Politics: The Politics of Wealth and Poverty
Image from WaronWant
Langdon Gilkey, a Professor of Divinity at the University of Chicago School of Divinity, wrote an interesting little book called Shantung Compound, detailing his experiences as a detainee in a Japanese internment camp in China. Casa de Los Gatos prepares a reading list at the beginning of every year, to force a little focus on the process of reading one's way through rooms and boxes full of books that have been collecting dust for nearly two decades, leading to the ingestion of much cold and allergy medication as a result of dripping noses and sore throats.
At any rate, as part of the Book Project, slated to complete this year (more about this at some future time over at the Other Blog), we chanced upon Professor Gilkey's fascinating little book.
In light of the recent disappointed perusal of Norman Cleaveland's tome on his time in Ampang, Malaysia, we were prepared to be further disappointed by the experiences of Americans in an Asian continent swirled by social and political ferment.
We're pleased to say that Professor Gilkey has somewhat mollified our resentment by remaining impartial and lucid on the topic of his experience, while retaining a clear-eyed perception that we don't always agree with but respect nevertheless.
In the course of reading the book, we came across this interesting observation on wealth and poverty that we feel impelled to share:
... I came to see that wealth is by no means an unmitigated blessing to its community. It does not, as may often be supposed, serve to feed and comfort those who are lucky enough to possess it, while leaving unaffected and unconcerned others in the community who are not so fortunate. Wealth is a dynamic force that can too easily become demonic &mdash for if it does not do great good it can do great harm.Professor Gilkey is referring to the arrival of care packages from the American Red Cross to the detention centre where he, together with several hundred other Americans and several thousand "gaijin" of other nationalities &mdash British, Russian, Persian, Eurasian, Belgian, Dutch, and so on &mdash were being held. While the bounty of the American Red Cross would have ensured each detainee would have one to one-and-a-half care packages that would help them survive the brutal Northern Chinese winter, some seven Americans preferred that the Japanese should turn over all the packages to Americans only, thus ensuring that each American had seven packages (way more than needed) and no other person had any.
He goes on to say:
Had this food simply been used for the good of the whole community, it would have been an unmitigated blessing in the life of every one of us. But the moment it threatened to become the hoarded property of a select few, it became at once destructive, rather than creative, dividing us from one another and destroying every vestige of communal unity and morale.There you have it. "They" don't hate "us" for our freedoms. Everybody hates and bitterly resents anyone who lives in luxury as they starve. That's just the nature of the beast that we call the human being. No amount of moralizing, preaching, religion, aid, or whatever will change that.
I suddenly saw, as never so clearly before, the really dynamic factors in social conflict: how wealth compounded with greed and injustice leads inevitably to strife, and how such strife can threaten to kill the social organism. Correspondingly, it became evident that the only answer was not less wealth [...] but [factors] that might lead to sharing and so provide the sole foundation for social peace. It is the moral or immoral use of wealth, not its mere accumulation [,...] that determines whether it will play a creative or destructive role in any society.
... Western culture as a whole is learning that material progress and the wealth that it creates are no unmixed blessings. The present possession of security and goods in a world where the majority are hungry and insecure puts the Western world in much the same position as those Americans in the camp [...]. If the material gains of modern Western society can be spread over the world with some evenness, this new wealth may create a fuller life for us all. [...] Wealthy classes and wealthy nations are unmindful of the destructive effects of their wealth, isolated as they are by the comforts and perquisites of their possessions. Those outside the charmed circle of privilege, however, remember, and no lasting community can be formed in the midst of the bitter resentment that inequality and selfishness inevitably engender. [...]
The resentment against the West on the part of the whole nonwhite world is mainly the consequence of the white man's refusal to share his social privileges with men of another color.
That is why, in order for a lasting peace to be built that will embrace the whole world and lead to the end of war, cruelty, hatred, racism, abuse, and social injustice, we must all share what we have with our less fortunate neighbours. And that is not to imply any moral duty, but simple common sense. If you have seven loaves of bread and the poor and hungry neighbours around you have none, and you do not willingly share with them, they will come to your home and tear you limb from limb in order to acquire your bread to feed their hungry loved ones.
So, when we at Casa de Los Gatos hear the less humane among us retort, "If they want enough to eat, let them stop breeding like flies! That's why they're poor and starving," we reply, "If you want them to stop breeding like flies, give generously but commonsensically of your money and your service to teach them birth control. Give them condoms and mifepristone and The Pill and abortions. Give them medicine and science and education and half your loaf of bread."
Otherwise what else is there for them to do but bomb your towers and railways and marketplaces? It's not as if their life is joyous and meaningful. As their (and your) lives should, and could, be. Stumble It!