Greed and grievance
WASHINGTON — Like many Americans struck by the liberal versus conser vative political and social divides in America, I have been trying to make some sense of it all these last few tormenting weeks.
But before addressing Kavanaugh versus Ford, the reds versus the blues, and Donald Trump versus the world, I must first make a shameful confession. It’s embarrassing, no doubt about it, but try to restrain your hoots and boos.
The fact is, in today’s extremist political-ends-really-do-justify-anymeans America, I am a moderate. I am a centrist, a woman journalist who loves history and rational solutions. I like my country to balance both morality and pragmatism in its policies, at home and abroad, and I believe it is possible. So, there, it’s out!
Words written to me in a letter from Father Roger Vekemans, a brilliant Jesuit priest I knew in Chile during its bitter democratic-communist conflict in the 1970s, remain my favorite inspirational quote.
“No fight against the right will drive me to the left, and no fight against the left will drive me to the right,” he wrote me, long after Chile had blessedly chosen democracy. “Once and for all, I have chosen the extreme center.”
Recently I found some other wonderful words, though alarming, from an equally respected thinker, ones that may shed more direct light on where we are today.
Writing from London in the Financial Times, economist Martin Wolf focused on two words to describe our current problems: greed and grievance. Indeed, the headline on the column was “How we lost America to greed and envy.”
The British, Austrian-born writer, who all his life has been pro-American, wrote of the widely held belief that once America “stood for something so attractive that it seemed to be ‘ours.’” But today that assumption is being gravely undermined; in Donald Trump, Wolf sees a politics of “pluto-populism,” essentially a plutocratic system of “relentless and systematic devotion to the interests of the rich” combined with a populism that offers the “nationalism and protectionism wanted by the Republican base.”
Greed, as Wolf and many others see it, is represented by President Trump and the entire Trump family’s history of fraud, income tax evasion and mountains of lies. Grievance he sees in terms of the white working class and its sense of alienation and loss at the hands of “elitists” on the two globalist coasts.
And while I embrace these two words as central keys to understanding our nation today, I must expand on them.
Greed in America is not confined to the Trumps. Hillary Clinton’s friends in the hedge funds of Wall Street sweat greed; bank presidents who left their posts with untold millions after fleecing their clients register as both Republican and Democrat.
In my hometown of Chicago, J.B. Pritzker, the prominent billionaire of the Hyatt Hotels family who is running for governor as a Democrat, has been publicly accused of deliberately hauling out five toilets from a multimillion-dollar townhouse the family owns on North Astor Street — all in order to avoid paying taxes on the house, which amount to the equivalent of a night at the opera to him.
How does one even begin to understand how greed moves already enormously wealthy men to such small acts like this, which will forever define him in the unforgiving public mind?
Nor is grievance confined to the now largely Republican white working class. Obviously, AfricanAmericans in particular have the first call on grievance talk, and they are now mostly Democrats; then we have women, Latinos, new immigrants, old immigrants and so on.
Many of them, perhaps most, have a right to their complaints, but strategy on the part of both Republicans and Democrats should aim at campaigns of proportionality, where one group’s rights are balanced among others’ rights, and a moral center does not lose track of our founding principles.
How seductively and seditiously disgusting greed and overwrought grievance sweep through the corridors — and the alleys — of American life today. One feeds the other until everything ends in resentment, in recrimination and, finally, in retreat from a healthy, balanced society.
There are some superb Americans in public life — think of Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, the Bloombergs and the Bushes — but we are overburdened by too many greedy people, grasping the handles of grievance at any cost.
Greed and grievance: How do we control them both and bring them back into proportion in our unbalanced society? What can we do to prevent weeks like this last one from happening again?