’t deal with their broken leg until they are cancer-free? We’re not dealing with an either/or situation, are we?
And let’s not dismiss Bernie Sanders’ vision for America as worthless simply because he did not win all the votes he sought! Could the vision have value even if only a handful of people supported it?
Arno Peters took criticism you wouldn’t believe when he challenged the establishment with his fairness map. But my contention is that we won’t begin to treat Africa, say, fairly until we get over our colonial mentality, exacerbated by the Mercator-stimulated maps in our minds. Peters began a revolution in our thinking, and his map holds more hope for the world.
Before we declare Dickens’ take on capitalism irrelevant for our day, let’s take a moment to recall the story of Daraprim. That’s the trade name for a drug that controls toxoplasmosis, which can be fatal. The drug had been on the market 62 years when another company bought marketing rights; within hours they boosted the price to $750 (U.S.) per pill from $13.50 – over 5,000 percent! Consumers raised a ruckus and the company backed down. So the story becomes a parable of the power of the people: Tiny Tim vs. Scrooge, updated. Does it not also make clear that the Scrooges have not all magically disappeared in our day?
John McCain? Less than perfect … so what else is new? We accept ourselves; can we not also respect McCain for what he was and be glad he courageously, regularly, took the side of right?
“Private philanthropy can never replace public policy for promoting equality.” If that’s your view, I’m with you. Permit a personal reflection if you will, from the port of Le Havre. Europe was not just flat on its back after World II; its back was broken. Streets deep in rubble, people’s lives in shreds, hope dying. Then one day a ship steamed into port, loaded with American aid. I was among those to welcome it. To this day I remember the new spirit that began to blossom in the lives of people. Marshall Plan aid began to pour in, and it changed things like nothing else could have done.
So I ask, is that what we mean when we put the words ‘America’ and ‘great’ together? If we want to make America great again, do we really mean a country that treats all people – citizens, friends, former enemies, strangers, whoever – with compassion and respect? Are we really in search of a nation, a world, of fairness?
Back to the atom, forward to a non-split planet
So, back to where we began: if we split the atom, the result is energy unchained. If we persist in splitting the world – as in rich vs. poor – the result will be one of chaos and ruin, not the energy of life. Abraham Lincoln focused the problem of dividing what belongs together:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
What he said of the nation in the 19th century becomes ours to apply to the world in the 21st. We are making progress -- now let's keep it up!