On Friday, I hiked around Chicago’s Gold Coast — Rush Street, State Parkway, Astor Street and Inner Lake Shore Drive. I was in no hurry, so I had plenty of time to think about inequality.
Extreme inequality, which this neighborhood represents, has been with us since the beginning of “civilization.” What’s surprising in this case is that there’s no special effort to keep people out, unlike the gated and guarded complexes where many of the rich huddle. In fact, I wasn’t the only “tourist” on these sidewalks, admiring the lovely Old-Chicago grey- and brownstones.
This elite alcove begins at Division Street (how appropriate) and ends at North Boulevard, marked by the Cardinal’s elegant mansion, which the Chicago Archdiocese has been trying to sell, because it’s an awkward inconsistency to explain for a religious institution ostensibly dedicated to serving the poor.
Practically everyone in this neighborhood is a millionaire (at least), and they all seem to have dogs. And here’s an odd but telling detail: I have never, in all my walking days, seen sidewalks with so much dog poop or residue of dog poop. Not by a longshot. Not even close.
I attribute this to the lack of grassy parkways, so the critters have nowhere else to … go. But the attempt to eliminate their … leavings … has only been semi-successful. Rather than put their hands in a plastic glove and pick up their beloved’s defecations (the preferred technique in Oak Park), they use a tool of some sort, which leaves a swipe on the cement with the aforementioned residue. Or maybe they hire someone to come along and do it for them. Either way, the system lacks, let’s just say, efficiency.
It seems like poetic justice that, even in this sanctuary of high opulence, they have plenty of crap to contend with.
And it reminded me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous line about Gatsby: “what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams.”
Dreams of fame and fortune are not new either and many Americans are still driven to accumulate enough wealth to live in enclaves like this. But for those who succeed, an inherent flaw, a foul dust — or dog crap if you will — follows in the wake of their American Dream: It’s virtually impossible to be “successful” without also believing you are “better” than anyone who isn’t. Which is, of course, not true. They are only financially successful, which has little to do with being a successful human being. And to be fair, there may be many successful human beings among these residents.
But economic inequality creates a deeper “division.” It sets up a superior/inferior dichotomy that contradicts and undermines the true American Dream, which is egalitarianism (all created equal). The more extreme our inequality, the further we stray from our highest ideal — and the more we attempt to justify that inequality, to the point where we learn to live far too comfortably with the suffering of our fellow human beings — which perpetuates that suffering.
Abraham Lincoln put it this way: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This is my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”
When the European migration to these shores began, there was an opportunity to create a less hierarchical civilization than the one they were fleeing. When they arrived, they found egalitarian societies already established here and flourishing. But the window on reinvention closed quickly because old habits die hard. The European Americans, thinking themselves superior to Native Americans, dominated and exterminated them as “manifest destiny” pushed westward.
Extreme inequality is the sin that caused a chronic disease known as “supremacy.” American society is rife with it. We are a pathologically competitive culture. Winners are always few, losers always many. If necessary, we cheat to win. And when we win, we believe we deserved to, because we are better than those who lost. Not just a better skill set or a better performance or better sheer dumb luck, but better inherently, personally. We say we’re “fortunate,” and those who aren’t, we term “less fortunate,” but that’s just a euphemism. We climb the “ladder of success” and on each rung, we think we’re “better” than those on the rungs below.
Inequality takes many forms: the two-sided coin of wealth/poverty, misogynistic patriarchy, racism. All are predicated on superiority and inferiority. Inequality is the illness that leads to all other societal ills — a hierarchical society where we’re driven to win and make others lose.
Not all of us are so intensely driven, but all of us are under the influence.
I don’t know what the solution is. We can’t change it through violent overthrow and terror. The French Revolution tried and failed. Communism failed. Al Qaeda failed. They brought down the World Trade towers, the symbols of global economic inequality, but only made our sickness worse. You can’t force or enforce equality.
We can only live by a different mantra:
No one is better than I.
I am no better than anyone.
All are created equal. All deserve to be treated with dignity.
That night, as I walked past the Lake Theatre marquee, a panhandler asked me for some change. I said no with only a peripheral glance, thinking, no doubt, about something that was far more “important.” Maybe I was thinking about inequality. As I walked away, he said, “Aren’t you that guy in the Journal? Ken Trainor, right? I read your column.”
The foul dust of superiority catches up when you least expect it. In that moment, we were equals, and what’s more, we both knew it.
For human beings like this fellow, we use the biblical term “the least of these,” but why? Least may be what he has, but it’s not who he is.
I was so pleasantly surprised that he reads Wednesday Journal, I didn’t even ask his name.
But why was I surprised?
Maybe he’s reading this now.
And having a good laugh.