Monday, April 23, 2012

Ballpark figuratives

If Facebook tells me anything I already know (and it does many, many times over), it’s that there’s a huge diversity in economic stances among my friends. Most are struggling to get by. Others openly wonder what type of luxury car they should buy to tow their kayaks (yes, plural). I’m fortunate to have been exposed to a huge diversity of people throughout my life. My friends span every ethnicity, religion, income bracket, political belief and overall attitude I can think of. They’ve all had a hand in how I see things, and have taught me to see things their way as well. They’ve helped me evolve when I needed to evolve (which is often), and vice versa. I think that’s true for all of us. But in some respects, that natural assimilation is in danger.

Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel writes on Huffington Post about what he calls the “Skyboxification of American life.” He writes that we have morphed from a market economy to a market society, which is one of those sentences I wish I’d written. He says a major consequence of this market society is that different classes of people are increasingly segregating themselves economically, much like the levels of a ballpark.

As someone who has both been up in a corporate skybox overlooking home plate and cleaned up vomit on the grass (and back), I find this to be a tremendous point. To a degree we all confine our company, because we’re naturally attracted to people who make us comfortable and to whom we can relate. The trouble begins when we attempt to build a wall (or skybox) to keep out those we deem beneath us.

To me, American society is like radio. In the peak years of the medium, stations carried a mix of hits from a variety of genres. Today, you can retreat to a channel that plays only Tim McGraw (I’m not making that up). And while I’m all for a litany of choices, I worry that the collective experience — that feeling of discovering something new and unexpected — gets lost. As much as the explosion of the Internet opens people up to new interests and viewpoints, it’s also just as likely to suck people deeper into narrow niches.

This is worrisome enough on its own without the concerted effort by many in the American upper class to wall themselves off in their own cloisters. Gated communities, private schools, country clubs, upscale shopping centers, exclusive churches, skyscraper offices, favorable media outlets — these are largely the province of people who want to interact with the community only on their own terms.

Not that they feel much obligation toward the community. Sure, they’ll dip into the occasional high-profile charity endeavor, but they aren’t at all interested in supporting the infrastructure they’ve ceded to the rest of us. Some want to pull all of their taxes out of the system. “Why should I have to pay for things I don’t use?” The same reason I have to — because that’s the idea. You can’t opt out of the system just because you chose to build McGalt Fortress Subdivision (with our tax help, I might add). We’re all in this together.

Interacting with a diverse array of people shapes your thinking in both conscious and subconscious ways. I suspect that’s why people convinced wealth is a function of attitude don’t want to interact with the poor and middle class — because they might find out that all struggling people aren’t lazy, drug-addicted bastards. And learning that might make them question a lot of other things.

It works the other way, too — it's too easy for us to lump in all upper-class people in the uncaring-monster mob if you don't know any. I have friends who are swimming in cash and/or live in these types of places who are among the most genuinely compassionate and open-minded people I know. But in being that way, they are mindful of the world at large. And that’s what all of us need to be. The only problem erecting walls and skyboxes will ever fix is the problem of community.

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