Rights vs. Opportunities: The Bell Tolls for Thee
I'm awake earlier than usual this morning, having been rudely awakened at 6:45 by what sounded like a gigantic swarm of bees on the attack. I got up, put on my glasses, and looked out the bedroom window to see a cloud of dust rising from the parking lot across the street as a crew broomed up the dirt left behind by a John Deere sweeper cleaning up the filth eft from the winter's snow plowing. Shortly after I awoke, Willie, our 3-year-old was crying, awakened, too, by this commercial activity.
Many would say that 7 a.m. is a late hour to be sleeping. But I often stay up late reading because I'm an insomniac. Willie is usually in bed by 10 p.m. and sleeps until 8 or 9 in the morning; he rarely takes afternoon naps as a result. This suits us quite well generally. Dianne gets up about 6:30 when 12-year-old Johnny has school. This week he has a school vacation, so he can sleep later, too, and thus, stay up a little later in the evening. Dianne takes her morning medicine, and sees Johnny off to school, and Willie and I get up later. Dianne often rests in the afternoon.
I bring this up not out of any malice or disagreement with others' lifestyles, but because it represents a certain rudeness that is a result of our fixation on work and business, which at this point transcends any other values. I don't really see any reason to have parking lots in Glens Falls cleaned at 7 a.m. This ain't New York City, and I don't live in a high-rise above the noises of labor and the business hurly-burly.
I understand most people are up by 7 a.m., getting ready for work, or are already at work. Does this mean that since my family and I are in a small minority, that we should have our lifestyle interfered with by the buzzings of commerce?
Bob Herbert wrote a column in the New York Times on Monday in which he praised Franklin Roosevelt's 1945 fourth inaugural address for its visionary `second Bill of Rights.'' I use the Quotes from that address that Herbert used:
``The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation.
``The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.
``The right of every bfarmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living.
``The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home and abroad.
``The right of every family to a decent home.
``The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.
``The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment.
``The right to a good education.''
Today, Wednesday, reader letters respond to Herbert's column. I am struck by two letters by conservatives who don't agree with Roosevelt's vision of ``rights.'' One contends that Bush's conservatism has properly transformed these ``rights'' into ``opportunities.'' And this conservatism ``includes the right of every person, according to his or her abilities, to convert these opportunities into reality.''
A second flat out contends that these ``rights'' requires others to have to give up their rights: ``Moral intuition does not transform into legal rights.'' In fact, according to this writer, `The change in direction that began under President Ronald Reagan, the change that Bob Herbert so deplores, restored a measure of sanity after the breakdown of individual liberties brought about By Franklin D. Roosevelt's demagogy.''
In other words, according to these conservatives, the rights of business and market forces trump any vision of social fairness and justice. Social fairness is an infringement on the rights of others to eschew any obligation to humanity. As the latter of these two letter-writers puts it, ``Person A may argue that he has a right to food, or housing, or or employment, or health care ... But it does not follow that person B has an obligation to feed or employ him.'' So, we are left with what? Rights end at the rich man's door? If the wealthy have no obligation to the poor, what obligation do the poor have to the rich? Logically, the answer is none. If this is so, then the poor man with no job, no income or housing has the right to simply seize these things, by force if necessary. Survival must trump rights, according to this logical schema. But would those who embrace this ideal agree with this conclusion that logically grows out of their own reasoning? I think not. So where does this leave us?
I quote Hemingway's epigraph from John Donne to ``For Whom the Bell Tolls: ``No man is an Iland, intire of itself; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or thine owne were; any man's death diminshes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.''
Donne did not write that in the age of Reagan, or the age of Roosevelt. He was not a Marxist, but lived long before Marx was a fear in the bourgeousie's soul, in Puritan England, which I assume was not a conducive atmosphere for social concern, since the first Puritans came to New England to establish a theocracy of the elite. (Is there a connection between this economic determinism and the fundamentalist religious ideology? If one is to believe history, then there is.)
When I was young, corner stores and family owned businesses were the norm in the town I lived in. None of the proprietors of these establishments was rich, but they earned decent livings, the type of livings reflected in Roosevelt's address. And to the best of my knowledge, they were content with that. Some of them were more ostentatious in their lifestyles than their peers. But I don't remember a fixation on money, its accumulation and the prestige it brought. Sure, there was an undercurrent of resentment among some of the wealthier business boosters; it was that resentment that fueled Ronald Reagan's ascent to political power shilling for GE, speaking on the virtues of free enterprise and the evil of government encroachment into businessmen's affairs. What troubled them then is what troubled them now, and if they're honest, they'll admit it: they couldn't get richer and amass more of the power that goes with wealth. They believed, and still believe, that their wealth entitles them to deference, recognition of their superiority over other men.
Now that the politics has handed them the power, society is breaking down, and democracy is at risk. Lesser men can vote, but the money decides who the candidates for national office are because running for office costs so much money. Any efforts to counter this fact are decried as ``class warfare'' or an assault on liberty. This protection of liberty furthers liberty for a few. The beloved market forces are nothing more than an excuse for the setting of everything from employment levels to prices for most goods and services by an elite that feels entitled to this power by virtue of ``rights.'' Stock markets drive stock prices; investors, usually elites - for even the mutual fund holders rely on an elite of well-remunerated financial experts to pick the stocks in their funds - demand high returns in the form of dividends and rising stock prices. Employers determine wages; workers can refuse to accept those wages, but face economic hardship if they do so. These market forces are not, then, benign. But if they are in the nature of things, as their promoters insist, then it would seem that the conclusions drawn above about rights and obligations are irrevocable. If the wealthy have the inherent right to their wealth, then the poor have the inherent right to take it from them. And thus, we have the current capitalist jungle that is destroying American society. And we are all, each of us, alone and defenseless. ``Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.''