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Selective Compassion and the Pathologies of Inequality

Francis Shor

“We believe in second chances and second opportunities,” declared the senior vice president for marketing from the Cleveland Cavaliers.   This pronouncement accompanied the offer of an announcing job to Ted Williams, the homeless man whose “golden” voice and impoverished visage went viral on a YouTube video.  Beyond his elevation by the media to visible and viable economic status, Williams became a clear example of the selective compassion of both corporate America and its consuming public.

More than 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that “true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial.  It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” What is this edifice that generates the millions of homeless that populate our cities?  Why has poverty now grown to an unprecedented modern level of almost 50 million, exceeding even the statistics and reality of what Dr. King observed in the 1960’s?

Clearly, the inequality deeply embedded into the variety of contemporary capitalism practiced in the United States is the source for this continuing and growing rate of poverty. As noted by the recently passed social critic, Tony Judt, in his essential text, Ill Fares the Land: “Inequality, then, is not just unattractive in itself; it clearly corresponds to pathological social problems that we cannot hope to address unless we attend to their underlying cause.”  Yet, we remain, to a great extent, paralyzed by our own individualistic and privatized response to those social problems.

Compounding those problems, from homelessness to poverty, is the runaway growth of inequality in the last decade.  The top 1/10 of 1 percent of Americans now earn as much as the bottom 120 millions of us.  The expanding inequality is further evident in the exceptional fact that the top 1 percent owns 70 percent of all financial assets.  Not only is there no political effort to address this massive inequality, there is, in fact, a counter movement by both political parties to embrace a politics of austerity that would impose even more financial burdens on the poor and working class in the United States.

This same corporate-controlled political class deliberately eschews addressing another key source of the economic imbalance that impoverishes our federal budget – the ballooning expenses of the maintenance of empire.  Beyond the 700 billion dollar Pentagon budget, the costs of wars and far-flung military bases around the globe, accounts for trillions of dollars.  The indictment that Dr. King made in the same cited speech above retains its moral urgency: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

It is hard to imagine that the slide towards spiritual death will be salvaged by the redemption of one person at a time.  Irrespective of the feel-good nature of the salvation of Ted Williams, we need to address the larger context of the persistence of pathological inequality.  If we cannot mount the collective effort to transform this system from the extremes of wealth and poverty, there will be no second chances for our nation and our democracy.

Francis Shor teaches at Wayne State University.  His is the author of Dying Empire: US Imperialism and Global Resistance.

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