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:

O YE RICH ONES ON EARTH!
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)