But for me, it’s been the convergence of many distinct places that I’ve noticed this privileging of money: in the irresponsible actions of mortgage companies and Wall Street bankers, of course; in the evolution of shopping malls as the public square instead of parks and community centers; and in the decision-making processes of my undergraduates, who must (unfortunately) choose between private employment, public service, graduate education, or, literally, unemployment. That personal choice often boils down to the workforce (“Finally! A living wage!” they cry); volunteer organizations like Americorps (“I’m not making any money, but doing something good” as a palliative to their lack of choice); more higher education (“Putting off the real world”–a choice motivated, hopefully, by the desire for greater knowledge rather than fear of not finding a job), or a route afforded only to the very affluent or the very down-and-out: Unemployment. What’s a person with only four years of college to do?
This morning, I learned of the announcement of the FOX Network (that bastion of liberalism) that they wouldn’t carry President Obama’s address. At first glance, I chalked the decision up to politics as usual. Then I learned that in the past, the FOX Network had turned down the request to televise former President Bush’s address. I put two and two together: FOX has its own business interest in mind. The network is less about right or left ideology, and more about the millions of dollars they would lose in advertising revenue in exchange for the common good. For the cable network, broadcasting is less about providing some public service (e.g. information, public policy, education about our nation’s state of affairs) and more about the gains and economics of their corporation.
We need to find more opportunities for individuals to combine interest in the public good with a living wage. Even I’m not that naive to think that Americans are not driven by an individual, liberal, Capitalistic approach to life. “It’s the American way,” we say, shrugging our shoulders. Or worse: “What are we going to do, become Socialists?”, echoing fears of the 50’s Red Scare.
When I was travelling through Thailand a couple years ago, I remember being in awe at the sheer numbers of young monks on the street, carrying books and bunching their loose orange robes. So many men had chosen to commit themselves to learning, and this was awe-inspiring to me. Only later did I learn that this was part of their national agenda: many Thai men commit to sanctified religious training. It is not required, but highly encouraged.
In contrast, some nations have set a militaristic agenda: young women and men must serve the security interests of their countries. I have taught undergraduates from Israel or Korea who must interrupt their studies in the states to return to their home countries for a year of required military service.
What would the U.S. look like if we required our young people to serve one year in a religious school or the military? Public outrage, for sure (maybe even the burning of draft cards like in the 60’s). But maybe also an alternative way of thinking, a diversion from the pursuit of materialistic desires. Let me be clear, I’m not advocating for required religious or military service. However, I am asking what else is out there besides the pursuit of money?
Dr. Martin Luther King once gave an impassioned speech against the Vietnam War, asking for this shift in our nation’s priorities: “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
It is the last bit of King’s words that have always resonated for me: the ways that we, as a people, privilege “profit motives and property rights” more than people.