It’s not hard to imagine why a lot of people are feeling angry these days, during a time of such great economic uncertainty and fiscal scarcity. Folks are mad because they’re frightened, scared that they will not have enough for themselves or their loved ones, worried that even what they do have might be lost without their being able to do anything about it, and concerned that the future may not turn out to be any better – and maybe even worse – than the present. So, of course, who among us does not “get” these apprehensions? And it’s axiomatic that fear can turn into anger, and from there it’s natural enough to feel that we want to lash out.
But if all this is so, why is it that some people express their unease – OK, their anger – by joining the Tea Party, and some choose what I would consider better, more human – more humane – ways of channeling that distress? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, but I have to admit I’m not sure I have any easy answers.
Here’s a story, though, that might have some bearing. It’s about an incident that happened to me a few weeks ago, the afternoon of Pres. Obama’s State of the Union Address to be precise. I was walking out of my gym at the same time as this very nice older gentleman whom I know who also works out there. He’s eighty-seven years old, he told me, and he used to be a high school principal. He and I often trade jokes about heating up the workout machines so much that the next guy can’t use them, mostly because we know our days of heating up machines, or most anything else for that matter other than maybe an electric blanket, are pretty much long gone. He’s definitely someone whom I would consider to be a “nice guy,” funny, engaging, and personable. So, I was a little taken aback when I heard his response to what I thought of as a pretty innocent, even innocuous, question on my part about whether or not he was going to listen to Pres. Obama’s speech that evening. What he said was: “Well, I suppose I’ll have to…have to listen to him tell us why he’s giving away so much of our money to people on welfare!”
So, what was I to think? Is the word welfare code for “those lazy people who don’t want to work,” for people who sneak into our country only to use up our precious resources. Or, more specifically – let’s face it – for those people of “a different color” who sponge off us good, white God-fearing Americans, who worked so hard all our lives and now deserve what we’ve gotten for ourselves, and what “they” now want to take away from us? A lot of Americans seem to believe that the situation in the country has been reduced to a zero-sum game, that is, one wherein there are only so many goodies to go around. It’s as if they were thinking: “I had a third of the pie before, when there were only three of us eating it, but at this point I only get a quarter, or even a fifth of the pie, now that there are for our five of us at the table. And on top of that, YOU guys didn’t even help MAKE the damn pie in the first place!”
Let me say right off that I think these kinds of simplistic explanations don’t do anybody any real service. They’re a kind of reductio ad absurdum, in which we posit that there’s only so much to go around, and if YOU get some of what I had, then it necessarily follows that I get less. It reminds me of politicians who compare the federal budget to somebody’s household budget. You know, the ones who say: “Well, if parents don’t have enough money to take their kids to the movies, then they just make the decision not to GO to the movies!” Well, of course that’s what they do. Especially if they don’t have enough money to feed them either! But these comparisons are not just apples and oranges, they’re more like atoms and whole star systems. I’m not an economist, but I know that governments have always had to burrow as part of even very prudent and responsible fiscal planning, and they will probably always have to do so. And a pie, or a movie, is not the same thing as a multi-billion dollar government program, set up to serve millions of people, most of whom, by the way, while they were working, paid into the very program that now helps them when they’re in need.
So, I’m not saying to anyone, don’t be angry anymore! As much as I don’t like to admit it myself, I get mad sometimes, too. But let’s funnel our anger at what deserves it. Let’s get really pissed, maybe, at impersonal bureaucracy, at the wealthiest of the wealthy, who pay little or no taxes, at corporate polluters, who poison our air and our water supply, or at holier-than-thou preachers, who use God as a cudgel to beat us up with and who claim to have a monopoly on knowing what God says about how to live. I definitely could get behind some good old anger at all of these. But not at people who struggle on a daily basis to find a job, not at those who can’t put food on the table for themselves or their kids, not at those who have to choose between eating dinner and paying for their medication. Oh, and I have to be honest and admit as well, not at anybody who knows how to make a really good pie!