(Update, 2/9/13 11:27 AM EST: After pounding this one out I went home and thought that, although I meant to be respectful of the writer and the interviewees below, some people might think I hadn't been. I picked up on the first link to one of those "most of the planet is less wealthy than we are" stories and used it as a springboard for some thoughts on Agenda 21. That's not where Kelvin Chan was going in his story; he interviewed more than one person renting a "substandard" home, mentioned some of the reasons why they wanted to stay in Hong Kong, and discussed a local government plan to construct more low-income housing. I think reportage like this story has been exploited for all it was worth, for a long time--and my purpose is not to do any of the exploiting.)
Kelvin Chan reports on Hong Kong residents who "find themselves forced" to live in wire compartments that, to him, resemble rabbit hutches. I wouldn't keep rabbits in stacked-up structures like the one photographed, myself, and even Humane Society cages have solid barriers between the cages. What the man photographed is able to rent looks, to me, more like a giant gym locker:
This is the sort of situation that breeds the sort of envious hate of which we're now recognizing "Agenda 21" as an expression. People whose "homes" are giant gym lockers in and out of which they have to crawl in a hunched-up position are overcrowded, and, as Mr. Leung observes to Kelvin Chan, this kind of crowding would make any living creature crazy. And yes, I do think that, while we're opposing Agenda 21, we need to take a little time to consider where these bad ideas are coming from. This web site has foreign readers too. I'm not sure why, but I do owe them some consideration in between the all-American pieces here.
Possibly we bloggers and writers have inadvertently fed into the craziness. I've been admitting for a long time that being, on paper, poor by U.S. standards, with good health and rich relatives, is pretty pleasant; it's only when your income drops below the level of your necessary expenses that poverty pinches, and for most of the 20% of Americans who have the lowest incomes, "poverty" doesn't have to pinch at all. American welfare cheats are actually dying of diseases that, in previous centuries, were peculiar to the world's aristocracy--they literally eat like kings. Oh, this is a rich country, no question. Has been, for as long as I've been alive. And we very reasonably want the rest of the world to be able to understand how we got to be so wealthy, so other countries can be rich too. Americans as a group tend not to worry too much about everyone getting a slice of the pie, because we've all known, all our lives, that you can always bake another pie. Or two. Or six.
How do we expect people like Mr. Leung to react to our wealth? Well, according to Kelvin Chan, Mr. Leung is not spewing hate. Mr. Leung is, during this interview at least, still thinking and acting like a gentleman; his reason for staying in the gym locker is noble. Unfortunately Agenda 21 documents that other people "forced" into penurious conditions aren't so nice about it. Some of these people stop thinking, "Why aren't we as well off as Americans, and how could we become as well off as Americans?" Some of them think, "Those disgusting Americans! How can we take away what they have? How can we make them as miserable as we are?"
And they forget to ask whether making Americans less wealthy will make Chinese or Iraqis or anybody else wealthier. History shows that, in most cases, it doesn't. Even in the old days of hand-to-hand combat, the successful warriors might get a victory feast, now and then, but mostly they lived from hand to mouth like everyone else, and the women and children didn't even get the feast, and the disabled and elderly members of the tribe were mostly dead.
There's a healthy form of envy that says "I want something like what my neighbor has," and a sick form of envy that says "I hate my neighbor for having more, I don't even care what it is that he has, exactly, or whether I can take it away from him, I just hate that he has it and I don't have it." Americans understand this form of envy very well. Many of us have felt it--usually not of another American's possessions, but of another American's talents, looks, social status, state of health...
I've been running into it here and there in my home town. By now a lot of people know who I am, and many claim to appreciate what I do, although even people who've contributed money to this web site often say "But I don't have time to read it" or "When are you going to get it printed on paper?" Then of course the word trickles out among our Trash Class. (Being Americans we at least try to resist the idea that people are born trashy, although we have to admit that some people who are brought up trashy never seem to try to change their habits. Membership in the Trash Class is mostly a choice.) Anyway I hear the mosquito whines of envy, here and there. "Who does that woman think she is, being a writer. How 'smart' do people have to be to get paid for writing? She's not even rich. I hate her. I don't even want her coming into the store that employs me and spending money, I hate her so much." Well, if people don't come into the store and spend money, you will lose your job and your life will be even worse..."I don't care! I just live in my emotional moods, and that woman having the nerve to be a writer instead of a poor divorced single mother like me makes me feel so bad, I can't stop spewing hate at her!"
Trashy Americans know a great deal about toxic envy. The rest of us may not live with it, but we've probably felt it. What separates us from the Trash Class is that we've been willing and able to put any envy we've felt aside, and focus on improving our own lives more than on resenting the success of others.
It's a close call, but I think more Americans have learned to overcome toxic envy than have let our lives be defined by it.
In grade nine I had a lot of mean, stupid, childish fun hating anyone who did have the nerve to compete with me and my female friends for top grades while belonging to the clearly-intellectually-inferior sex. Probably I would have hated Terry Kilgore, too, in grade nine, if I'd seen him as a fellow teenager. In any case, by grade ten I was able to see the envy-and-hate thing from the other side too. How did I feel about a clueless ninth-grader who now envied and hated me, also for having had a few little successes at things the ninth-grader hadn't had time to try? I thought, "What a stupid, childish waste of time this whole resentment thing is. Why would anyone bother having an official school enemy any more."
I still think that, so now I find myself honestly pleased that my official ninth-grade enemy has done well in music (I wouldn't have, or not that well), and my third cousin once removed has done well in politics (ditto), and another relative who used to confide in me more than was age-appropriate and therefore now avoids me has done well as an educator (ditto), and so on down the list of whatever successes the people I know have had. I even honestly enjoy that younger relatives are still offered pretty-face jobs, which they certainly deserve. Yes, ordinary teen-trolls such as we were can succeed and prosper, isn't it wonderful? Here's to us, who's like us! The better other people do with whatever life has dealt them, the more they and I can enjoy whatever I may make of what life has dealt me. I'm reasonably well preserved; my young relatives are beautiful. I do good work; my rich relatives can afford to pay for it. Life is good. We can always bake another pie.
It's always dangerous to mistake relationships among nations for relationships among people. Iraqis are likely to hate us, not so much because we are free, as because we happened to blow up a few buildings in which their fathers were standing at the time. But when Barbara Kingsolver, also mentioned in this context yesterday, was travelling overseas and talking to people in friendly countries, and those people thought they hated the United States--so maybe Kingsolver was Canadian? "Why isn't the rest of your country as nice as you?" I think the dynamic she was observing was envy.
Why does nobody hate Canada? Because, although it can be hard to tell the northernmost countries on this continent apart, or guess to which of them an individual landscape or person belongs, Canada is not a "superpower." Canada is about as obscenely rich as we are but the rest of the world hasn't been forced to notice it so often. If they noticed Canada they'd resent Canada too. Possibly even more than they resent the U.S. All that vast open space, all those mineral resources...in some ways it's fortunate for Canada if most of the world, most of the time, imagines Canada as basically one big pile of snow.
It would be pleasant if the people who hate the United States would step back and think like adults. If we accepted all the bad stuff in Agenda 21, if we just lay down and handed over all our wealth to the greedy people clamoring for it and started "forcing" our sixty-somethings to live in gym lockers, who'd be better off? If your gorgeous nineteen-year-old cousin shaved her head, would that cause your hair to grow in thick and glossy like hers? If your strong, tough neighbor suddenly became paraplegic, would that give you bigger muscles? Duh. If the envious nations of the world succeed in destroying the U.S. economy, most of the people in those nations will be worse off, because nobody will get U.S. foreign aid and nobody will be able to sell their products to the rich U.S. market.
We as a nation need to stand firm on this. We are a nation of individuals who care about people like Mr. Leung, as Kelvin Chan has described him. Actually some individual out there might even look at the photo on that AP/Yahoo page and think, "I wouldn't mind sharing my own personal home with a nice old gentleman like that," because even in America a white-haired senior citizen who's still able to crawl in and out of a giant gym locker is an impressive sight, but that's beside the point here. As individuals most of us could become more faithful pen friends after travelling and meeting people in other countries, but as a nation what we can collectively do for the lot of poor people overseas is continue to prosper so that we can do whatever can be done to help them. We can continue to provide the example of a nation that, primarily by leaving people alone and recognizing that someone else's wealth is not the cause of my lack of wealth, has become wealthy and powerful. They too can become wealthy and powerful, and the first step they can collectively take in that direction is to practice thinking: We can always bake another pie.
Which leads back to the point I'm trying to make with the title of this article. How exactly was Mr. Leung forced to live in a giant gym locker? That's all he and his buddies can afford to rent in Hong Kong. How are they being forced to stay in Hong Kong? Assuming that they're neither willing nor able to be adopted by American families, is the government of China really so despotic that it won't allow them to move to a more comfortable part of China? People nearly always have some options; when we read about orphans whose options consist of slavery or starvation, we may have to bog down in pity, but when we read about mature, experienced adults who "have to" live in miserably crowded conditions, we do need to ask what other options they have and why they're not choosing them.