This year’s tribute to Dr. King has to do with this country’s economic well-being. When a person talks about his own well-being it is often in the context of how he is feeling physically, mentally and emotionally. When disease, injury or trauma occurs, then the saying generally is “I’m not feeling well”. The same kind of self-assessment can and should be made for the country as a whole. Indeed, our current president seems to know this well and will often make observations of the country’s poor economic health as a way to advance his political agenda. His carefully prepared diagnosis is generally: too much inequality and not enough shared sacrifice. And he will give this assessment the same way a doctor today would give his patient a diagnosis: mechanically and patronizingly. But for something that is akin to cancer in its potential to disrupt and destroy, that is no way to motivate a populace to change its way, to say nothing of whether he even believes change is needed at all.
For years now, the country has been gripped by an increasing sense of economic insecurity. One that says to a person if I don’t do this now, I will never be able to do it at all. The thing that must be done, of course, is “make money”. This mentality I think we can all agree has led to a lower quality of life than that which existed thirty, forty years ago. Because, for all the additional material goods and technology that we now have that we didn’t have before, they do nothing to compensate for the time that one has to spend to make that extra dollar that he cannot spend with his family, his friends his community, and even himself (in the sense of self-reflection and self-improvement).
It is the kind of insecurity that has led to the creation of thousands of meaningless yet high-paying jobs where the only skill that is required is the skill to bullshit your way through meeting after meeting, and client after client, while doing everything you possibly can to protect your own turf. It is meant to employ the un-employable, and in the process, give them a sense of self-worth, while doing nothing to teach them a skill which might make a difference when the government is on the brink of collapse or the next nuclear bomb hits. Make no mistake, this is not a swipe at the so-called financial industry whose dispensability and frivolousness are already well-known to the general public. It is directed to some of the most revered institutions, like higher education and public service, that have at one time made this country — even with its many moral failings — a symbol of hope for many around the world.
This sense of insecurity is not entirely irrational. The growing gap between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, healthy and unhealthy has been thoroughly documented. It isn’t news that the country is in ill-health and likely to get worse in the coming years. And it is entirely predictable that people today have an almost messianic attitude about money and its healing properties: “get as much of it as you can now because soon there won’t be any left. And if we can’t take care of ourselves, no one is going to do it for us.”.
The problem, of course, is that this just makes the problem worse. The “me first” mentality further entrenches the rich at the expense of the poor. That is because the ones who are most able to make it on their own are the ones who already have the means to do so. What the current climate of insecurity has done is turn what were once blinders which the rich wore vis a vis the poor to full-blown hazmat suits. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, or so the saying goes. In cities, this can be seen in “gentrification” which allow the rich to enjoy all the benefits of the city without the costs that necessarily come with living in close proximity to others. In the suburbs, this can be seen in the proliferation of gated communities and private police forces. The common theme of all this change is the rejection of the idea that we all provide for each other as well as for ourselves, rather than simply ourselves, an idea that led many to embrace Dr. King and the civil rights movement.
Few if any public figures mention these things. To do so would make them a prime target for the “socialist” label and doom their careers. But the ideals at issue are ones that need to be revived if the country is to heal itself from the economic and moral malaise with which it has been inflicted. Dr. King recognized that, and history has proven his work valuable even if its effects have been limited (not through any fault of his own). And we must as well, for the alternative is at once unfathomable but all too familiar.