This has been a year of disappointment for many. In 2020, nothing is as we had hoped or planned; and from time to time, many of us have taken a moment to complain or lament about what could have been. I can understand that. The leaders of our institutions, particularly our schools, have been struggling to develop work-arounds for what is an unprecedented situation with information and context changing constantly.
What I struggle to understand are the views of a minority who expect things to be like they were and are demanding that others make it so. It seems to stem from a belief that those with power have a right to comfort and that that right has been purchased. The following phrases have been used to convey this:
We pay a lot in taxes so our kids deserve better.
You have to do what we say. We pay your salary.
Teachers need to get back in the classroom. It’s their job to teach my child.
But there is no normal in a worldwide pandemic and there are limits to your purchasing power. You can purchase better supports and tools. You can’t purchase the certainty of the future. You can purchase quality health care for yourself and your family. You cannot purchase the committed health and well-being of others to give you the experiences you want — at least not anymore. Yes, taxes pay the salaries of civil servants, but everyone’s salary comes from someone else’s dime. With that thinking, Jeff Bezos should do my bidding given the amount of money I have pumped into Amazon.
But paying for goods and services does not buy loyalty or servitude. The money that we all pay for taxes, does not ensure that everything in our society will be to our liking or even benefit us directly. We pay into the pot knowing that there are ways in which we benefit that far outweigh anything we can do on our own, regardless of our income.
None of us is an island. Our lives are interdependent and interconnected in ways we barely imagine. This alone should compel us to care about how our actions, or the actions we propose, affect others, let alone any values or aspirations one might have to be a good person.
The rugged individualism that so many value is actually a profound selfishness that assumes success is achieved purely on the merits of one’s own hard work, thereby rendering that person, and by extension their family, deserving of all that is best. And they determine what is best. Forget that the people in a position to make decisions are probably more knowledgeable about the context and content. Forget that their desires do not take into account the full range of variables that must be considered when making such decisions. They have purchased first-class seats and expect to be the first seated, drink in hand. That is the capitalist’s way; but it is not democratic and it is not what makes for good community.
I am not suggesting that folks should not be able to benefit from their financial gains. I am suggesting that the ability to buy one’s way has no place in the civic space and is the antithesis of democratic engagement. Money is not speech. We should all use our voice in constructive dialogue and debate. Yet expecting one’s voice to be amplified by one’s financial resources is all too American. From aid to other nations to pay-to-play, we have been taught that it is the U.S. way to use our resources to influence things in our favor, not because it is the right thing to do. Our ongoing effort to be “a more perfect union’ compels us to do better.
Many current complaints are, too often, a form of entitlement that shows signs of sexism, racism, and/or classism. You seldom hear someone question whether a white male should forfeit his income no matter how poorly he performs, but it is often the go-to suggestion when Black women are being questioned. You seldom hear someone question whether he is being paid too much, but the income of Black folks are often in question.
This does not mean that Black people in leadership are perfect or do not make mistakes. It does recognize the inconsistencies in how critiques are levied when gender and race are taken into account.
We all must strive to do better in the context of this pandemic. Better does not necessarily mean more or more than. Better may mean more caring, more patient, or at the very least, being less of a jerk.