Monday, June 16, 2008

Class distinctions hide America's greatest divisions [PPH/Column]

FORUM [ Portland Press Herald ]

Class distinctions hide America's greatest divisions

Possessors of great wealth not only direct the nation, they ignore its neediest members.

By Leigh Donaldson

June 16, 2008

When I moved to Boston in the late 1980s, all the real estate agents could find for me in my limited price range was a one-room basement flat – with a brass knocker on the door.

For a month's salary and an eye-boggling finder's fee, I was permitted to sign 20 pages of legal excess and move my meager boxes through the rear, the servants' entrance in times past.

Never mind that the hot water was dicey for two weeks and that the kitchen smelled of cat and mildew, I had landed a bargain by all standards. Some months later, I met the owner of the building, who lived in the top-floor flat.

A third-generation millionaire Brahmin with white hair and steel-blue eyes, he allowed himself a long, frozen overview of me, taking in my humble surroundings.

At that rent, I was having none of it, so I threw back one of my own fearless gazes and asked impertinently, "Can I help you?"

Something about my tone and akimbo-stance caused both us to burst out in laughter. After that, we became friends who recognized that we shared a common humanity. I needed an affordable place to live in, and he, funds for upkeep. Caste and social hierarchy flew out his grimy, cracked, drafty windows.

Throughout history, and especially during this presidential campaign, class labels have been tossed about like too much confetti.

"Working-class voters," "the middle-class vote," as distinguished from "the white-working class vote" and "the 'elite' vote," are a few examples.

According to a recent Nation article by Zephyr Teachout, The New York Times has run 324 references to "middle-class" and 220 to "working-class" in political stories in the three months ending May 23.

Use of the term "class" is troublesome, regardless of the context. But its use in all variations is apparently here to stay.

Beyond the average person's comprehension is what I'd call the ruling class or "power elite," that small and often anonymous group of people who reflect the top layers of the corporate world, i.e. CEOs, board chairpersons and, in some cases, the independently wealthy.

These are the people who, believe it or not, have a disproportionate influence on our nation's priorities. The ruling class usually consists of individuals wealthy enough not to be concerned about bill collectors, rent hikes, mortgage payments, day-care fees, losing their job, rising gas prices and so on.

The power elite, a more hidden group of people, make and affect policy in the private and public sector on levels that influence the way this country is run.

Many people at this economic level protect their own interests at the expense of others. In many cases, they have controlled media content and the way elected officials vote, for example.
And, there is a clear difference between a person with a few million dollars to toss into the air and someone with $100 million.

People with the latter kind of ready cash can own and control the means of production and distribution of much of what the rest of us think we need and crave.

Ivy League schools and old money go out the window when there are cold greenbacks slapped on the table.

Perhaps the days of old wealth are gone. Certainly a mixture of family money and talent has resulted in a smattering of socially conscious individuals.

But too many rich ancestors never stopped their ruthless pursuits to take a hard look at the common human being.

Obsession with acquiring assets continues to sustain huge economic disparity throughout the world.

Because of the indifference of many among the wealthy power elite, other people are starving, homeless and otherwise disfranchised from society.

What troubles me the most is how we so easily neglect the poor in both private and public discourse. The ever-growing "working poor" population is even more disturbing. Politicians are reluctant to even invoke the word "poor" in their forums, as if such people are not human.
People who cannot afford to feed themselves and their children are not only victims of circumstances, but of the utter indifference of a public too often caught up in their mad dash to make it big – hence rising lottery ticket purchases, game show participation and high-stakes gambling.

My landlord has long passed away, but he left me with a vision more powerful than any diminished dollar could ever express.

His inherited riches never ruled him. It took a lifetime of self-willed effort for him to find personal fulfillment. He was in love with humanity, not wealth.

I know that he would have been proud of this column.

Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer whose book about the antebellum African-American press in the Northeast is due for publication in 2009. He can be contacted at:

Copyright © 2008 Blethen Maine Newspapers

Friday, June 13, 2008

Take the PLEDGE to Vote Out Poverty!

Martin Luther King Jr. famously warned that a "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." Yet despite King's caution, we are spending hundreds of billions of dollars on a disastrous war in Iraq while 37 million Americans are living in poverty and 3 billion people worldwide live on less than $2 a day.

This election season, we can answer Jesus' call to care for the "least of these" by demanding that candidates go on the record with real plans for addressing poverty in the U.S. and around the world.
Send this petition to:
I pledge to make your commitment to overcoming poverty, which I believe is one of the greatest moral and religious imperatives of our time, central to how I cast my ballot in 2008.I want to hear your specific plans for cutting in half over the next 10 years the number of Americans living in poverty and for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, thereby delivering hope to the billions of people living in extreme poverty around the globe.In the coming months, I'll be working hard to ensure that you address these critical issues -- and to inform my friends, family, congregation, and community members about how you respond.
Signed by:[Your name] [Your address]
Sign this Petition -->

The mission of Sojourners is to articulate the biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world.

Would you like to contribute financially to further Sojourners efforts to
Now is the time to make your contribution to the progressive faith community's voice in the 2008 election cycle and beyond!

Join Sojourners in our Vote Out Poverty campaign, which will make reducing poverty a central issue in the presidential and congressional races in 2008. Our efforts will not end there; your contribution will help us hold those elected officials accountable through our 2009 National Mobilization.

Timing is of the essence as the general election cycle begins. The earlier we start, the more we can spread the word, and the more our voice will be heard.

Here are some of our plans between now and November:

Voter Education Resources: We are developing a nonpartisan brochure that provides guidance on Christian responsibilities to vote based on a broad issues-based platform that goes beyond the hot-button issues. We will distribute an election action toolkit to you - our online constituency.

Poverty Sundays: We will encourage churches nationwide to host election-focused Poverty Sundays during September 2008 and will provide participants with nonpartisan resources.
National Mobilization 2008: As you read this, 300 of our most dedicated activists are in the midst of three days of intensive advocacy and media training. With some of the nation's best faith-based community organizers, including Dr. James Lawson, serving as facilitators, we are preparing these participants to apply effective tactics to transform their communities.

We can feel the energy building, and it shall not be wasted! We will utilize this momentum through our 2009 National Mobilization plan.

In spring 2009, we will organize a major event in Washington that leverages national media attention to the crisis of poverty, mobilizes a national faith constituency around a poverty platform, and demands that elected officials act on poverty. This event will include turning out over 1,000 people in a single day to visit and lobby congressional representatives, and gathering 3,000 to 5,000 people for a rally outside the White House.

Thank you for your support, passion, and will power as we seek to continue our prophetic ministry.

Andrew, Leah, and the rest of the Sojourners team