Stop Denying Yourself a Meaningful Existence

Presentation by Joe Bageant
St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas
Department of Ethics and Leadership

February 2008

I usually speak to political groups and literary groups and their awareness tends to be political or intellectual. The word spiritual is a big no-no in both circles these days. All solutions are supposed to be political or intellectual.

However, it is more than just a political or intellectual failure when we turn our backs on our own laboring people, denying them such things as basic health care and liberation from darkness through true education. Or when that quintile of our populace who are fortunate enough to be truly middle class and ehjoy all that entails, pretend there is no class system in America and that we are all equal.

What is left of the diminishing American middle class is at a critical juncture in history. We have become a nation whose survival and comfort depends not only upon the clothing and electronic sweatshops in the smoking trash heaps of Latin America, Africa and Asia, but also upon domestic denial of the gaping and widening disparities among our very own people. We let millions of Americas hardest toiling folks suffer sickness and go uneducated because we are in the middle class — the class that is paid to manage our little corner of the system, not to be our brother’s keeper.

As members of the fifth or so of Americans among America’s true middle class, we must decide whether to be selfish or to be unselfish. There is no middle ground. No acceptable level of misery for the elderly or poor, no acceptable level of ignorance for any American. It’s an ethical and spiritual problem every American should face up to and personally solve for himself or herself. Because if we fail to solve it, then our life has been a spiritual failure.

Now if this event is like every other one I’ve spoken at, someone is going to ask me: “Mr. Bageant, what can we do as citizens to . . .?” Blah blah, blah.

If I knew what YOU should do, I’d be God, or at least Dear Abby. But the fact that we all look to other people, politicians, police, supposed experts (even dumb rednecks like me who write a book) for answers or solutions shows how we have learned to be helpless. In fact, psychologists call it “learned helplessness.”

Yet, none of us is truly helpless. The truth is that at any given moment in any given day, we can simply do something to help someone else in need. Which also helps us and the world in the same process.

Let’s do this. Let’s all stand up.

Everybody standing up?

OK now don’t sit down until you have thought of something you are going to do to help a fellow human being, someone we actually know in real need, such as hunger or perhaps cursed by mental disorder — or homeless, or an ex-convict or drug addict trying to regain a hold on his or her life. And do this before you go to bed tonight. Find some small way to remove a little bit of misery from the world and the human race. Sit down when you have decided on something to do.

[People stand for 60 seconds. Some sit down.]

OK. Let’s sit down. Hard wasn’t it? Most of us probably had a tough time thinking of a truly needy person to help, much less a way to help them. Yet eliminating the world’s misery, as any Buddhist monk or Third World Catholic priest, can tell you, is done mostly face to face, people helping people one at a time.

And we do know people we can help. We meet them every day and are blind to them because we are in a different social caste. What about that young single mom with the tattoo and the bad teeth scrubbing out the steamer pans at the school cafeteria? What about that redneck Pentecostal fella with four kids who empties the waste basket in your office or classroom at night while you sleep?

“Oh, that’s a problem for social services,” we say. Or “I give to United Way,” or some such charity. Yet our social services are collapsing and nearly every major American charity has proven to be suspect at best.

So you see how learned helplessness works. Helpless people are conditioned to spend money instead of deal honestly and face to face with people and their problems: as in ‘I’ll write a check to Catholic Relief, then jump in my car and go grab an organic salad at the café.’ Helpless middle class Americans are helpless not because they are lazy, but because they are conditioned to believe they have no personal power to change the world, just the money to buy it. Or help sponsor the least offensive of the political candidates offered to us by the political machinery of the state. Anybody here really believe that Barack Obama or John McCain can overcome a bought and paid for Congress to give all Americans the same free health care and free higher education enjoyed by nearly every other developed nation on earth? — assuming they even wanted to do so. Then again, them thar’s mighty big problems — too big for the average guy to tackle.

When we have learned to tell ourselves that our fellow American’s problems are too big for us to deal with as individual human beings, we’ve thrown away our humanity. We’ve denied ourselves a meaningful existence. Exiled ourselves from the spirit.

There are an awful lot of smart people here tonight, and collectively, there is more intelligence on the other side of this microphone than I will ever possess. In truth — and this is no exaggeration — the solution to every one of America’s problems — whether it is the injustice of class in America or the dark poverty of ignorance — is in this room right now.

It’s not about political morality or good and evil. There is no evil but meanness, stupidity, insensitiveness, and lack of imagination — which has become active in human beings as fear, greed and cruelty: the fear of losing the obvious advantages of our middle class status, education, 401-Ks, etc.; the greed that is inherent in a consumer based society and culture; and the cruelty that comes with not only the denial of a class system in America, but the failure of the middle class to stand up and reject the televised spectacle and sham that has been substituted for politics in our nation because true politics is about class and always has been.

The antidote is personal non-media produced awareness. That and unsentimental compassion. I believe that every soul here tonight has at least a little of those to offer the world.

Thank you all for taking of your valuable time to be here tonight.

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