Have you ever run into a case of arrogant self righteous poverty? Sounds counter intuitive doesn’t it? It’s not unusual to encounter persons of wealth or status, real or pretended, who come across as arrogant and self righteous. But recently I’ve stumbled into the presence of the arrogance and self righteousness of poverty. It seems to come not from the poor, but from persons whose work and ministry is among the poor of the land, and who take pride in condemning others, whom they believe to be wealthy, of every sin that, in their opinion, causes poverty. As for themselves, they take equal pride in showcasing their solidarity with the poor among whom they work, or on whose behalf they advocate.
Who are the wealthy? It’s a little hard to tell. In the few conversations I’ve had, billionaires and multi-millionaires are excluded, but upper middle class and moderately wealthy are included. Why would that be? Perhaps it’s because the very wealthy are remote from the everyday world of those who exhibit the arrogance of poverty. On the other hand, upper middle class and moderately wealthy folks live nearby, shop in the same stores, are easily met on the street, and are likely to be involved in community leadership. It is their lifestyle, consumer habits, and implied cultural beliefs that can be observed and criticized.
Some of those I’ve encountered are well educated, energetic, and devoted to their vocation, which they chose. Good for them. We need them. Some of them anyway. A few, In their devotion to their work, speak of others who chose other, more well compensated career paths, as if they had taken morally inferior paths, and therefore owe recompense to those who who have not shared in their bounty. They are quick to attribute motivations of selfishness to signs of success, and guilt to charitable largesse. They make a point of denying the ability of the wealthy to truly understand the conditions of those who live in poverty. They pillory limousine liberals and conservatives of every stripe with equal fervor. It makes them easy targets for tea partiers and right wingers.
Remember the parents in the movie Two Weeks Notice, Ruth and Larry Kelson? They were comic versions of the type, but comic versions don’t make it onto the stage unless they are obvious caricatures of real life characters. What troubles me is the abundance of unverified assumptions they make about others. It’s the old ‘if you aren’t part of (my) solution, you’re part of the problem’ nonsense. Again, speaking only of those with whom I’ve had personal conversations, they are quick to make judgments about whole categories of people without knowing anything about the stories of their lives. They are quick to lump all those whom they consider wealthy into one large bundle of bias. In terms of mechanics, there is little difference between their methods of reasoning and those we label as racists or bigots. It does not go unnoticed by right wing provocateurs who sarcastically rant about how these lefties have no moral ground on which to stand because they do the same things they accuse others of doing. Like I said, they’re easy targets.
They chastise the very people most likely to be sympathetic and helpful. They seem obsessed with the idea that those whom they have labeled as wealthy cannot be redeemed unless they confess their complicity in creating and maintaining conditions that lead to poverty. Redeemed by who? Apparently the judges are the very ones who wallow in the arrogance of poverty.
Not so curiously, few of those at whom they aim their barbs care much one way or the other. Implied questions of judgment and redemption are little more than irritants, if they are noticed at all. In a sense, it’s too bad because there are real issues to be addressed. As there are systemic reasons for deeply entrenched racism, there are systemic reasons for deeply entrenched poverty. Assaulting unnamed others as morally corrupt, demanding confession in obeisance before the altar of arrogant poverty, is not a useful way to attack systemic problems. It plays into the hands of the right wing, contributes to the polarization of the political landscape, and inhibits needed conversation.