Wal-Mart’s latest slogan of “Save Money, Live Better” was proven wrong by the, by now forgotten, tragedy that occurred on Black Friday. The trampling death of a Long Island Wal-Mart employee was rightfully seen as senseless by many. While most of us look down on those who did the trampling as if we ourselves could never be that calloused, a scene from the movie Gandhi gives us an opposing view.
The scene consisted of a meeting between Gandhi and his associates with the British rulers of India. This meeting followed the massacre at Amritsar where a British General cutoff the only escape route for over 1,500 unarmed civilians and ordered his troops to open fire. The result of this General’s order was that over 300 men, women and children were slaughtered and over 1,000 were injured. Similar to how most of us condemned the shoppers who trampled the Wal-Mart employee, the British rulers denounced this massacre. But unfortunately for the British, and perhaps for us as well, Gandhi would not tolerate their distancing themselves from the tragedy. Rather, he replied that the General who ordered the massacre was merely an extreme example of the evil that consisted of the British occupation of India. So just like the British rulers were more like the General who ordered the massacre than they cared to admit, perhaps we are more like those who trampled that employee than we would like. Perhaps those who callously killed that employee are but an extreme example of an evil that is a part of our society.
What is that evil? The evil we participate in is the pursuing the American Dream. How can the American Dream be evil? Isn’t the American Dream, for most people, the owning of the house of our dreams along with the picket fence all because of our hard work and patience? Isn’t the American Dream the providing for our families? How can any of that be evil? Perhaps the American Dream is evil not because of the house we buy or what we provide for our loved ones, but because of how it leaves others out.
The real American Dream consists of building and then escaping to our own fantasy island. We could call the American Dream an island because what we work for is to insulate ourselves from a threatening world. When we move to this island, we join the murderous Cain who asked “Am I my brother’s keeper?” When we move to this island, we deny how Jesus used the parable of the Good Samaritan to define our neighbor as the person who is in need. This is because moving to our island allows us to be choosy when caring for others. We will care only for those whom we want on our island. When others cry for our help, we drown out their voices with the acquisition of stuff; much like the allurement of buying stuff on sale enabled those shoppers at that Long Island Wal-Mart to ignore the employee who was dying.
For example, when establishing our retirement through the stock market, do we care that our financial security often costs our fellow Americans either a livable wage or their jobs? Do we care that there are not enough jobs for those living in our cities? Does the noise of our home heaters and the internal sound that comes from munching at our feasts drown out the cries of the homeless and the moans of the hungry? When we buy clothes at bargain prices, do we so enthusiastically celebrate our acquisitions that we forget to spend a moment in silent meditation for those who labored in the sweatshops to make our clothes? Do we choose to be enchanted by entertainment and comfort than to notice how Afghans are killed by our bombs and how Iraqis now live in a war-torn country with up to 1.3 million killed and 4.7 million displaced? Can we hear the cries of the Palestinians as they suffer and even die because of the actions of the Israeli government or are our consciences satisfied after we invite innocent Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism to our island of concern? Are we really that different from those who either trampled or passed by without helping that Wal-Mart employee who was dying?
But the American dream does not merely consist of living on an island, it insists on fantasy. Our fantasy consists of believing that we can walk over or ignore so many in need with impunity. It is this fantasy that causes us to be surprised when we are the victims of crimes. Of course the supreme example of this surprise was our reaction to 9-11. We, without questioning, accepted Bush’s explanation that our attackers hated our freedoms. We believed Bush on this despite our recent history in dealing with Iraq. It was the conjunction of our attacks on civilian infrastructure during the first Persian Gulf War and the subsequent sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. It is our unbalanced support for Israel’s occupation against the Palestinians that has killed thousands of innocent Arabs and forced many more to live lives of despair. We have similar reactions when experiencing or reading about crime in our own neighborhoods. We prefer to believe that our assailants are moved move by evil than deprivation, marginalization, and hopelessness.
The bad news for us is that we may not be that different from those who trampled that Wal-Mart employee. Certainly some of us would like to picture ourselves as acting heroically to save that fallen employee if we were there, but how many we keep off of our own islands when we heard their cries for help?
There might be a blessing in disguise though. The current economic crisis is pointing out that our fantasies cannot last forever. The economic troubles of those on the mainland are now pulling in more and more people who once lived on the islands. And this can be a blessing because perhaps the best way to live better is to share wealth than to save money. So what the current economic crisis might force us to recognize is that today is the day to change the American Dream.