Us and Them

It’s strange the way a thousand little things keep bringing your mind back to the same place.

In high school I took a class on Catholic Social Justice. I was 16, and at the time I opted to take it I had very few ideas about the world beyond my lower middle class white suburban life. Social Justice wasn’t anything I felt particularly strongly about. It was that or Church History, and I had taken a church history course in middle school. I was already required to take the umpty billionth class on American History that year and I wanted to avoid redundancy in my learning as much as I could. That, and I liked the teacher who taught Social Justice better, and so on a set of very shallow precepts I made a choice that would alter my way of looking at the world forever.

“We, as a species, produce enough food for everyone in the world to be fat,” she told us one day. I don’t remember now, ten years later, where she got this information, but I suspect that the core of the statement is still true. Hunger is by design, not necessity.

My dad was an IBEW man. There is a picture of me as a little girl marching in a Labor Day parade with another wireman’s daughter, both of us in Local 58 T-shirts that came down to our knees. The newspaper workers were striking and we were out there in solidarity. We cheered as a banner decrying the scabs was hoisted in front of the Detroit Free Press offices. I suspect that was the first time I heard, “Which Side Are You On,” but it planted a little seed of appreciation for union music that would blossom later as I started listening to more folk.

In 1965, Phil Ochs wrote “Links on the Chain” attacking union leaders for excluding blacks and hampering the civil rights movement. I stumbled on it thanks to Pandora not so very long ago. The lyrics still ring true, though perhaps more about immigrants now:

And the man who tries to tell you that they’ll take your job away,
He’s the same man who was scabbin’ hard just the other day,
And your union’s not a union till he’s thrown out of the way,
And he’s chokin’ on your links of the chain, of the chain,

A girl I knew in high school wrote a post on Facebook the other day lamenting how difficult it was to get disability money. She was worried about how she would feed her two babies. She complained about how people who abuse the system make it hard for those who need it to get assistance. A few days later articles abounded about how England’s new royal baby cost half of what the average American baby cost to bring into this world.

Just who is abusing what system, I wonder.

I wonder how long are we going to insist that it is the people below us, not the people above, who are the problem. By all means, bring forth the welfare queens, the fat people who use up all the health care, ballooning populations of other countries that ensure there will never be enough food, the American worker with no job who is too proud to work in a factory, the scores of immigrants whose very presence keep employment rates low, the millennial generation of self-indulgent freeloaders. Bring them before me and prove they exist in a reality other than that of tired divisive rhetoric that keeps us fighting with each other instead of for each other. It strikes me that scarcity of resources is not the problem we suffer from, it is scarcity of empathy. We are all so sure that there is someone who is a drag on society that holds us back. I suspect that if there is such an entity it lies in the vaunted halls of power, not in the poor quarter of those struggling to make ends meet. Truthfully though, we all play our part in this. We have all internalized that the success of Us relies on the failure of Them. We need a revolution, but we want to find an easier fix, and if it’s all someone else’s fault all the better.

The priest who was associate pastor at my parish when I was young once told me with a mischievous grin that every blessing offered is also an exorcism. There is a hymn that sets “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do on to me,” to a jaunty little tune. He confessed to us once during a homily that in the seminary as a joke they had sung it as, “I don’t care what you do to the least of my people, just don’t do it to me.” He then grew grave and said, “What a horrible way to live.” And yet we do live that way. And we justify it with a thousand little rationalizations that say we need to, and that those other people deserve their suffering, while ours is pure bad luck and misfortune. That if we fight for them, we will lose what is ours, and I wonder if that doesn’t hold us back far more than any malefactor drain on society ever could.

So let this be my little plea for solidarity. My blessing and my exorcism. May we believe that there is justice enough to go around if we are willing to fight to see that each of us is given a fair share.

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Opifex

Opifex is a former art student, unrepentant nerd, and occasional annoying liker of things before they were cool. She keeps two sets of polyhedral dice in her purse, in case the first set stops being lucky. That's kind of how she rolls.

4 thoughts on “Us and Them”

  1. I find it interesting that society likes the idea of the underdog (especially if it climbs out of his/her social standard) while at the same time making sure there is a huge gap between Us and Them the losers. One case is special, a hundred might be stealing our jobs.

    Besides that I think it’s always easier to attack the ones (using that world loosely here) below. The ones above ended up there for a reason and you don’t want to wear the brunt of it. Therefore, kick down!

    ..yeah, it’s really not pretty.

    1. You’re right on both accounts. A good underdog story lets us all sit back and feel satisfied that if someone just fights hard enough the obstacles they face don’t matter. It protects a worldview that makes is all responsible only for ourselves, and ignores the ways we are responsible for the lives of others. I’m not saying that we can’t celebrate the triumphs of others, but turning the underdog into the paragon of the bootstrap is hardly helpful.

      And of course if we aim our fight downward it seems easier because there is no meaningful way for them to fight back at us. Challenging the powerful is dangerous.

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