Tuesday, February 24, 2009

There But For Fortune

Time for Jubilee?
Lately, there's been an ugly mood in some areas of the media surrounding Obama's plan to bring some relief to people who are in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure. A recent rant by a CNBC reporter has become something of an Internet sensation on YouTube. The basic message is that by trying to help people in this foreclosure crisis, we are rewarding people for bad behavior, and punishing those who were responsible, and did not get themselves into trouble.

Certainly there are people losing houses that never had any business signing a mortgage in the first place, but lo, I shall say unto you:
Let he or she who has read every line on their credit card agreement, read every line in the software agreement, or read every word of their own mortgage agreement cast the first stone.

I have been working on a spreadsheet simulation of 'generational luck' lately, and when my brain cells permit such activity, I promise to share it with you when it becomes more useful. The point is that I think many people give themselves more credit for success than they probably have a right to. I'm not saying that successful hard working people are undeserving, but there's way too much Social Darwinism in today's neocons, as if there is no such thing as good fortune, or, for the more religious, the Grace of God.

I'm not a religious man, which doesn't mean I'm not spiritual or haven't learned a lot from playing bass in church all these years, but there is something interesting I've learned about the concept of Jubilee.

There are many variants, but the basic idea is that every 50 years, debts are forgiven, slaves and prisoners are set free, and so on. Sure, I can hear what you're thinking, that this is not practical, not gonna happen, is just an ancient, archaic tradition, and maybe you're right. But the concept of Jubilee points to a reality that much of the world is shaped by events beyond our control, and unless you believe in a God that preordains the suffering of the multitudes, I think every now and then we need to do whatever we can to ameliorate the inequities caused by birth, climate change, and yes, the so-called "act of God."

When I was a child, sometimes serious family squabbles would occur, not unlike many families I'm sure, and the only way forward was to "start from scratch." The burdens of the past can be overwhelming, and the need to start over is natural, and healthy. Just like a forest fire becomes inevitable when smaller natural cleansing fires are suppressed, societies can come to a flash point when large amounts of underclass build up, until catastrophic change is the only possible outcome.

Forgiveness is a trait I think most people understand, but it's really just the everyday microcosmic version of Jubilee.

Rather than quote T. S. Eliot again (it would be so easy!) I am reminded of the late Phil Ochs (the troubadour pictured at top) song "There But For Fortune." Here's the last verse:

Show me the country where bombs had to fall,
Show me the ruins of buildings once so tall,
And I'll show you a young land with so many reasons why
There but for fortune, go you or go I -- you and I.
You and I,
There but for fortune, go you or go I -- you and I.

I know it's presumptive to think I have anything to add, but perhaps we could add a new verse?
Show me the family asleep on the floor
Show me the insurance they can't pay anymore
And I'll show you a country with shame piled so high
Yes there but for fortune, go you or I -- you and I

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