David Brooks is an excellent op-ed columnist for the New York Times. His essays are always thought provoking and most often enlightening. They are never polemics trashing one political party or the other or one candidate or the other. A recent column was entitled The Great Divorce. At first I thought he was referencing the novel by CS Lewis but rather than addressing the issue of life after death as Lewis’ work had done, Brooks wrote of the ever expanding gap between the two social castes in twenty first century America.
I have been saying for years that when I was a mail clerk for P. Lorillard Corp back in the late ‘60’s early ‘70’s when I was making about five thousand dollars a year that the CEO of Lorillard was probably making at most a hundred grand maybe two hundred. Certainly he was not making a million. After all in 1968 Mickey Mantle was only making a hundred grand and Joe Namath cashed in at four hundred grand. The point being that the gap between me, the lowest paid employee in the company, and the CEO was only about ninety five G’s or one hundred and ninety five G’s. Today, that gap would be measured in the millions.
But, Brooks’ article was not focused on the income and wealth gap but the cultural gap that divides us. The stimulus for his article was a book by Charles Murray, ‘Coming Apart.’ In it Murray describes that the gap that we have most recently been focused on, that being the One Percenters versus the Ninety Nine Percenters does not tell the tale. The real gap is between the Top Twenty and Bottom Thirty.
Certainly focusing on the One Percenters is a more attractive strategy as very few of us are members of that group. Blaming them for all our problems and for the problems of the poor and the uneducated takes some of the heat off of us. It’s not our fault that so many people have fallen through society’s cracks. Certainly the Bottom Thirty can blame them, and anybody else for that matter, for their lowly fate. The Ninety Nine has found absolution in the One Percent. No need for repentance. No need to change. No need to do anything at all except point the finger of blame.
When it comes to the Twenty Percenters, however, many of us can no longer hide behind the very rich. More importantly, neither can the Lower Thirty. Poverty can be blamed for a lot of things. The fact is we have always had a poor class in this country and while there have always been social issues affecting the poorest including substance abuse and violence, (just watch Gangs of New York on Netflix to illustrate this), it is only in our recent history that we have seen such a widespread rejection of traditional social and moral values among the poor.
A familiar vignette that I have witnessed on numerous occasions is a mother walking her toddler on a cold winter’s day on a Brooklyn avenue. The mother is not holding the child’s hand, the child has no gloves or mittens on, and the mother is otherwise
preoccupied with her cell phone conversation. I just look and think that she has money for a phone and a phone plan but no money for gloves for her child?
On another occasion, a few years ago, I was a member of our school board and I called the Superintendent just to check in. It was another cold winter’s day and the Superintendent was out of the building. About an hour later she called me back and explained why she was out of the building. One of the children appeared on the school’s doorsteps without a coat. She asked the child why she didn’t have a coat on and was told that she did not have one. The Superintendent brought the child into the building and immediately went out and bought the child a coat. This is a touching and terrific story about a great lady but I include it hear to ask where were the parent’s of that child?
I can understand that a family could lack the resources to buy clothes but in this day and age all they would have to do is to ask.
On another day, in the spring this time, I observed a parent smoking a joint in his car while his kid played little league baseball with my son. Sorry, I don’t care how poor you are, how uneducated you are, or what kind of a sad sack life you had as a kid, stand up and be a man. Be a parent. Hock the phone, get some mittens. Go to a church, ask for help. Get your ass out of the car and your head out of your ass and go watch your kid play baseball!
The biggest disappointment I have in our President goes back to his inaugural address. On that day in 2009 he declared that ‘The Era of Responsibility’ had arrived. I took this to mean that parents would be held accountable for the actions of their children much as Wall Street Executives would be for their financial actions. Instead, we have gotten the same bull shit that it is the schools and ineffective teachers who are to blame for the academic failures of our children. No parent is ever put on notice for sending their child ill prepared for school. Talk to teachers and find out if kids arrive at school with homework done or if the parents have ever read to their children. For the Top Twenty parents the answers to these questions would in all likelihood be yes. For the Bottom Thirty, probably no is the more common response.
Growing up in the Bronx in what I had always thought of as a middle class lifestyle, all of my friends had parents who worked, who struggled to put us through Catholic Schools, who made sure we went to school prepared, who made sure we had warm and clean if not brand new clothes and who taught us how to interact with people. The fact is we were not middle class economically. Most of us lived in small apartments. Some of us had a phone. Some families had a car. But all had middle class values. Work hard, fly right and get a good education.
In education today we keep hearing about “First Generation” students. These are students who are the first in their family to go to college. In my neighborhood, we were First Generation high school students. The fact that out parents had not benefited from a formal education beyond the eighth grade did not prevent them from being good parents. The fact that our parents did not make more than ten thousand dollars a year did not prevent them from enriching our lives in every way. Perhaps the greatest thing they did for us was to show us how to be a parent with or without money.
This is what really made them The Greatest Generation and it’s their values that need to be adopted and adhered to.