But, back to Urban Meditations. I've posted about Kip Tiernan before. When I was in Boston, she and her partner Fran were spiritually engaged activist-intellectuals who's sense of outrage regarding homelessness never seemed to dim. I admired them a great deal, and am grateful for this recent work that puts their forty-odd years of poor people's activism in some sort of perspective.
Things are worse than ever, and she struggles with the meaning of this. That alone, to me, is very helpful, as so few people seem to struggle with the meaning of anything these days. If nothing else, there's validation in being so at odds with reality in such good company.
I've reproduced below another excerpt from the book to go with yesterday's poem. The following is from an address delivered at the Harvard Divinity School in 1999, where Tiernan describes how years of conservative ideology have eroded the idea of human needs amounting to any sort of recognized right to survival, and the moral consequences for us all.
Why Hasn't Anything Changed?
You must ask yourself, qui bono? — Who benefits? And who sets the terms of the debate in which these things are discussed? The rich do. People are being paid by the rich constituencies so that things don't change.
We live in a society of cultural apartheid, two separate worlds of rich and poor, and the distance between the two is becoming greater, because we are not demanding that things change, that priorities be reorganized, to provide justice for all, not just the few that take it and then demand more.
The holocaust essayist George Steiner tells us that tragedy becomes possible when cultures become less rational in behavior and belief. This is America today.
In these times I tend to favor the Old Testament prophets like Amos, "I hate, I despise your sacrifice and burnt offerings" (Amos 5:21). Our shelters and soup kitchens have become for us 20th century "burnt offerings," things we offer God from the midst of the injustices of our time, all so we and everything else won't have to change. I like Jeremiah too. He lived as we do in a time of turmoil, a time of dying. Jeremiah saw coming the death of a society, a culture, a tradition. He watched his world dying and Jeremiah felt its pain. And what pained him more was that his contemporaries failed to notice or care. They could not or would not acknowledge or admit it. Jeremiah could not determine whether they were too stupid to understand, or whether they were so dishonest that they actually understood but were complicit in an enormous cover-up.
We too are in a time of transition, our world also is dying. What we used to call democracy is dying. Our grief is poignant because we are all too busy, too sure, too invested, too committed ideologically to the political forms and economic models of the past which are increasingly ineffective.
The value systems, the shapes of knowledge through which we have controlled life, our own destiny, are all in great jeopardy. The haves against the have-nots is not just a Boston phenomenon, it is world-wide.
The threat is so massive, so comprehensive, and so acute in personal hurt that the result is frenzied activity. We shriek for a death penalty, we pass brutal legislation, we make sure more people are starving and homeless and without any resources. We blame victims and we look for vulnerable scapegoats and they are everywhere. As government's role recedes, Lester Thurow points out, capitalism and democracy clash. Democracy, he points out, is radical equality. Capitalism is radical inequality.
We must look at — and own — the intractable pain induced by a government that no longer cares and is careless, a government endorsed by an arrogant and unfeeling gang of political thugs, and simply endured by a growing number of American citizens.