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Derek Jennings

Season of Giving--and Taking



No. Despite all the little reminders that they bring home from school, my kids will not be donating $1 to President Bush's fund for the children of Afghanistan. You wanna help those kids? Stop bombing them. The $1.5 million or so that the fund has raised thus far from sympathetic tykes across the land doesn't even cover the price tag of two of the cruise missiles we've dropped on that miserable country.As always, the onset of the holidays finds me contemplating the chasm separating the season's postcard-perfect ideal from the grim reality of our devising. At no time of the year is the gulf between is and should be more evident. It's an unfortunate given that even near Christmastime, we often fall short of heeding Christ's admonitions to love our neighbors as ourselves. You don't have to look too hard to find folk with crosses and signs of the fish on their bumpers cutting each other off in traffic and cussing each other out for taking parking spaces at Crabtree Valley Mall. As a nation, we even fall short of the commercialized lowest-common-denominator ethos embodied in holiday euphemisms like "the season of giving."

This collective short-falling seems even more pronounced this year in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. People have responded to the tragedy with overwhelming compassion, flooding the various survivor funds with hundreds of millions of dollars in donations. But that heartfelt outpouring has been somewhat tainted by scam artists, delayed distribution of benefits, and a two-tiered sympathy system that appears poised to make millionaires of survivors of police and firefighters, while leaving the families of "regular" dead folk clutching at crumbs from the philanthropic table.

Our government's res-ponse--as illustrated by the pending economic stimulus package that gives big breaks to big business--is callous to a Dickensian degree. Rather than simply hoarding the money like Scrooge, our government seeks to lavish it upon the entire Scrooge class--and Bob Cratchetts be damned, unless they lost their jobs on Sept. 11th. (Tiny Tims are wholly inconsequential, having no paid lobbyists and being too young to vote.)

With the Bush administration's number crunchers and spin doctors now officially conceding that we've been in a recession since at least March, you have to wonder why the country wasn't more prepared to provide for the waves of newly unemployed--not to mention those already living on the margins. Coming on the heels of an unprecedented economic boom, you'd think that we'd have been smart enough to stash away some social benefits for just such a situation. But as usual, it's private citizens, not government, that have to fill in the gaps.

It's truly wonderful to see the various nonprofits, religious groups and volunteers in action, carrying the burdens of their fellow citizens. I'd love to shine the light on them here and focus on the way they embody the holiday spirit. Doing so would provide me with a needed respite from post-Sept. 11 analytical overload. Oh, it's very tempting. But talking about hunger, homelessness and unemployment without discussing our government's current penchant for military spending would be like commenting on the color of the carpet and failing to mention the elephant sitting hunched over in the middle of the living room.

Consider that, according to the Center for Defense Information, the United States currently spends more on its military than the world's 15 next largest militaries combined. We outspend Russia, second only to us in worldwide military spending, by an astonishing 6-to-1 ratio. If the seven so-called "rogue states" eyed by the United States as potential enemies were to join forces to threaten our precious freedom, our military spending would dwarf their combined budgets by 23-to-1. While our president uses "good/evil" dichotomies to obfuscate the excesses of his wide-ranging war on terrorism, I daresay the real evil is that we're spending more than $350 billion annually on "defense."And who are we defending against? The only credible conventional threats to U.S. security and world supremacy, Russia and China, are checked by the nuclear deterrent. We've proven in Iraq and Afghanistan that the United States is prepared to obliterate any state or group that dares to oppose our interests. And the terrorists behind the Sept. 11 attacks proved to us that no matter how big our budget, no matter how many hi-tech planes and laser-guided weapons in our awesome arsenal, we can never spend ourselves to complete security against a highly motivated, suicidal adversary.

The overkill in our defense budget would be somewhat more palatable if it ensured a living wage for the men and women serving in the armed forces: It does not. There have been numerous news stories revealing that there are families of enlisted men and women whose incomes are so low they qualify for welfare benefits. Many of the reservists called up to protect the homefront in the wake of the terrorist attacks have borne substantial cuts in pay from what they were making in private industry, putting their families' economic survival at the mercy of their employers' voluntary wage-supplement policies. No, the financial benefits that result from our staggering military infrastructure go almost exclusively to defense contractors and high-ranking officials who retire and then lobby for those same contractors.

Maybe my memories are the product of an alternate history, but does anyone remember the peace dividend? That big ol' fat wad of money that America was supposed to have following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the "defeat" of communism? The money that was going to address all of the social programs that were slashed and burned during the political clear-cutting of the Reagan/Bush 1980s?

Where did it all go? Oh, I remember now. The money was consumed immediately by the War on Drugs, the Savings and Loan bailout, the Gulf War, and now, evidently, the War on Terrorism.

Dwight Eisenhower once said, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone; it is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hope of its children."That quote, from one of the architects of this country's military industrial complex, dramatically underscores the way military spending diminishes our ability to meet people's basic needs. I found it on the Web site of the Prince of Peace Plowshares organization--a group that's a prime illustration of how the tenets of Christianity can be applied to confront power and advance the cause of justice. Their name is derived from an Old Testament scripture that speaks of beating swords into plowshares, a simultaneously poetic and practical injunction. Plowshares members have committed provocative, symbolic acts of civil disobedience and politically motivated "vandalism" (smashing the nosecone of a fighter jet with a hammer) to draw attention to the need for nuclear disarmament and demilitarization. Such actions have been met with harsh treatment by the government and some members, such as Phillip Berrigan, have spent long stretches of time in jail.

Now, I'm not suggesting that you go out and provoke the armed forces. I know I ain't looking to sing "Silent Night" behind bars. And in any event, considering the current political climate, a stunt like that would probably get you shot. Still, the Plowshares activists illuminate the principle that protesting against military spending is a valid contribution toward solving social problems.

How do we know our priorities are out of whack? According to Second Harvest, a nationwide organization of food banks, 23.3 million Americans--a record number--sought or received food aid this year. Sadly, 40 percent of them lived in a household with at least one working adult, so it's clear that not all jobs result in financial security. Nearly half of the people receiving food aid had to make routine choices between buying food or paying the rent or other bills.

I truly believe that one person can make a difference, and wholeheartedly support traditional charities and volunteerism. But since a third of my money gets regularly whisked off to Never Never Land in the form of taxes, I'm coming to the realization that the heroism and sacrifices of individuals are for naught if their efforts are counteracted by what our government does with our money. Continuing to meet the immediate needs of people is important, but it's only a stopgap measure. If we are to truly eliminate hunger and poverty from the world's richest and most wasteful nation, we'll have to support the people and organizations working to change America's political priorities.

In this season of giving, perhaps I'll donate those Bush-requested dollars on behalf of my kids to Plowshares. EndBlock

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