Monday, May 20, 2013

Hope and the Danger of Liberal Elitism

"Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. 
A little hope is effective.
A lot of hope is dangerous. Spark is fine, as long as it's contained."  
President Snow, The Hunger Games


ThinkProgress posted this article on Facebook today about How Lotteries Are Bad for Players, Winners and States.  I braved reading the comments and they included points about how people don't make good financial decisions, explaining why many winners lose their fortunes in a few years and they probably weren't making good financial choices to begin with (one person uses the term "ghetto attitude" - hence why they were poor), about how foolish it is to play something that one has so little chance of winning.  The article makes the important point that lotteries exploit the poor - which they do of course.  Lotteries offer dreams, they offer hope - they offer hope of not worrying every single day about how one is going to make it, worry about paying the rent, the utilities, clothes, medical care.  They offer dreams of what the commercials offer - a good life, a life not worrying about money. They offer dreams of Sabbath as Wayne Muller makes the point about magazine ads in his book Sabbath: The Exhale of Creation.

Yet often it is liberals who offer the most elite and unhelpful comments.  I have heard things said like "I won $1 in the lottery - I didn't buy a ticket" (of course now the lottery costs $2) said with a certain air of moral superiority.  This comment and others like it demonstrate that the person has at least enough economic privilege not to need the momentary hope, the momentary dream that the regular struggle to stay financially afloat, would no longer be a concern.  All the warnings about the dangers of sudden wealth fall on the deaf ears of "give me a chance to find out for myself" or "I'll take that set of struggles over the ones I have now."  Because as this article points out, being among the working poor  is hard work and it is a trap (be warned that there is a great deal of profanity and sexual analogies in the article) that is really difficult to get out from under.  It is also not just the working poor in service industry jobs but many middle class people who are struggling to hang on in the current economic climate.  I think the profanity and the sexual analogies show how frustrating and terrifying life can be when one is constantly on the financial cliff.  Getting out of poverty or even not losing economic ground if one is middle class is not as simple as hard work and playing by the rules - despite our love for those stories.

While it may be wrong and certainly it doesn't do anything to truly fix the situation, buying a lottery ticket can provide hope.  It may be false and fleeting but it may be the thing that keeps a person going when it all seems rather helpless.  It is certainly the kind of hope that the Capital offers in the Hunger Games - survive the game and not only do you get to live but you get to live in luxury - again the promise of never worrying about being hungry again.

So while I ThinkProgress makes important points there needs to be caution in playing with hope.  It may be false hope but what if buying lottery tickets is the only source of hope?  What do those who know so much better have to offer?  Do they have an alternative to the "if you just work hard enough" story?  After all unemployment is still high, wages are still stagnant and there does not seem to be much will to fix any of it.

Too often well meaning, liberal people come across as very elite and uncaring.  They talk about simplifying their lives and if one has read any of those books on voluntary simplicity, it presumes a fairly high standard of living - things like buying a smaller home, reducing the amount of belongings one has.  Voluntary simplicity presumes that one has had the economic privilege to accumulate possessions and wealth - it is not a path out of poverty.  There are similar conversations when it comes to presents and gift giving around the holidays or birthdays.   The sense that one already has more than one needs.  It comes across in comments about not ever shopping at Walmart and certainly never considering working there.  It presumes the privilege of choice - when one has economic privilege with it comes the choice about where to shop, to buy or not to buy, to live where one chooses.

The ethical question is should this kind of choice be limited only to those who possess a certain level of economic privilege?  An excellent article this week about not donating your Abercrombie & Fitch clothes to the homeless makes this point well.  Does not possessing economic privilege mean that one should have to wear the clothes from a company whose CEO is so disdainful of those who are not among "the cool"?  Does not possessing economic privilege mean one does not think about the larger impact of one's economic choices?  The presumption that those with less privilege don't think about the ethical implications of their choices is elitist and problematic.  The poor are not less ethical - they do however have fewer choices.  The presumption that because one is poor one should accept whatever donations come one's away is to be disdainful of those persons.

So there are no easy answers here.  The question to be asked is not "why don't they...." but "what can I do differently?"  The trick is not to rush to judgement of other's choices, presuming their ignorance, presuming that if they just knew better they would do better (a perennial liberal favorite).  The question is what offers real hope, hope that can be actualized.  It is about breaking from one's own world view to see the world through another's eyes.  Isn't this part of being liberally religious - to see the world and life from multiple points of view? Truth we affirm is found in many sources but in order to see it we must be listening and watching beyond our own experience.