“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
–Emma Lazarus, from “The New Colossus,” Inscribed on the Statue of Liberty
“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me…”
–F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Rich Boy”
“Some people are so poor–all they have is money.”
Rich and Poor: Reflections on the 2020 ahfest Theme by Foley Schuler
The path to human happiness–or even just getting by–is a slippery slope, sometimes upwards and sometimes down, and sometimes in between. Wealth, with all the security it seems to afford, often only adds cumbersome baggage to the journey. The image, from mythology, is familiar to any school child: the Greek king Midas is granted his great wish that everything he touch turn to gold, only to find the blessing quickly turn into the obvious curse it always was–giving new (or rather, old) meaning to the admonition, “be careful what you wish for.” Jesus would add, memorably, lest there be any doubt: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Picasso, hedging his bets, would try to have it both ways, saying, “I’d like to live as a poor man–with lots of money.”) And yet, resources, properly directed, can do incredible good in this world. Where would we be without our philanthropists, without the random acts kindness, and even selflessness, not to mention the smaller, soul-filling pay-it-forward moments by which the human heart survives?
Sadly though, so much of our existence boils down to some banal variation or another on “me first”–and in this contest for survival of the fittest in which we constantly find ourselves, so many are left behind, even left for dead. Even with the relatively recent emergence of the middle class, our world remains one of extremes–defined by the division between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” and by the gulf in between. At certain points in our history, this country, the most affluent in the world, has been shocked to learn that there was another entire country, unknown and invisible, living within its own borders all along–so many voiceless Americans, who remain imprisoned in seemingly endless, vicious cycles of grinding poverty and lack of education and opportunity. Blessedly, individuals arise from time to time to reveal its existence again, to underscore poverty’s devastating effects and to try to bring comfort, hope and a voice to the dispossessed–those who can’t help themselves, who are trampled by injustice and left out of, and, even crushed by, the elusive “American Dream.” They, however, are relatively few and far between, and so often, for daring to try to wake us from our complacent slumbers, end up murdered or martyred or both–slain, then sainted–whether their names be Jesus, Martin Luther King or Bobby Kennedy.
“Why do people starve while surpluses rot in other parts of the world?” wonders Anne Frank at one point, writing from her hiding place, in the immortal diary that is one of the great testaments to the human spirit. At the heart of her question lies one of the fundamental mysteries of our collective being. This tension, this divide, between the haves and the have-nots, has defined humanity, for better or worse, since its inception. What is our political life but the fight over the distribution of wealth, a never ending battle between these two forces, with many, indeed, caught up somewhere in the middle?
At the time of this essay’s writing (and likely, alas, of its reading too), America, with the world, remains in the grip, with no clear end in sight, of a terrifying global pandemic that has cast a harsh and revealing light on the economic disparities and racial injustices (which so often go hand in hand) of our land. It quickly became clear that the deadly virus was having a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minorities and low income areas. The required social distancing necessary to save lives was soon seen by anyone who cared to look as the obvious privilege–granted to but a certain segment of society–that it was. Just as in the Middle Ages, when the nobility retreated to the country estate, drew up the moat and hid from the Black Death, while others, without that luxury, mostly in urban areas (sound familiar?) died in multitudes, those with money and means have been able to work from home, while others (ironically deemed “essential”) have been left to fend for themselves, and at great peril.
During the lockdown, while families hunkered down, posting on social media, as one friend put it, pictures “in their matching pajamas,” others were dying. While some quarantined, often with the giddiness of a childhood snow day–the biggest worry being which new show to binge-watch, how to navigate Zoom conferencing, and what new hobby to take up in their extra time to keep from getting bored–others were forced by necessity to put their lives on the line, as, for perhaps the first time in history, “essential” somehow became synonymous with “disposable.” Performing the services needed to keep the wheels turning–the very services that allow the others to stay at home and isolate–they have become the canary in the coal mine, while the well-off wait to see if it’s safe yet to come out, and for life return to “normal”–a normal that many would now maintain needs desperately to change.
This vulnerability is highly intersected with race and poverty. Indeed, rarely if ever has the disparity between rich and poor been so blatantly and brutally dramatized, as right now. With the world in survival mode (which for some seems to mean denial), the “me first” mentality continues to rear its ugly head. It doesn’t always have to take the form of the proverbial mad grab to be the one to die with the most toys. The “politics” of Covid mask wearing will do.
At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis and the protests against our country’s deep-seated racial injustice have together brought us to a once-in-a-lifetime moment of reckoning–a time of extraordinary soul-searching, re-evaluation, and an opportunity to reset and make a change. As America faces the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression and lives are put further at risk in a rush to reopen that economy, as our cities continue to smolder, and on the eve of the most divisive and bitterly contested (and what many consider most important) election of our lifetimes–one that will determine so much of our response to these extraordinary challenges that face us–the Muskegon Area Arts and Humanities Festival invites you to pause and reflect on our priorities and on what makes us rich, and what makes us poor (realizing that the question ultimately has very little to do with money), and ask yourself, which am I? What am I going to do?