26 November 2011

It’s Not Personal

Here in our corner of the country the news was captured by this story:

Fred Meijer, West Michigan billionaire grocery magnate, dies at 91 | MLive.com

As a fellow “Fred” I was disposed to like him, and his reputation for personal modesty and kindness seemed to me quite authentic.  We met socially several times, you see.  He attended a memorial I conducted for a member who was a devoted volunteer at the eponymous Meijer Gardens.  If not part of his circle, I was not far from it.

But as someone else wrote, Fred was part of the wealthiest 1/10th of 1% in the country.  Jeff Smith says, “According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, Meijer Inc. spent over $300,000 in each of the past 2 years with their state Political Action Committee. According to Opensecrets.org.”

Good guy?  Bad guy? 

Long ago I had a moral epiphany - It’s not personal.  No one person in society can be held responsible for creating or fixing the wrongs in that society.  The very rich are not naturally superior any more than the poor are naturally inferior.  We each make good choices and bad ones, are both generous and selfish.  Our big problems (racism, sexism, etc.) thus cannot be random results of people making good and bad choices.  If that were, then the fortunate and the unfortunate would be randomly spread around – irrespective of race or gender and so on. 

But they are not because societies are like rivers not oceans.  They flow through channels, and those channels, cut and reinforced over generations, privilege some parts of society over others. 

Focusing on the individual, whether to explain her poverty or to criticize his wealth, ignores this reality.  Privilege is always part of the equation, as much as pluck or luck.  The left is no more righteous in condemning a rich person than the right in criticizing a poor person.  Doing so, distracts us from the pervasive (if largely invisible) effects of privilege.

Let’s be honest and admit that if we were in Fred Meijer’s position, or any other rich person, we would probably make the same sort of decisions they would.  Rich or poor, we would try to keep what we have and get even more because that is what imperfect beings like us do. 

Valorizing Fred Meijer is wrong, but so is condemning him.  If privilege is wrong, one drop, even a rich drop in that river, is not enough to cut a new channel.  That will take the 99%. 


Bill Baar said...

I walk into the local Meijers and see employees with varying degrees of disablement. I doubt they'd get hired in many other places. Meijer's created value and jobs for thousands. He's a builder and creator. Hardly an exploiter. The Dutchman deserves a lot of credit.

WFW said...

Like I said, we should neither vilify or ennoble. Koch brothers support opera and classical music, which I love. They fund politics which I don't. Focusing on individuals when the issues are systemic exagerrates individual influence both to their benefit and detriment. Fred Meijer was a good man in many ways, which I appreciate and celebrate. He also played the economic/political game, which is a system I think needs serious improvement.

Bill Baar said...

You speak on politics and you fund that somehow.

I found this a very small piece on the death of a person who's done much good and as far as I can tell very little ill.

Anonymous said...

I like the title of your blog. If you are still figuring out what you want to be when you grow up, how about considering a career in interior design.

WFW said...

@anonmyous: I cannot tell if you are in earnest or teasing. Do say more...