Episode 32.1: The Politics of Luck — and a Long Sad Goodbye

Speaking to the duty we all share to help those less fortunate, God has this to say, according to Matthew 25:31-46, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do (providing care and support) to one of the least of these (the poor and powerless), you did not do for me.” We spend a lot of time in this country asking God to bless America. Maybe we should spend a little of that time asking for forgiveness.

But first a few preliminary thoughts . . .

The Last Chance Democracy Café
Episode 32.1: The Politics of Luck — and a Long Sad Goodbye

by Steven C. Day

It was a traditional Roman Catholic funeral mass — meaning, among other things, it was mind numbingly long. There was the praying, the music, the scriptural readings and the Communion. There were also words about the dearly departed, of course, though, actually, not that many of them. I’ve noticed that Catholic funerals are often less personal than Protestant funerals. More pageantry, less eulogy. Although, as a liberal Protestant, I’ll admit that I’ve always sort of liked Catholic pageantry, the smoke, the priest circling the casket, the kids following along with the candles and water, their sneakers peaking out from under their robes.

But, my God, they do drone on, which leaves a lot of time for your mind to wander. And sometimes grief — or sadness, at least — takes you to unexpected places. As on this day, as I sat quietly in the darkened sanctuary, I found myself contemplating the lives of two extraordinary women, and the profound ways in which luck — dumb, arbitrary luck — had played a role in each of their lives.

* * *

1991 was a good year for Maggie (we first met her in episode 3) — sweet 16 and on a roll. She was a cheerleader, a near straight-A student and a hot property on the in crowd’s B-list. As a girl from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, she was effectively ineligible for A-list status, but still, not too shabby for the daughter of a school custodian.

Maggie was especially proud of her thick blond hair, which she always kept Barbie doll perfect, brushing and teasing it for hours every day. Her face was more Katie Couric cute, than Hedy Lamarr knockout, but her intriguing blue eyes, slightly full cheeks, smallish nose and pleasant if thin figure kept the phone ringing nearly nonstop, to the constant irritation of her father.

“In my day,” he’d bellow, “young men knew how to show a young lady proper respect, not hounding her every single night!”

Truth be told, most of the time Maggie liked being hounded. But boys were far from the only thing on her mind.

Still a junior in high school, she already had her future mapped out.

Once, when she was still a little girl, while traveling in the family’s old station wagon on a trip to visit her aunt, they had stopped briefly at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pennsylvania — a house built literally on top of a waterfall. It blew her away: Such a perfect marriage of man and nature. “That’s what I want to do,” she told her parents. “That’s what I want to become.”

And all these years later, her determination hadn’t faltered. She was still unbending in her drive to become an architect, all financial challenges notwithstanding. She was going to build things — big things, bright things, bold things. Things far removed from the drabness of the tract housing of her working class neighborhood. And so what if that was still an uncommon profession for women? It was the 1990s — everything was possible.

* * *

1991 found Molly a much less focused young woman than Maggie. You might even say less driven. Molly didn’t have the first clue of what she wanted to do when she got out of school, and she was in no hurry to figure it out. That she would go to college went without saying — and it would be a top flight school, Ivy League, or thereabouts. She had the grades and her folks had the bread and the connections to make sure it happened.

A bit of a tomboy, Molly didn’t spend much time on her hair or makeup, which was a great source of worry to her mother. But Mom’s anguish notwithstanding, Molly never seemed to suffer as a result of this causal attitude toward personal grooming. Dark haired, dark eyed, with strong features in the Katherine Hepburn tradition, she, like Maggie, was rarely lacking for a date on Saturday night, even if she did use a little less lipstick than her mother thought best.

Both of her parents were busy and on the road a good deal — her father was a leading neurosurgeon, her mother a community cultural leader. But they were in no sense inattentive, and Molly got to travel with them a lot when her father would go somewhere to give a speech. Now in her junior year, she’d already been to Europe twice, Asia and Australia once each. This coming summer she was planning to go to China with a group from her private school.

Sooner or later she’d get around to figuring out what to do with her life. For now, she was simply enjoying it.

* * *

The very idea of “luck,” and especially of bad luck, tends to be viewed with suspicion, if not outright contempt, within our culture:

“I never knew an early-rising, hard-working, prudent man, careful of his earnings, and strictly honest who complained of bad luck.” — Henry Ward Beecher

“Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more luck I have.” — Thomas Jefferson

“The harder I work, the luckier I get.” — Sam Goldwyn

“When I work fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, I get lucky.” — Dr. Armand Hammer

“Luck is the dividend of sweat.” — Ray Kroc

“It will generally be found that men who are constantly lamenting their ill luck are only reaping the consequences of their own neglect, mismanagement, and improvidence, or want of application.” — Samuel Smiles

So there you have it. There’s no such thing as luck; and bad luck, in particular, is nothing more than an excuse stupid and lazy people employ to explain away their own failings.

There’s really only one problem with this line of reasoning.

It isn’t true, or at least it isn’t much of the time.

* * *

Some storms hit hard, turn things upside down for a time, and then blow away, leaving our lives more or less the way they were before. Others change things forever.

For Maggie, 1992 brought a perfect storm, and by the time it was over, nothing would ever be the same.

And as fate would have it, Maggie’s metaphorical storm began with a real one. It was late February, and one of the worst snowstorms of the decade hit, dumping over 18 inches of what weathermen gleefully call the white stuff. Everything in the city was shut down, forcing Maggie to cancel her date with Brad, the boy she’d been dating for the last five months.

Short on options, she found herself spending some involuntary quality time at home with her parents, watching The Simpsons, her father’s favorite show. He was sitting happily, laughing at the program, laughing a bit too much for Maggie’s tastes — she hated the series — when he reached over to pick up a bowl of pretzels resting on the coffee table; he paused for a second, almost as though trying to collect his thoughts, grabbed his left arm, groaned and collapsed onto the floor.

They say timing’s everything. One thing’s for sure: Having a massive heart attack in the middle of a severe snowstorm is as crappy a piece of timing as you can get. The EMS personnel fought bravely though snow packed streets, every one littered with dozens of abandoned vehicles, blocking their approach in much the same way the plaque buildups were blocking the flow of blood to Maggie’s father’s heart muscle. It took them almost 50 minutes to reach the house. He was long gone.

Five months later, Maggie’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, a particularly aggressive grade of the disease.

A good Catholic, Maggie prayed. She asked God why.

At least, as of that moment, God had no answers for her.

* * *

Molly, during this time, was busy visiting universities, preparing for the next giant leap in her life. Yale, Harvard and Columbia — she was seeing her share of both old stone and old money. And with each stop, her excitement grew. While she liked high school, and even though she still had no clue what she wanted to study, let alone what sort of career she might someday choose, the thought of higher education was starting to thrill her.

She sensed that big ideas were about to open up for her, and she couldn’t wait.

And along the way, what would become the intellectual habits of a lifetime — a love of reading, and a passion for truth — were starting to set in. And some of what she was reading, and some of the truth she was finding in it, were starting to cause more than a little concern on the part of her comfortably Republican parents.

* * *

Believe it or not, how people view luck can have a great deal to do with their political outlook. Take Social Security privatization: If you’re a cynic, like me — someone who believes that how well the average Joe, or for that matter the average Josephine, does in the stock market often has more to do with dumb luck than with skill or diligence, then the idea of changing Social Security to do away with guaranteed payments probably disturbs you.

Most likely it also offends your sense of injustice. “Why,” you will probably ask, “should only those who get lucky in their market investments have a decent retirement?” And you may even be so insolent as to wonder out loud, “Is making the wrong investment choices really so great a crime that it should condemn one to a life of poverty during old age?”

But for those who reject the very concept of luck, or at least pretend to reject it, it’s a very different story. The issue isn’t who’s lucky versus who isn’t. It’s about who’s virtuous. Virtue is found in hard work, brains, skill and dedication. And as a matter of basic morality, the virtuous should inherit, if not the Earth, at least the product of their own virtuous labor. “Why,” those with this viewpoint will impatiently ask, “should people who, through application of their virtue, have the capacity to produce a greater return on their investments than do others be held back for the benefit of those less virtuous?”

Ayn Rand, the favorite literary philosopher of the “greed is Godly” crowd (and of the makers of the movie The Incredibles), would never have approved of such excessive egalitarianism.

And, what then of those who will end up as the losers under privatization? Well, it’s too bad they’ll be poor and all that, and, hopefully, private charities will step up to help, but let’s face it: At the end of the day, they really have no one to blame but themselves.

And, yes, many people really do think this way.

And, yes, it should scare the hell out of you.

* * *

What was to become the grind of Maggie’s life was fairly well established by 1995, although more storm clouds lay ahead. Her mother responded poorly to cancer treatment. The disease progressed rapidly and the side effects from the chemotherapy were extremely hard on her. Almost from the beginning, she needed near around-the-clock-care.

With her two older brothers stationed overseas in the navy, the burden fell almost entirely on Maggie.

Having to drop out of school was a staggering blow — watching her dreams evaporate like so much dew on a desert morning in Arizona. But someone had to do it. Someone had to be there to hold her mother’s head steady over the toilet as she vomited, to comfort her and drive her back and forth between doctor and therapy visits.

For weeks, Maggie cried herself to sleep, or at least as close to sleep as she came most nights. She wasn’t much more than a kid and it was all too much. But at least Brad was still there — and she turned to him ever more intensely. They were both 17, neither of them very worldly on matters of sexuality and contraception options hadn’t been part of their sex education classes. A few months later, the inevitable happened.

They did “the right thing.” It was a small family wedding held at Maggie’s house; it was easier on her mother that way. Brad moved in so Maggie could continue to care for her mom, who finally died six months later, two weeks before the baby was born.

Two more babies quickly followed.

* * *

The big thing in Molly’s life in 1995, on the other hand, was the fact she’d finally declared her major — political science.

The call home about the decision wasn’t entirely harmonious.

“And what the hell are you going to do with that?” her father barked out over the phone.

“Hopefully, help to change the world,” she replied.

My guess is that he wasn’t entirely satisfied with the answer.

* * *

It used to be common to describe the poor and destitute as being “down on their luck.” You still hear the phrase used today, but not nearly as often. It just isn’t judgmental enough.

Being down on your luck, after all, has the sound of something that could happen to anyone — good people as well as bad: To a friend, a relative or maybe, God forbid, even to you. It’s a neighborly sounding phrase. And if your neighbor is down on his luck, well, naturally, he deserves a hand up.

But let’s say your political goal, far from giving the poor a neighborly hand up, is actually to undercut programs designed to help them, or more precisely to attack government support for them as a wedge issue to achieve other political ends. How do you go about it? Well, if you’re Ronald Reagan, following in the footsteps of Richard Nixon, you reframe the issue, as George Lakoff puts it. You definitely don’t talk about people being down on their luck. And you sure don’t discuss things like structural unemployment, non-living wages or the shame of hungry kids. You talk about “Welfare Queens.” You take the concept of poverty and demonize it, and if you can demonize it in a way that stirs up long simmering racial hostilities, hey, all the better.

Under this scenario, poor people aren’t unfortunate human beings who, for whatever reason, lack the resources necessary to provide the bare necessities of life for their families; they’re criminals, or at least scoundrels, who take advantage of the system and steal from good hard working people. They’re sinners, and as such, don’t deserve our help.

And the great thing about framing the issue in this way, of course, is that there’s always a grain of truth to it — always those few people who really are gaming the system, because there are always a few people gaming every system. And even though the total amount of money involved in such isolated malfeasance has never added up to a spit in the ocean when compared to, say, the fraud and waste coming out of certain sweetheart no bid contracts handed out on a silver platter to politically connected defense contractors, it doesn’t matter.

Of course it doesn’t matter. Because preventing fraud and waste was never the real goal anyway.

* * *

When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at [email protected].

© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001

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