Defunding the Public Square: When Those in Power Have All the Goodies

There is one day where the images imprinted on my brain crystalized my understanding of the decades of relentless assault on funding for the public square. Why has there been this unending cry for defunding of parks, schools, universities, roads, trains, waterlines, healthcare, anything that is good for the ‘public?’

It was a day of kayaking on Leech Lake, a fairly large, popular lake that is both full of tourists and also surrounded by the Leech Lake Native American Reservation. We pulled into the boat launch which was across the street from the ranger station for the local national forest. A sign on the door of the station said that is was closed due to funding cuts. These are the sorts of cuts that are promoted because ‘we cannot afford them’ and ‘taxes are bad’ and ‘government is bad,’ you know the drill. We headed out into the lake.

Our trip covered 17 miles that day and took us around a large peninsula near Walker, a popular tourist town. In addition to the beauty of the lake and the shore, we spent our day looking at white tourists playing in their private playgrounds. We saw giant ‘lake cabins’ (most far bigger than my house), giant boats, giant jet skis, giant pontoon boats, giant floats of all sizes. Hundreds of people playing on their private lake shore lots. And it occurred to me, these people have no need for the public square, they have all the goodies.

The current iteration of the public square in America, the public square that is being dismantled, is one that was built for the development of the white population, the population in power. The cheap universities, the good roads, the public schools, the national parks; these were all built to create a wealthy and powerful society for those in power. And it worked. However now, as huge numbers of those people have grabbed enough wealth to privately fund their nice lives, those same people are defunding the public square for others, including many of the poorer white folks who helped create the wealth in the first place but were left behind in the race to the top.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to our society. Every powerful elite has done the same thing. Once they solidify their power, they get rid of the public benefits which lifted their group up out of poverty or misery or simple hardship, and they focus on their own private good. We see this in Rome, in ‘let them eat cake’ royal France, in the British Empire, in the enslavement of 45,000 people to build a King’s wife’s tomb that we call the Taj Mahal, in the Chinese dynasties, in the Mayans, the Incas, the Egyptians, the list is endless. And of course, all of these Empires collapse. The weight and the obscenity at the top is just too much to bear. It’s not sustainable and either people rise up to overthrow the powerful, or they just become so lazy and decadent that they are easily destroyed by the next hungry group or tribe.

Of course now the stakes are higher. With nuclear weapons and climate change and globalization we aren’t just talking about the collapse of one country or empire, but rather the whole world. Furthermore, within our country, the availability of stronger drugs to numb pain, and every greater distractions available online, is leading to a steady increase in despair, child maltreatment, and mental illness. Cat Steven’s words, penned in 1970, “I know we’ve come a long way. We’re changing day to day. But tell me now where do the children play,” could not have been more prophetic.

This long repeating human process reveals why the spiritual life has always been about the giving up of power by those with it and the empowering of those without. Once one group has enough to live, they must pass the rest on to the next group who doesn’t. They don’t just keep taking.

Giving back to the public square over time thus becomes a spiritual practice. How many school bonds have been voted down by rich older people because they would pay for kids who are a different color or community? What does it mean to want to pay taxes for a park you may never visit, to pay for a child you will never meet to go to college? There is more than enough wealth to pay for our public domain. What seems to be lacking is spiritual wisdom to do so.

One thought on “Defunding the Public Square: When Those in Power Have All the Goodies

  1. Daniel,

    Your article is interesting and your final point poignant in many ways. A key aspect of the Christian faith is about those who have, giving up for those who have not. However, it should be noted that Biblically this practice – when it came from Christian faith – always took place voluntarily, not forced or under government compulsion in the manner you champion above. It was a heart matter. You may say that faith compels us to systematize such behavior as many won’t do it voluntarily. Doing this, you may say, creates a just society.

    Okay … But …

    Recently you wrote a heart-felt article about that atheist who was vandalized. Kuddos to you for saying that was wrong and not indicative of Christianity. However, later in this same article you made a key point when you said “Christianity has far too often been identified with Empire.” You then turned to American politics. You essentially said in this previous article that faith was incompatible when coupled with power, because Christianity is about us emptying ourselves of that power. “Identifying with empire is not Christian!” you would say. You then applied it solely to Trump voters. (And no, for the record, I didn’t vote for him.)

    Now however, you write an article advocating for using political power and affirm that doing so is fine – as long as your political point of view comes from the left. Clearly, what is wrong for the right side of the political aisle to do, you feel is fine for those on the left side to do. As long as it is from the left, you have no problem making sure your brand of Christianity is “identified with Empire,” and imposed through that empire’s political power. But shame on those from the right who do so, especially those who voted for Trump.

    Obviously, you might insist that your moral imperatives are the right ones, and theirs are not. (In your mind, your political power is “for the little guy.” However, most voters on the right would claim they are “for the little guy too,” and that attempts to say otherwise amount to political spin and political prejudice.) However this all begs the question. Political power is still “empire” … whether that Empire holds a perspective beholden to the left or to the right.

    Where am I going with all of this? If a person from one moral/political perspective claims it is right to enforce their moral imperatives through political power, while they decry it for the other side who would do the same thing, then we must conclude that this person believes might does indeed make morality right … and nothing but might makes it right. Their efforts to decry using power and “empire” on a moral basis, even as they use it , betrays their feigned and hypocritical outrage at their opponents who are doing the same thing.

    The point of all of this is that you can’t have it both ways. Either it is okay for both the right and left to try to enforce their moral code through political power at least to some degree, or it isn’t. To have two articles, one which champions govt imposed moral imperatives, while the other article decries it … and the only difference is that one favors your political viewpoint while the other doesn’t … brings me to the obvious conclusion that what you have written really isn’t about faith at all, but about your political preferences.

    Please! Allow me to be bold. Quit dressing up your politics in religious garb. You have become the emperor without clothes, even as you think you are finely dressed. It is unbecoming when your political opponents do it. It is also unbecoming of you. You are, hypocritically, doing the same thing you say is wrong for them. The Moral Majority of the 80’s identified with empire on the right. You are no different, you just do it from the left. It is the conflation of God’s Kingdom with one, and only one political perspective – and it is inevitably unbiblical, wrong, and hypocritical.

    I am not saying there is no place for morality in politics, nor am I saying you cannot favor one political viewpoint over another on moral grounds. What I am saying is that you can’t conflate God’s Kingdom with any empire or worldly political platform. Furthermore, I am saying, “Quit decrying bringing morality to bear for one political perspective and one political perspective only, even as you gladly appeal to morality for your political perspective and claim doing so is fine. Your hypocrisy in doing so is embarrassingly obvious.”

    I think, in the end, there is a better path. I would invite you to let faith address power truly redemptively by not conflating the two. Faith is always more powerful when it can speak to all power, both the left and the right, while it stands apart from both to a large degree. Yes, certain policies have moral overtones … and those must be considered. But policies rarely are morally one-sided. So let your faith inform your politics. Speak with conviction when they do. However, don’t decry your political opponents when they do the same.

    You and I likely have very different political views. I respect yours are informed by your faith, as are mine. I believe we can have a spirited discussion and yet not let our behavior devolve to the point where we are doing the very thing we say is wrong for the other to do. Or, if we do, hopefully we will have the humility to recognize that, admit it, and change.

    Thanks Daniel. Blessings to you.

Comments are closed.