Vae victis: a rant

We must take more care in our approach to the underprivileged, lest by imposing our foolish obsessions upon them, we do damage to their souls.

I know that it is hardly in fashion these days to speak of the notion that we have souls, yet I believe that we do. If you choose to think of the soul as the human spirit, far be it from me to contradict you. But let us agree that whatever is noble or decent within us—whatever cries out for dignity in our humanity—may be ascribed to more than random misfirings of neurons in the brain.

If it is the case that we have souls, it seems to be also the case that we easily lose sight of this fact. Either we consider it inconvenient and stifle it outright or we forget it altogether. I suppose it all depends on your approach.

In either case, we succumb to extreme hypocrisy if we think that all of our talk of improving humanity can possibly distract attention from our constant obsession with making ourselves better off. With all of our striving and straining to get ahead, we put as much distance as possible between ourselves and those with whom we profess to sympathize so very, very deeply.

Picture, if you will, the irony: a Harvard Law School class, (purportedly) full of the nation’s best and brightest, who spew forth the benefits of making everyone equal or extending healthcare to the underprivileged before, minutes later, gloating with their friends over their new high-power, pro-rated six-figure summer job.

What are they going to do, write a check?

I hear a lot of talk about hope, change, and compassion, but I see a true lack of understanding when it comes to moving from the talk to the walk. Are you really so foolish as to think that people will better themselves the more money you throw at them? Do you really think that people will feel more validated, more human, more understood if you fight to give them more things?

Who among you really cares enough to become one of them? To give up your six-figure salary and your expensive second degree and your brilliant legal mind and all the rest, and go try to live like these people live, and worry like they do, and fear like they fear? Do you really think that giving someone a welfare check, or a lunch program, or even an entirely new healthcare system, will make him feel like a man, or her like a woman?

Do you think it will make them feel loved?

If it can be said that there are upper and lower classes, then it seems to me that the “upper” classes have convinced themselves that the way to help the “lower” classes is to invite them to share in their obsession—if only for just a bit.

“Here,” you say. “See what we do? We are constantly trying to get more, and more, and more things. We can’t understand how you can possibly be happy, since you don’t have the things that we have. We want you to be happy; it makes us feel bad when you’re not. So here are some of our things. We’ll give them to you. We’ll design programs so that you can have some things of your very own. We won’t even ask you to work for them. Won’t that be nice? Won’t you feel better then?”

Even when you talk about “equality of opportunity,” you’re still talking about giving others a shot at getting the things you have. Everyone should have the chance to get an Ivy League education. Everyone should be able to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Everyone should be able to succeed—even if we have to hold some of the stronger ones back until the rest manage to catch up.

Really?

If everyone succeeds, where does that leave you? If your job might as well belong to anybody, why should it belong to you?

Do you, perhaps, secretly fear that you may lose stamina in the race you’re currently winning? Is it possible that poverty makes you afraid? Could it be that you obsess over dragging the bottom half up to your level because you never know when you might end up there yourself?

If you fear poverty more than anything else in the world, then you will convince yourself that solving poverty means using your own consolation—spending—to eliminate it. You will forget people’s humanity, their need for dignity and recognition, and you will quickly come to the conclusion that any problem can simply be taxed and spent away. After all, money is what makes your world go round, so enough of it spent in the right places ought to make the world a better place.

But in your heart of hearts, you thank your lucky stars that you have the luxury of throwing your money at such things, and you dread the deep, soul-defacing shame of institutionalized begging that is the welfare system. Perhaps, on your darkest of days, you even realize with alarm that money and programs and things may not always be able to distract the poor from your truly inept and unfeeling assumptions about what the human soul needs.

Perhaps you worry that one day, people will rise up and cry out that not poverty, not AIDS, not single motherhood, not drugs, not crime, but YOU have been keeping them down.

You must realize that you do not share a creed. What motto enabled you to reach the position from which you can shuffle zeroes and solve all the world’s problems? I’ll tell you:

Vae victis: Woe to the vanquished!

The only reason you can afford to pretend to understand those less well off than you is because you’re already such a success yourself—because you’ve already stepped on so many heads on your way up, or because you’re not even aware of the distance between here and there. We can pity the vanquished, we can even attempt to empathize… but thank God—if we even permit Him a role in our lives—that we do not count ourselves among them, no?

This warped approach is nothing new. In the opening sentences of The Bertrams, Anthony Trollope wrote this critique of England in 1859:

So far as regards the low externals of humanity, this is doubtless a humane age. Let men, women, and children have bread; let them have if possible no blows, or, at least, as few as may be; let them also be decently clothed; and let the pestilence be kept out of their way.

The humanity of the age is doubtless suited to its material wants, and such wants are those which demand the promptest remedy. But in the inner feelings of man to men, and of one man’s mind to another man’s mind, is it not an age of extremest cruelty?

There is sympathy for the hungry man; but there is no sympathy for the unsuccessful man who is not hungry. If a fellow mortal be ragged, humanity will subscribe to mend his clothes; but humanity will subscribe nothing to mend his ragged hopes, so long as his outside coat shall be whole and decent.

With us, let the race be ever to the swift; the victory always to the strong. And let us always be racing, so that the swift and strong shall ever be known among us.

But what, then, for those who are not swift, not strong? Vae victis! Let them go to the wall. They can hew wood probably, or, at any rate, draw water.

Yes, though we forever fail to understand the dignity that lies within the human soul, may there always be enough money to gild (if not bury) our tragic mistake.

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