“Non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tua da gloriam.”
“Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory.” — Psalm 115, from the King James Version of the Bible.
As Thanksgiving approaches and family gatherings appear to be limited for the holiday on account of COVID-19, it’s easy to lose sight of the greater problems weighing down many unfortunate people this year, such as hunger and homelessness. People of sufficient means can afford to fret over not seeing friends and relatives in person, or over temporary shortages of goods and services inconveniencing them, but they at least have a warm, secure place to live, and enough food and other necessities to go around. Should they become sick, they have access to quality medical attention.
The cover of a pamphlet from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reminding Americans of the need in a country with plentiful food to be mindful of not eating too much.
What about the people without all those good things to be thankful for this year? The economic disruption of COVID-19 has pushed millions of people into desperate straits this year, most of them workers in the service sector who could least afford to miss a paycheck. While professionals could work from home using a computer and an internet connection, that option has not been available to most service workers, for whom the choice has been to work and thereby expose themselves to the coronavirus or stay home as long as they had a home to stay in and money to buy food. Some have been able to sustain themselves on financial assistance, others have not.
As bad as prolonged isolation can be, poverty is worse. As inconvenient as it can be to have money and not always have goods available in stores to buy, or restaurants to visit for some time out of the house, it is worse to work in those stores and restaurants for low wages and be exposed eight hours or more a day to coronavirus, and yet have to endure the abuse of entitled, spoiled, petulant customers, or to not have a job at all. For all that, there are still ways to say “thanks” this holiday season, and to help someone else along the way.
Food banks are experiencing greater demand now than at any time in recent memory. The same goes for soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other charities helping the recently displaced as well as the chronically underemployed. There are safe ways to volunteer, but if that doesn’t seem possible, then help out by making a donation. Hospital staffs around the country are overworked, and they could use the assistance even of people without medical training. Farmers are reporting reduced demand for turkeys over 20 pounds because fewer large groups will be gathering for holiday dinners in their homes. The hungry who can’t afford to buy those larger turkeys could surely benefit by having them bought for them. Help carry the burden of this pandemic by picking up the fallen, and say grace in thanks to whatever faith sees you through another day.
Patrick Doyle composed this version of the traditional Catholic hymn “Non Nobis, Domine” for the 1989 film Henry V, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh. Mr. Doyle appears as the soldier singing at the beginning of the scene, which depicts the aftermath of the 1415 Battle of Agincourt in the Hundred Years’ War.
The Keynesian economic model which held sway in Western capitalist societies in the middle of the twentieth century has long since given way to neoliberalism, a policy and a philosophy which is a reworking of the laissez faire economies of the early industrial revolution. No wonder that we live in a new Gilded Age, the culmination of increasing economic inequality and degradation of publicly subsidized social services for everyone but the rich. Neoliberalism, a term which has meant many things in theory over the last one hundred years, has come to mean in fact laissez faire economics for the poor and middle class, and corporate welfare for the wealthy.
The result has been the takeover of the economy by short-sighted financial interests among the largest banks, and the takeover of politics and public policy making by those same banks and international corporations which owe allegiance to their executives and their shareholders instead of to any one national or local community. Consumers bear a great deal of the responsibility for this state of affairs, while citizens can change it.
A protester at the second presidential inauguration of George W. Bush in Washington, D.C., in January 2005 holds up Adbusters’ Corporate American Flag. Photo by Jonathan McIntosh.
Consumers are passive; citizens are active. Consumers are inattentive to politics; citizens pay attention to what’s going on in government. Consumers struggle to get by and blame themselves when they cannot; citizens understand larger forces are arrayed against their interests and demand an equal place at the table. Consumers look at the wealthy and see people who helped themselves; citizens know how wealth creates wealth and privilege looks out for its own. Consumers feel helpless to change the course of society; citizens band together because they realize their power is in their numbers.
A sign at the January 2018 Women’s March in Missoula, Montana. Photo by Montanasuffragettes.
The neoliberal philosophy of the past forty years has stripped people of their view of themselves as citizens with rights, duties, and responsibilities in society and replaced it with the lumpish, passive recognition of themselves as consumers, replaceable parts in the economic machine. Meanwhile, neoliberals have sold the consuming masses on the idea that unions and publicly funded healthcare and education are bad policies, but tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations are good because of some nebulous trickling down that’s supposed to happen. Mission accomplished!
Taking action to change neoliberal policies on the environment, on economic inequality, and on the accountability of corporations, banks, and politicians is going to have start with a change in attitude among the populace from consumers to citizens. It starts with getting the money out of politics, and that starts with overturning the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which equated money with speech. What greater symbol for the neoliberal outlook can there be than “money talks”? The second most important step toward change would diminish the power of the big banks by reinstating the Depression era Glass-Steagall Act, separating commercial and investment banking. The third step would end government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and divest from it entirely. All easier said than done, of course, and only the first few of many steps to curtail the undue influence of the rich and powerful over society, but once consumers get up off their couches and walk down as citizens to their voting places they will be taking the steps necessary to change a system that works only for a privileged few, and not for them.
“Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” ― Barry Switzer, U.S. football coach.
In 1976, the movie Network satirized the television business of the day and projected then current trends into the future, to extremes that at the time seemed preposterous. A reality show about terrorists? A planned assassination filmed live on television? Too much! Satire turned into fantasy! Looking back from over forty years later, we realize maybe it wasn’t too much. Maybe it was prophetic.
George Fenneman and Groucho Marx on “You Bet Your Life” in 1951, a quiz show where the financial stakes weren’t as important as entertaining conversation.
Thirteen years before Network appeared in theaters, the psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment at Yale University that tested how far subjects would go in administering electric shocks to other people they thought were also subjects of the experiment, but who in fact were actors. It turned out that when directed by authority figures (also actors), two thirds of the subjects giving shocks escalated the punishment to 460 volts, which is severe to the point of being dangerously debilitating. In 2010, a game show aired in France which re-enacted the parameters of the Milgram experiment in the name of televised entertainment. The producers later revealed that the show was in fact a fictitious re-enactment, with no one harmed, but most of the participants did not know that while the show was in production, nor did the studio audience. In the French game show, 80% of the subjects delivering shocks escalated them to 460 volts.
A 2012 experiment designed by the psychologist Paul Piff at the University of California-Berkeley had subjects play the board game “Monopoly,” with the rules changed to allow one subject to enjoy advantages throughout the game. The methodology and results of the experiment appear to indicate we do not so much learn the haughtiness of economic privilege as have the capacity already within us, waiting only for the switches of power and money to activate it. Economic inequality in the United States has burgeoned since the 1970s when the fictitious mad TV news anchor, Howard Beale, ranted about the inequities in American society, and the divergence between the haves and have nots has only increased since then.
The point where the 2010 French game show and the 2012 “Monopoly” experiment intersect is in describing what has become acceptable behavior for people seeking fame and fortune. Forty or fifty years ago, before YouTube and Instagram and Twitter and Facebook, fame and fortune were as like as not obtainable only after a long slog of work for most, and certainly it was rare to become an overnight sensation. Now we see that most people have sloughed off the diffidence and decorum they had when appearing in public in the age before instantaneous media saturation. Now it seems many people feel little restraint in satisfying their thirst for fame and fortune, no matter how ignominiously won, and will cast off all restraint when egged on by peers or authority figures. Now conscientiousness and civility have become quaint afterthoughts.