Sunday, June 14, 2009

Apathy is Just as Dangerous

Barbara Ehrenreich has a must read column in today's New York Times about the economic downturn and its impact on those who were already poor before it started. Here's a taste:

THE human side of the recession, in the new media genre that’s been called “recession porn,” is the story of an incremental descent from excess to frugality, from ease to austerity. The super-rich give up their personal jets; the upper middle class cut back on private Pilates classes; the merely middle class forgo vacations and evenings at Applebee’s. In some accounts, the recession is even described as the “great leveler,” smudging the dizzying levels of inequality that characterized the last couple of decades and squeezing everyone into a single great class, the Nouveau Poor, in which we will all drive tiny fuel-efficient cars and grow tomatoes on our porches.

But the outlook is not so cozy when we look at the effects of the recession on a group generally omitted from all the vivid narratives of downward mobility — the already poor, the estimated 20 percent to 30 percent of the population who struggle to get by in the best of times. This demographic, the working poor, have already been living in an economic depression of their own. From their point of view “the economy,” as a shared condition, is a fiction. (Read the whole thing here).

Though they appear unrelated, this piece got me thinking again about my reaction to the recent shooting at the National Holocaust Museum. There has been much shouting from the rooftops since then about the dangers of "hatred" and fears that disaffected gunmen will increasingly emerge to shatter our collective sense of security. While incidents such as this shooting are disturbing and certainly grab one's attention, the danger stalking the lives of many Americans is not hatred but apathy. The failure of those who have the power to improve the quality of life of their fellow Americans through a more equitable distribution of wealth causes far more damage than any hateful gunman can. Apathy of course is not unique to the elite, particularly in times like these where the struggle for survival can quickly eclipse concern for one's neighbor. On the other hand, pain has a way of motivating change. Perhaps this economic crisis will serve as motivation for a fundamental reorganization of American attitudes and behavior relative to wealth that will become reflected in social policy. Baha'u'llah has stated what should be a guiding principle of a sane economic system:

The poor in your midst are My trust; guard ye My trust, and be not intent only on your own ease.
(Baha'u'llah, The Persian Hidden Words)

'Abdu'l-Baha has commented:
The fundamentals of the whole economic condition are divine in nature and are associated with the world of the heart and spirit...The Bahá'ís will bring about this improvement and betterment but not through sedition and appeal to physical force -- not through warfare, but welfare. Hearts must be so cemented together, love must become so dominant that the rich shall most willingly extend assistance to the poor and take steps to establish these economic adjustments permanently...When the love of God is established, everything else will be realized. This is the true foundation of all economics.
(Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 238)


  1. Hey Phillipe. I'm a Baha'i looking to apply to HDS. I've been scouring your site looking for your email address. How can I contact you?

    Greg Hodges

  2. I don't think that my email address is on the blog. If you're willing to put you email address in a comment I will contact you. Nice to hear another Baha'i is thinking of going to HDS. We need more people to do that.

  3. I've recently learned of something called a Gini Coefficient There are some nice graphs on Wikipedia. I'm struck that the US isn't the most unequal (not that we're on the low end of the scale though.) I also recently heard an interviewee comment on the Diane Rheme show that China had surpassed Brazil recently.

    The US seems to have been most equal in about 1968 and the disparity has been growing consistently since.

    However I also see it has many failings as a statistical measure of economic inequality. Another static is the Theil Index but there aren't any world wide graphs.

    I've also seen some presentations about international comparisons through that it'd commend to everyone.

    As for the attack at the Holocaust Museum I've recently commented on another blog that I see a link between homegrown terrorism and the repeated themes in the Baha'i Faith about being motivated by perceiving the need to reform the character of the people and the influence of religion in their lives. From the rising up of Shaykh Ahmad through Baha'u'llah's contemplation of how he wound up in the Siyah Chal and the requirements of the double crusade, it seems to me the whole idea of renewing the progress of civilization, which had entered a terrible time over the last few hundred years, is a central theme of the Baha'i Faith.

  4. you might be interested in this bit of NEWS...

    Apparently there are some who are insisting to return to the "good ole days" where LAZY Executives DRAIN the life blood out of a company to reward themselves for messing up the world's economy