Archive for Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Opinion: Finding common cause is the only answer

June 14, 2017


My last column was about Arlo Guthrie singing “This Land is Your Land.” The song says we’re all in this together, togetherness is necessary to our well-being, and such togetherness requires fairness and equality. It won’t work any other way. This land was made for all, not the few.

But now, less than 1 percent have more than 90 percent of the marbles. People don’t like paying taxes when others with more don’t pay a fair share. Think about Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax experiment and President Trump saying not paying income taxes “makes me smart.”

David Brooks wrote a piece in the New York Times on June 2 after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Europe. Trump’s America is in with the Saudis because the money’s good, regardless of stark differences on human rights and democracy, and we’re out with the European Union despite common democratic institutions because it doesn’t pay. In a recent article top Trump advisers H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn said: “The President embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

Brooks comments: “In this world view, morality has nothing to do with anything. Altruism, trust, cooperation and virtue are unaffordable luxuries in the struggle of all against all. Everything is about self-interest.”

And, Brooks goes on: “The error [of this view] is that it misunderstands what drives human action. Of course people are driven by selfish motivations … But they are also motivated by another set of drives — for solidarity, love and moral fulfillment — that are equally and sometimes more powerful.”

The day after Brooks’ column, Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece about inequality in The New York Times. It seems that primates, both chimps and human beings, have innately low tolerance for unequal treatment. The mere presence of a first-class section on airplanes makes “air rage” more likely even than when passengers experience long flight delays. It works the same for chimps. Watching each other interact with humans they expect equal treatment. Just like our primate cousins, when people see others get better seats, better jobs, cushier deals, they resent it.

Trump was elected because many Americans think the game is rigged. I spoke recently with Norm Diggs, who lives in the country between Hutchinson and Wichita, who said he voted for Trump out of complete frustration with a system that endlessly favors a few and screws the rest. He voted against the status quo. I think Trump promotes unfairness, and told Norm so. But Norm said, “Why not give him a chance? It’s all crooked, Trump can’t be worse?” He felt he had to do something, and voting for Trump was the only something he saw. Violently as I disagree, I’ll give Norm this, the message resonates.

When Woody Guthrie said that you and I are in this together, he meant the entire country, from the Redwood forests to the Gulfstream waters, with all the endless skyways and golden valleys in-between. That’s bottom-up democracy; it’s also the idea of a Christian community. The United States got out of the Depression, and through World War II because we pulled together, remembered what we had in common, and gave our precious lives with uncommon selflessness.

I’ve been to Omaha Beach and to the American Cemetery in Florence, Italy. I’ve read the stories of Dick Winters, Eugene Sledge and Jack Neville, real human markers of a time when there was no room for selfishness. Families were treated equally, regardless of social or economic status, and rich and poor alike sacrificed their best. John F. Kennedy’s older brother, Joe Jr., died piloting a flying bomb against a German submarine pen. Read their stories in Rick Atkinson’s “An Army at Dawn” trilogy, Steven Ambrose’s “D-Day” and “Citizen Soldiers,” and Drew Neville’s “Jack’s 45th.” These stories tell me that we’re all connected and are at our best, and happiest, when we are acting for the benefit of one another. We live in a time when we have to pull together. We are of and from this land, and as Woody wrote and Arlo keeps singing, “This land was made for you and me.”

— William Skepnek is a longtime resident of Lawrence.


Don Brennaman 1 year ago

Thanks Bill A much better choice for the seventh inning stretch. Maybe Willie Nelson could perform it at the Super Bowl.

Bob Smith 1 year ago

"...Trump was elected because many Americans think the game is rigged..." Trump won because he was running against the worst major-party candidate in 100 years.

Steve Hicks 1 year ago

Thank you, Mr. Skepnek. You absolutely put your finger on the most divisive attitude in our (or any) society.

We all choose, and operate by, a personal worldview on the continuum between self-interest and the common good. But Ronald Reagan's claim that "government is the PROBLEM" persuaded many that our government is "other:" indeed, a malevolent "other:" and not a vehicle of our common good.

Reagan's followers have increasingly governed more for their narrowed interests than for the common good: for Republican interests, for "conservative" Republican interests, for Tea Party "conservative" Republican interests.

In Kansas we've seen the results when these factionalists' exercise complete power: government destructive of the common good. In Washington we've seen the results when the factionalists' have to cooperate with others in sharing power: angry obstruction of government functioning for any "good" but their own.

The traditional national motto gets it right: E Pluribus Unum. As somebody loosely translated it, "we're all in this together." The founders intended our nation's government to serve citizens' common good: and that intent was reflected in Republicans' own founder's belief in "...government of the people, and by the people, and for the people..."

You say rightly that doing good to others is ultimately a Christian teaching. The teaching that human government should act as "a minister of God to you for good" (Romans 13) follows from it. And our national tradition that government' should "promote the general Welfare" is clearly rooted in these Christian teachings.

Whats amazing is that today's political faction most promoting itself as "patriotic" and "Christian" is the one most opposed to the American tradition and Christian teaching that government should serve the common good. Perhaps that's because, in actuality, they operate more in Reagan's doctrine of government than those of Lincoln or Christ.

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