By Ted Braun
This past month provided a number of key insights into who we are as a nation.
On a cold evening on Nov. 14 in Times Square, Officer Lawrence DePrimo noticed an older, barefooted homeless man walking on the freezing cement on his heels. Feeling compassion for the man, he asked him his shoe size and then went into a Skechers shoe store to buy some all-weather boots for him. The manager, moved by the officer's plan, offered to give him an employee discount, bringing the price down from $100 to $75. When the homeless man caught sight of the boots, he responded with much joy and gratitude. As the homeless man sat on the pavement and the officer put on the boots, a woman walking by happened to notice, and took a picture which was put on a Facebook page. It was then viewed 1.6 million times, warming hearts all over the world. Such acts of kindness are indeed commendable, but homelessness is also a larger social problem that calls for the attention of society. The homeless man, an army vet by the name of Jeffrey Hillman, was later seen wandering the streets again barefoot, afraid to wear his new boots for fear of being killed by a thief who wanted to steal the boots.
On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, huge crowds surged into stores all over our country to take advantage of special sales and reduced prices. In a number of places customers were injured in the stampedes or from fistfights over items. Over the years we have been developing in our nation a powerful cult of consumption, believing that we can find greater satisfaction and wholeness through the things we buy and own. In fact, this is such a powerful dynamic that our Black Friday liturgies are now beginning already on Thanksgiving Day.
On November 28 the Powerball lottery jackpot reached $580 million, the second-largest payout in U.S. history. A huge number of people dreamed of winning and being able to pay off debts and mortgages, being able to retire early (or retire from being unemployed), paying for college, making donations to various charities, and taking a trip around the world or other kinds of vacations. Two ticket holders, one in Missouri and one in Arizona, had winning numbers. Previous winners, however, have not always found such new wealth a blessing. One of the chief purposes of such lotteries is to give people who have not benefited from their economic systems hope for a better future. This hope, however, would be better served by systems that provide better support and security for all of a nation's citizens. Then lotteries would no longer have their strong appeal.
We are presently engaged in a national debate about ways to avoid a "fiscal cliff" by the end of the year. The Republicans are arguing for keeping the giveaway Bush tax breaks for the super-rich, and even for lowering their tax rates. A large majority of voters, however, have indicated that we should keep the Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class, but not for the super-wealthy. At the center of this debate is lobbyist Grover Norquist who has gotten most Republicans to sign a pledge not to raise taxes. The practical effect of this is that the Republican legislators who have signed this pledge have become more beholden to the billionaires who are funding Norquist than to the constituents who have elected the legislators to represent them. One omen is that Tennessee Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker have stated that they will no longer view the pledge as restricting possible actions needed to resolve the fiscal crisis.
The film "Lincoln" is now showing in many movie theaters around the country, including Rocky Top in Crossville. This excellent film provides many important insights into the life and character of Abraham Lincoln. For many of us this national icon has too often remained frozen in the sculptures of the Lincoln Memorial and Mount Rushmore, lacking the flesh, blood, and grit of our nation's tense political battles. This film portrays the give-and-take sausage-making process of politics, and tells the story of how the Thirteenth Amendment came about. It includes a critical and tense moment when Republican House Majority Leader Thaddeus Stevens is pressured to indicate whether the proposed Thirteenth Amendment meant that "blacks were racial equals" or that they would only be recognized as "equals under the law." This was and still is a crucial question because many in our nation today have a serious problem with Obama being black.
What this all proves, I guess, is that American history is still an ongoing project.