This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on June 14, 2017.
My last column was about Arlo Guthrie singing “This Land is Your Land.” The song says we’re all in this together, togetherness is necessary to our well-being, and such togetherness requires fairness and equality. It won’t work any other way. This land was made for all, not the few.
But now, less than 1 percent have more than 90 percent of the marbles. People don’t like paying taxes when others with more don’t pay a fair share. Think about Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax experiment and President Trump saying not paying income taxes “makes me smart.”
David Brooks wrote a piece in the New York Times on June 2 after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Europe. Trump’s America is in with the Saudis because the money’s good, regardless of stark differences on human rights and democracy, and we’re out with the European Union despite common democratic institutions because it doesn’t pay. In a recent article top Trump advisers H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn said: “The President embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”
Brooks comments: “In this world view, morality has nothing to do with anything. Altruism, trust, cooperation and virtue are unaffordable luxuries in the struggle of all against all. Everything is about self-interest.”
And, Brooks goes on: “The error [of this view] is that it misunderstands what drives human action. Of course people are driven by selfish motivations … But they are also motivated by another set of drives — for solidarity, love and moral fulfillment — that are equally and sometimes more powerful.”
The day after Brooks’ column, Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece about inequality in The New York Times. It seems that primates, both chimps and human beings, have innately low tolerance for unequal treatment. The mere presence of a first-class section on airplanes makes “air rage” more likely even than when passengers experience long flight delays. It works the same for chimps. Watching each other interact with humans they expect equal treatment. Just like our primate cousins, when people see others get better seats, better jobs, cushier deals, they resent it.
Trump was elected because many Americans think the game is rigged. I spoke recently with Norm Diggs, who lives in the country between Hutchinson and Wichita, who said he voted for Trump out of complete frustration with a system that endlessly favors a few and screws the rest. He voted against the status quo. I think Trump promotes unfairness, and told Norm so. But Norm said, “Why not give him a chance? It’s all crooked, Trump can’t be worse?” He felt he had to do something, and voting for Trump was the only something he saw. Violently as I disagree, I’ll give Norm this, the message resonates.
When Woody Guthrie said that you and I are in this together, he meant the entire country, from the Redwood forests to the Gulfstream waters, with all the endless skyways and golden valleys in-between. That’s bottom-up democracy; it’s also the idea of a Christian community. The United States got out of the Depression, and through World War II because we pulled together, remembered what we had in common, and gave our precious lives with uncommon selflessness.
I’ve been to Omaha Beach and to the American Cemetery in Florence, Italy. I’ve read the stories of Dick Winters, Eugene Sledge and Jack Neville, real human markers of a time when there was no room for selfishness. Families were treated equally, regardless of social or economic status, and rich and poor alike sacrificed their best. John F. Kennedy’s older brother, Joe Jr., died piloting a flying bomb against a German submarine pen. Read their stories in Rick Atkinson’s “An Army at Dawn” trilogy, Steven Ambrose’s “D-Day” and “Citizen Soldiers,” and Drew Neville’s “Jack’s 45th.” These stories tell me that we’re all connected and are at our best, and happiest, when we are acting for the benefit of one another. We live in a time when we have to pull together. We are of and from this land, and as Woody wrote and Arlo keeps singing, “This land was made for you and me.”