Painters and poets and inventors, dreamers all – starving and blind. Paul Gauguin on a tropical island painting the interior walls of his desperate cabin before burning it to the ground in his madness (if we are to believe W. Somerset Maugham’s fictionalized tale). Earnest Hemingway tired and gaunt chasing the pigeons through Luxembourg Gardens. Harsh despair; how else would mankind achieve something so beautiful as “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”; to stare at for hours, to return again and again to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston as we ourselves seek to answer those questions. “Old Man in the Sea”; tranquil in the glory of the written word that calms as it adds nuance and meaning, of a story well told which gives our lives satisfaction. Henry Ford in his tireless attempts to make his assembly lines work – and changing the world.
Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi sailing from Galata Tower to the wrath of the Sultan; followed centuries later by the Wright brothers. Engines and flight – what could be more magnificent?
Now I ask, what if Gauguin had not felt the need to compete, not sought for the brilliance of the unique but instead the safety of the just-the-same, of the equal? Or worse what if he had been told his work was not correct, that it did not conform to the established norms? What if Ford had given up after his first abortive effort in his frustration not with the problem of mass production but instead with piles of tape unmovable even by a genius? If Hemingway had stopped putting pen to paper in exasperation at the censors, like has happened so often; to extinguish himself and his stories in that bottomless bottle and be forgotten because he never was? What if the cushion for their failure was too thick, what if there was no panicky sweating through sleepless nights? And that, juxtaposed against a success which no longer sparkled with grandeur – a boring glass ceiling stifling breath and growth?
Now consider that there is yet another side to this; what if their very failures had become the conquest in that most heinous bait-and-switch by a system which attempts balance, not achievement? Ford’s first crappy car still clattering down 21st century highways (if he could have out-maneuvered the horse-and-buggy unions, that is). Hemingway’s purposeful prose crowded out to make room for “Eye of Aragon” ignoring the wishes of the readers.
If deprivation and desperation are the mother of art; if necessity (…) of invention: equality is the mother of the second-rate.
“But what about those who are truly poor, who have no chance to even have a chance?” you might ask as you sip your five dollar latte. “How cold a person you must be,” you snarl at me from behind your expensive laptop in your air conditioned house, looking down at your designer watch – you don’t want to miss the Antifa march!!
Fair enough; but you who are reading this are not the desperate poor, and I would venture rarely even consider them in your conspiracies for to legalize plunder. If you did, you would first consider the bounty you would deprive of them should your plans come to fruition – more than $400,000,000,000; a private windfall of goodness which in your blind hate you wish to appropriate to yourselves. Yes, you pretend you are fighting for the Syrians living in Jordanian camps; the Congolese who suffer from rape used as a weapon; the Venezuelan doctors and lawyers who march across a bridge to sell themselves in Colombia’s brothels. But is that really true? Or are you just jealous and angry? The answer to this question will be found in this, the followon question; “What have you done for them, the truly poor?” Did you know that inequality is also the mother of compassion? And compassion is that which makes us most human; empathy where we give of the bounty with which we have been so extremely blessed, filling our lives with meaning and reminding us to be thankful to our God for so great a prosperity. Empathy – have you gotten on an airplane, that tremendous invention product of our unsafe economics, to help the poor? Because I have; for 20 years actually; five civil wars, floods and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Violence and death and terror. And I have rarely seen you there. I have, however, seen your ideas. In Venezuela, bonfires of human flesh beside a bread line; in Cuba, 60 years of untold stories; in Nicaragua, beatings by the secret police against those who dare to desire to live, well to live a life like yours. Because you who so decry inequality and rail against the wealthy – did you know you are the wealthy? When you say more ‘should be done’, I ask again “What have you done?”
So, with this in mind here is my un-invited guidance; for which I’m sure you will curse me. Get on an airplane, as I did, and go to Kigoma, or Dalori, or Zaatari – cut your teeth not marching the storied streets of Chicago but instead lending out a helping hand to those fleeing the ideas you cherish. Go into the dark corners of the world, as I have, to learn about its terrible equality. In the process you might even learn to love our messy, tremendous and glorious inequality. Disavow yourselves of the ruin you cradle – come back sad and perhaps broken by the suffering you have seen, as I was.
Heal and rebuild. Then, when you have earned the right to speak, you might slowly and gently begin to advocate for a better world from an empathy you will no longer be able to dodge; keeping always Venezuela’s starving poor in the forefront of your imaginations.
Because there but by the grace of God go we.