The Kindness of… Rich People

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Twice, I’ve stood outside Notre Dame Cathedral without going inside, daunted by the long line-ups and the admission fee. After all, I’m an atheist who has already visited his share of impressive churches. This one was a youngster compared to some I’ve been to in Italy and Spain. Still, I now wish I had gone inside so I could see the not-quite-original interior. The present-day church was largely refurbished in the mid-19th Century largely at the urging of Victor Hugo – art intimidating life, as it were. And, I expect, despite the outcry of some folks, the church will be refurbished again. And that’s a good thing–the preservation of human history and art everywhere is part of what makes us human. I hope I live long enough to see it (they think it will take 10-15 years).

People have been shocked and surprised to see how quickly a billion dollars was raised from donations for the project—a lot of it coming from 2 French billionaires. It was quickly pointed out that there were lots of problems in France already, poverty and illness and so on, that a billion dollars could be used to fix. In Canada, the favorite has been the lack of clean water on First Nations. It reminds me of the similar outcry against spending money on the space program. But where would social media be without globe-circling satellites?

I get it. We see all these social issues and think something should be done (well, something other than supporting progressive politicians and paying our fair share of taxes) and, well, those guys have a lot of money, so shouldn’t they do it?

No.

The last thing any one should want is to live on the largess of the rich. Noblesse oblige was the basis of feudalism not of modern democracies. If the rich are going to pay for things, it should not because they are feeling generous to the poor little serfs beneath them but because we live in a system that reduces rather than exacerbates income inequality.

Because the root of the problem is not that billionaires exist but rather that, in late stage capitalism, where monopolies and oligopolies are the rule not the exception, our economy is designed to concentrate wealth and manufacture poverty. Even if you took a billion or a hundred billion or a trillion away from the mega-rich and gave it to the poor (the latter figure would give them each a thousand dollars), it wouldn’t change that system. The cash, sooner or later, would wind up in the same place.

And right now, it seems there is no alternative. (And don’t point to China or Russia either—whatever they call their system it is still a variation of the capitalist means of production). If we really want to make things better for the masses of humanity, we need fundamental changes in how we operate.

There are hints of what a post capitalist society might look like – you can occasionally find them in the talks of futurists or, even, in science fiction. It won’t be anything like the past, that much I’m sure of. With the end of regular employment caused mostly by automation (another thing people decry but seem powerless to stop), we will need a radical reordering both of social priorities and reward systems as well as the redistribution of wealth through guaranteed basic incomes and carefully designed tax regimes that get at international money transfers and hidden wealth stored in crypto-currencies. We will also likely need more free trade and more open borders, rather than less, so that the wealth of the world—there is no shortage of that—can be monitored and shared more equally.

Meanwhile, the people who would benefit the most fall for the old con, that the rich are somehow better than us and should care for their weaker cousins. And we vote for populists who distract us with fear of the other while their masters laugh all the way to the bank. Or the cathedral.

And that’s ten minutes.

Paris, je t’aime

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I have no desire to write about Paris but I have a need. Yesterday, I had something else in mind for today’s 10 minutes but it has all been swept aside by the tragic attack on the City of Lights.

I’ve had the great pleasure of visiting Paris four times in the last few years. I’ve travelled all over the twenty arrondissements and even out to the surrounding banlieus where most working people and immigrants live. The old city is remarkable but even the suburbs have a joie de vivre and sense of history.

Paris is a city designed to be free and open but now it will be shuttered and filled with troops and police. But that won’t last. Paris will reassert her character.

There is no real explanation for these attacks. Nothing will be changed by them, not really. Has New York fundamentally changed in the wake of 9/11? Not that I can see. Has London been transformed by the subway attacks? Did Boston become not Boston after the bombings at the marathon?

There is resilience to freedom that is not easily broken by those who do not understand it, who reject it. ISIL or whatever it is they call themselves this week or next month will never change the West; they will only antagonize it.

After all, ISIL can do no worse to western countries then they have done to themselves. Does anyone think that what happened yesterday was worse than the London Blitz?

I suppose it is easy enough, here in Ottawa, to say Keep Calm and Carry On, but really what else can one say? It will certainly do no good to turn our nation into a police state, to point accusing fingers at innocents, to round up the usual suspects. Okay, we may have to round up some usual and unusual suspects – the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. But we must not let vigilance cost us our freedoms. Otherwise what is it for?

There are those – even in the West – who will argue that we should expect such attacks. They will say that it is the price we pay for interfering in the business of the Middle East, the price we pay for oil. They are, I suppose, half right. The West has to take some culpability for what is happening – we haven’t been blameless and we haven’t always picked our friends wisely. Innocents have died in our attacks.

But never as targets. That takes a special kind of madness.

And we have a duty – set out in international law – to protect the innocent, to intervene when atrocities are done in the name of whatever. Our failure to do that duty led to the genocide in Rwanda. Monstrous behavior cannot go unchecked forever.

I wish I knew the answers. But mostly I am too sad to even think. Paris has been wounded but not slain. The work of cowards will continue; six months or a year from now, there will be another attack. Helpless citizens will die because these so-called warriors lack the courage or the ability to attack targets that are prepared for them. And they will cheer themselves on with cries of victory over the west.

But we will carry on. Because brotherhood, freedom and equality will shine through the dark.

Paris, je t’aime.

And that’s ten minutes.