One of the most famous scenes in the movie The Big Lebowski is when Walter accuses Smokey of having his toe over the line when he rolled. Walter’s adamant that the frame be marked with a zero.
Smokey, not surprisingly, disagrees. “Bullshit, Walter!” is his exact response.
Then, Walter says one of the most quotable lines in cinema history. “This is not Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.”
The Dude tries to find a compromise. ‘… it’s Smokey. So his toe slipped over a little, it’s just a game.”
Walter’s not having it, though, because he lives by a code that requires everything to be fair, even to the point that he lets his ex-wife use him as a free dog sitter because, in Walter’s mind, that’s fair. He says, “This is a league game. This determines who enters the next round robin, am I wrong?”
Walter is so committed to this sense of justice and fairness that when Smokey continues to insist that he wasn’t over the line, Walter pulls a pistol out of his bowling bag and says, “Smokey my friend, you’re entering a world of pain.”
Smokey turns to The Dude to reign in his bowling partner but Walter doesn’t give The Dude a chance to respond. Instead, he primes the gun, points it at Smokey’s head, and screams, “HAS THE WHOLE WORLD GONE CRAZY? AM I THE ONLY ONE HERE WHO GIVES A SHIT ABOUT THE RULES? MARK IT ZERO!”
The thing is as ridiculous as Walter’s actions seem, and no sane person would condone his brandishing a gun for something as inconsequential as a foot foul, there are a lot of people who share the same level of anger over injustices they perceive to have been committed against them. Some of those perceptions are grossly false and the anger being displayed is ridiculous to the point of being disturbing. Others, though, are very real and in some cases, deadly.
The people of Myanmar saw their democratically-elected government overthrown by their military. As they’ve protested this past week, people have died. Ethiopia has kidnapped and subsequently released reporters who told of possible genocide in Tigray. And in Nigeria, kidnappers who target students at boarding schools are being rewarded with cash and cars when they give the students back.
All over the world, we can find injustice of the most extreme variety, but a lot of things that are not fair, are not right, are actually legal and the people being cheated often feel they have little recourse in solving the problem.
We’re not going to be able to address all the injustice in the world in one day, but let’s take a few minutes to shine a light on some of those legal-but-exploitive actions that target the most vulnerable people among us: the poor.
This Isn’t A New Problem
One of the stories carried in all four of the Xian gospels is that of Jesus angrily, and to some degree violently chasing the money changers out of the temple. The story is unique for many reasons, one of the big ones being that this is one of the few times where Jesus lets loose with his anger and takes an action that appears anti-social. There is some disagreement as to whether this happened once or twice, based on different terms used in the gospels, but those ancient charges seem based more on a misunderstanding of that society and the language around it. One thing for certain is that there were severe consequences for Jesus’ actions. Within a week of this event, he was dead.
To understand why Jesus was so upset we have to look at what was actually going on at the temple that day. The tradition was so set in stone that we can actually pinpoint the date as the 25th day of the month of Adar. This is when Jews were required by temple law to pay a half-shekel. Excavations of the temple site confirm the presence of what were in modern terms bankers positioned both around the periphery of the temple and on its porch. The Talmud goes into considerable detail as to the type of business they conducted.
The presence of the bankers, or money changers as they’re more frequently called, is necessary because of the lack of a unifying currency. In the Roman Near East, there was a proliferation of currency systems. At the very least, each region had their own currency, and in many cases, individual towns would have a separate currency as well. This meant that as people traveled from town to town, they would have to exchange whatever currency they were carrying for that of the local economy. This made the business of shulhani, or exchange banker, very profitable.
The exchange bankers set up outside the temple as Jews from all over the Roman empire traveled to the temple to make their annual payments. It is difficult for us to describe in modern terms how big an event this was. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded Jerusalem bringing with them large amounts of money. Not only would they pay their temple tax, but they would also make other purchases of food and products to take home with them. They would have to change whatever currency they had for Jerusalem currency in order to do that.
Exchange bankers set up outside the temple performed three functions. 1. Foreign exchange. 2. Making change from large denominations to small ones. 3. Banking, holding one’s money until it was needed, which involved a complex system of lending and interest that was ultimately in violation of Jewish law. To say corruption was rampant would be an understatement. The greater majority of travelers had little understanding of currency values so, in addition to the service fee, bankers would cheat people on the exchange rate, cheat them again when making change, and then cheat the poor especially with high interest on loans they needed to avoid losing their land. Each of those transactions not only benefited the bankers but the temple priests and other religious leaders who happily took a cut.
There are a number of questions surrounding the event, especially the more violent version told in John’s gospel. Apocryphal accounts say that Jesus and his disciples were all over the temple, including entering the forbidden holy of holies where the high priest made the sacrifice. That the temple guards or any other policing force seemed to make no effort to stop Jesus is also rather curious.
What matters for our conversation, is that Jesus called them out for their crimes. He called them a den of thieves, insulted them by calling them snakes, and possibly went as far as to use a quickly-made whip on those closest to him. In modern terms, we would refer to Jesus’ actions as inappropriate and probably illegal, but ultimately, Jesus and Walter were making the same point: there are rules and there are consequences for breaking those rules. [sources]
Has The Whole World Gone Crazy?
From the earliest days of human evolution, there have been cheaters, those looking to benefit by bending the rules or performing actions at the expense of others. There is even some evidence that “betrayals of trust were the missing link in understanding the rapid spread of our own species around the world. Moral disputes motivated by broken trust and a sense of betrayal became more frequent and motivated early humans to put distance between them and their rivals.” [source] There is an unquestionable dark side to the human species that allows us to not only take advantage of each other but kill each other when it serves whatever misguided purpose we might have.
A majority of the time, the victims of such crimes and indiscretions are the poor, the people who are often less-educated, less-informed, and less-practiced in deductive reasoning. Over the years, we have created a poverty industry that strips billions of dollars from the poor, sometimes by fooling them into worthless investments and other times by stripping money directly from programs meant to help them. Employers shave money off the paychecks of those who don’t understand payroll deductions. Payday lenders charge those who don’t qualify for standard loans insane amounts of interest that keep them in perpetual poverty. Local governments take advantage of the poor by imposing fines and fees on indigent defendants for crimes as dastardly as driving with a broken taillight or not having a place to live. [source] Perhaps nothing is a stronger example of the war against the poor than the American bail system. Many have long decried it as likely being unconstitutional and there’s no question that it discriminates not only against the poor but disproportionately against people of color.
One of the things that the COVID-19 pandemic showed us is the degree to which many of us are enslaved by the meager wages we earn. As millions waited anxiously for the millionaires in Congress to pass a third relief bill this week that offers a meager $1,400, not to help improve our lives but simply to help us stay financially solvent, we find ourselves re-examining the shortcomings of Capitalism and the side effects of wage slavery. Wage slavery is when people are wholly and immediately dependent on the wages or salary they earn. [source] The first use of that exact term goes back to 1882, but the concept goes back at least as far as Cicero and possibly further.
In 1763, journalist Simon Linguet wrote:
“It is the impossibility of living by any other means that compels our farm laborers to till the soil whose fruits they will not eat and our masons to construct buildings in which they will not live … It is want that compels them to go down on their knees to the rich man in order to get from him permission to enrich him … what effective gain [has] the suppression of slavery brought [him ?] He is free, you say. Ah! That is his misfortune … These men … [have] the most terrible, the most imperious of masters, that is, need. … They must therefore find someone to hire them, or die of hunger. Is that to be free?”
Yet, this system of underpaying people for their work is so ingrained in our economy and mindset that the notion of raising our base minimum wage to a meager $15 an hour is something that half the country, including those who would most benefit, oppose. Meanwhile, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is making $2,537 per second.
Do we have a right to be angry? Should we be rising up in protest? Americans who are suffering the most through the pandemic are paying four times more in bank fees. People who are strapped for cash only buy necessities rather than in bulk, which costs them more. People with transportation issues can’t get to the stores where prices are cheaper. Poor people often have lower credit scores which means they pay more interest on necessary things such as car and home loans. [source] That much of this war on poor people is legal does not excuse its immorality. The rules of humanity take precedence over the laws of government. So yeah, it’s okay if we go a bit Walter over issues like this.
Pacifism Is Not Something To Hide Behind
Dudeists are known for taking things easy, not getting involved, and not get upset over many things. There are exceptions, though, and gross injustice has to be one of those. For The Dude, the tipping point came when nihilists peed on his rug. Most days, rug urination isn’t an issue most of us find worrisome. There are other issues that are arguably worse, though, and these aggressions cannot stand.
Take COVID-19 vaccinations for example. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimates that 70-85% of the US population needs to be vaccinated in order to reach some reasonable form of herd immunity against the disease. President Biden said this past week that by May the US will have enough vaccine to innoculate every adult. That all sounds like good news, doesn’t it? We’re on our way to beating this thing.
But hold up. Not everyone is getting in on the action. While the vaccine itself is free to everyone, regardless of whether they have insurance, you can still get a bill, and some of those bills can be high. The law that covers the costs of the vaccine does not cover the administrative costs incurred by whoever is administering the vaccine. So, they’re allowed to bill patients for the additional costs, something most patients are not expecting, and for those without insurance, it can send them into immediate debt.
Then, there’s the fact that people of color are receiving the vaccine at a considerably lower rate despite being disproportionately affected by the disease. Even at locations in neighborhoods dominated by people of color, white people are rushing in and taking up valuable vaccination appointments. This is disturbing, but the tendency is to dismiss it as a distrust of government vaccinations because of past abuse of people of color in similar programs. That makes reluctance a little more understandable.
But that distrust may not be the whole picture. There is increasing evidence that, once again, privilege and wealth are creating an inequity that is slowing down our national recovery. In Palm Beach, Florida, Keith Myers, the CEO of MorseLife Health Systems called an undisclosed number of board members and offered them vaccines that were supposed to go to residents and staff.
In New Jersey, Hunterdon Medical Center executives, donors, and their families were given shots in December and January when frontline workers and nursing-home residents were the only eligible groups, CBS 3 Philly reported.
Florida Governor Ron Desantis is facing calls for a federal investigation after it was revealed he set up two invitation-only vaccination sites in upscale neighborhoods, allowing some 6,000 people to jump ahead of thousands of seniors in the two counties where the clinics occurred.
The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis is launching its own investigation into concierge health care provider One Medical following an NPR investigation that found the company administered COVID-19 vaccinations to those with connections to leadership, as well as ineligible patients.
When things like this happen, possibly on an even larger scale than has been reported, people who lack the means to make large political contributions get left out. People who are already marginalized, already ignored, are pushed down the line, marginalized, and ignored even more.
Why should we care? Because not only do these actions put disenfranchised populations at greater risks, it heightens the risks for all of us as these are the same people who are likely stocking your groceries, cleaning the places you visit, and standing next to you in the checkout line. This is a situation where if we fail to address the needs of everyone, the pandemic could continue indefinitely.
Drawing A Line In The Sand
Having identified a problem obligates us to propose a solution for the problem. Unfortunately, the problems surrounding exploitation, abuse, and neglect of the poor are deeply ingrained in society to the point that many people, especially those who have never experienced such poverty or need, have difficulty seeing any problem at all. One glaring example of this is the number of members of Congress who oppose raising the minimum wage because people like Senator John Thune of South Dakota still think the $6 an hour they earned as a teenager is still enough to live on. The Senator seems blissfully unaware that, adjusted for inflation, that $6 would require a wage of $22.62 an hour today.
John A. Powell, the director of UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute, outlines six policy changes that could help reduce economic inequality. In addition to raising the minimum wage, he suggests:
- Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit
- Helping Working Families Build Assets
- Invest in education for every student, not just those with vouchers for private schools
- Remove special privileges for the wealthy from the tax code
- Ending residential segregation
The points and evidence he presents are accurate and on point. However, they’re not going to implement themselves and as long as members of Congress are part of the system that benefits from income inequality then they’re not going to do anything to create change.
That leaves the solution up to us. For anything to change, we have to take these issues as seriously as Walter did Smokey’s foul. We have to vote for candidates who support these issues, ferociously challenge, with the aggression of a thousand Walters, those who deny the obvious solutions, promote an anti-poverty agenda on social media, and be aware of where we’re spending our own money so that we’re not inadvertently participating in a morally ambiguous activity.
As Walter says, “I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude.” We can’t ignore the problem of income inequality any more than we would ignore the pee stains on your favorite rug. We have to get involved, challenge the nihilists and fascists, and make the world a place where we can chill a bit more frequently.
I’d like to leave you with these words.
For all those trapped in poverty;
May there be freedom and fullness of life.
For all those with insufficient income;
Let there be employment and creative new ways of earning a living.
For nations weighed down by unmanageable debt;
Let there be a release and an end to crippling burdens.
For those unable to make a living because of cheap subsidized imports from rich nations;
May we see justice and restore their market to them so they can trade.
For countries and communities desperate for help;
Bring aid and donations with no hidden strings attached.
For governments denied their rightful income;
Let there be a more moral and equitable tax system.
And for all of us here, so aware of the problems;
Bring a hunger for change that fuels us to champion lasting solutions.