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This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Thanksgiving Madman

November 27, 2007


Going, Going, Gone (and Not Soon Enough)

Mike Ferguson, the current Representative for New Jersey's 7th US Congressional District has decided not to run again. This isn't news to those it matters most to in central New Jersey, but it appears to be a run that might have no end in sight. So far, six - count 'em, six - GOP Senators alone have decided to leave the nation's capital as their state's most senior statesmen to find alternative means of employment. For his part, Ferguson cited "family matters" for his departure, although one would have to speculate that his current status as a back bencher gained him more splinters in his rear than respect among his colleagues and constituents.

Ferguson made his run as a conservative ex-teacher whose family just happened to be loaded (or as comedian Ron White put it, when referring to his ex-in-laws, "LOAD-OAD-OAD-OAD-OAD-ED-ED-ED-ED"). In 1998, Congressman Mike ran against a very popular, vocal and effective Representative in New Jersey's neighboring 6th Congressional District, Frank Pallone. To no one's surprise, Ferguson got trounced, so he did what any other self-respecting New York private school teacher looking for an easy pay-day would do (that is, those with a father with deep pockets and even deeper GOP ties): he moved. And when Fergie moved, he moved to the sliver of wealthy Hunterdon County represented in NJ-US-6. After all, had he moved to one of the more centrally located areas he was to represent, he might have had to actually talk to some of those people who just weren't on his social scale.

I'd like to think that Ferguson and the six GOP Senators who are turning in their retirement papers are headed out because they've seen the handwriting on the wall and know that the American people are tired of their abuses of power. And perhaps that's true to some extent. But with the revolving door that the US Capital building shares with "K" Street, one's speculation must turn to the obvious: Greener pastures. After all, the real money is to be made on the streets as a lobbyist rather than by serving those whose interests you had promised to represent.

You're going to hear things like Ferguson's lament that it's too hard to be apart from his family and that the strains of legislating has grown too tiring for some of the age of these retiring six Senators. And it's true that Mike Ferguson has young children that I'm sure he wants to spend time with, but hadn't he had them prior to his 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2006 runs as well? Just when during his six years did it wear on him that he was being cheated for his time by the office he just about ignored?

One hopes that Fergie isn't planning on making a run at the SU Senate when opportunities might arise After all, that's like a real job, right? And certainly, he can't be thinking about the New Jersey State House... could he?

And what about the Number Two (formerly Number One) Republican in the Senate, Trent Lott? Just why has he decided to call it a career? Perhaps he just misses his home on the Gulf where he can look out at the water sipping mint juleps and thinking about the grand days of the Old South - the Strom Thurmon South.

Let's face it, the Republicans who are leaving office are more akin to rats deserting a ship than those who have accomplished so much that they feel any more "service" could benefit mankind. I bet that, if you were to ask them, their answers would include a litany of their accomplishments and their feeling that they've left us all better off in the end. Of course, that would only hold true for their true "base" of "haves and have mores". And as their rewards? There will be lofty and well-paid positions on corporate boards; in "K" Street lobbying firms; numerous speaking engagements to the likes of NeoCon organizations such as the Hoover Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the US Chamber of Commerce, etc.. These will grant them much comfort in the years to come.

Rather than face tough re-election bids, so far there are five GOP Senators joining Lott (MS) in retiring this year. they are (in no particular order): Wayne Allard (CO); Larry Craig (ID); Chuck Hagel (NE); John Warner (VA); and Pete Domenici (NM). And one has to wonder just what the 85-year-old GOP Senator from Alaska, Ted Stevens is thinking as he obsesses about the "tubes" in "these internets" while his shady business dealings leave a ring around State Number 49.

"But Tricia and I have decided it's time for us to do something else."

And we, the people of the United States of America concur.

-Noah Greenberg

by Victoria A. Brownworth
copyright c 2007 Journal-Register Newspapers, Inc.

Thanksgiving Day was beautiful. Sun glinted off the costumes during the parade up the Parkway and the unseasonably warm day made for more outdoorsy Thanksgiving than usual.

Then a storm came in Thanksgiving night, with high winds, thunder and lightning. The temperatures plummeted to what they should be–a chill 40 degrees–for Black Friday.

The weather provided a compelling metaphor for the start of what many refer to as the season of giving.

But why should giving have a season?

Black Friday dawned with hordes of people in line at stores all over the area. Kohl’s was open at 4am, Sears at 5am, Target at 6am. The local news on Thanksgiving night showed people lined up in tents and sleeping bags outside Circuit City and Best Buy waiting to be the first to grab electronics at sale prices in the morning.

While hundreds of people were lined up in the chill Thanksgiving night prepared to buy expensive stuff on Black Friday at dawn, down in Center City, all along the Parkway, people were lined up in the night as well. These people are mostly men, but some women, mostly African American, but some white and Latino. Every night they line the wall against the Youth Study Center and when those spots–protected by a small overhang–are gone, the remainder move to the facade of the Rodin Museum, or the benches on either side of the Parkway. Some have shopping carts, some have blankets and tarps, most have a series of bags, others, just themselves.

These people are some–but by no means all–of Philadelphia’s homeless. Some are mentally ill, many are addicts or alcoholics. Others just got a bad break and never recovered. No doubt, if the new statistics released last month by the Veterans Affairs Department are accurate, a quarter of these people are also veterans.

On Black Friday morning, around the time the stores were opening, I was listening to a report on NPR about how many cities are crafting ordinances making it illegal to feed the homeless in public areas. Cincinnati has gone so far as to actually prosecute a man for feeding the homeless in a public park. (The jury found him not guilty.)

The homeless are supposed to be invisible and in Philadelphia, to a great extent they are. All the people one sees after dark along the Parkway are gone by daybreak. Where do they go? What happens to all the men and women evicted from the shelters after breakfast? And what about the homeless in the neighborhoods or the covertly homeless–the people living on a friend’s or relative’s sofa for a few nights here, a few nights there, but with no actual address of their own?

Millions of people–men, women and children–are homeless in America. Some live on the streets, some live in shelters, some live in temporary situations hoping they won’t be tossed out onto the streets anytime soon. Millions more are on the verge of homelessness

According to the 2005 U.S. Census statistics, there are four million homeless people in America. Another 42 million Americans are living in poverty with a tenth of those on the verge of homelessness. Of those living in poverty, close to ten million are children.

As a nation, America has been generous. Not as generous as we once were, nor as generous as some European nations like Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands, which have the highest per capita rate of giving in the world, but we are still in the top 15 for giving. However, we’re in the top four for taking, in terms of world resources and siwe are among the top seven wealthiest nations per capita. Shouldn’t we be giving exponentially more–globally as well as to our own people?

When was the last time you heard a presidential candidate talk about increasing our giving globally instead of talking about more tax breaks for the rich?

Back in September, former President Bill Clinton published a book: Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World. It’s a slim volume, but a powerful one. It has one consistent theme: everyone can be a philanthropist. There are examples throughout the book of what ordinary people have done to give to others. It’s inspirational in the truest sense–it makes you want to do something yourself to help others.

Since he left office, Clinton has been working on various global and national charity projects, most notably drugs for people with AIDS worldwide. He has also worked on tsunami relief and Katrina relief, tapped by President Bush, who also asked his father, former President Bush, to raise funds for these catastrophes from private sources.

Reading Clinton’s book is a worth endeavor because it is a keen reminder of how easy it is to give. Far easier, actually, then standing or even sitting in line outside Circuit City for ten hours in anticipation of a Black Friday electronics sale.

Of course, one has to want to give rather than receive.

And therein lies the central problem in the conundrum of giving.

As a nation, we have become greedy–individually and collectively. We are far more eager to receive than to give. We are raising children who are consumer crazy by the time they are old enough to talk. They know what they want, but they know little about giving.

Generosity is not innate. It’s a learned behavior. We need to be taught to share and to give and to not want everything for ourselves. One of the first lessons parents have to teach children is the art of sharing. Its a trait that needs to be inculcated on all levels–at home, at school, at play.

I attended a Catholic school for girls in Mount Airy. We were taught at school to give to the poor, to send our candy money to help the starving children in Africa.

Charitable giving was reinforced in my home by my parents. Having been taught to give since early childhood, it has been second-nature to me for decades. Like the people in Clinton’s book, I found ways to give that worked. I started an animal shelter, I fostered children in developing countries, I worked in the domestic Peace Corps, mentored kids in my neighborhood, taught literacy in prisons and marginal neighborhoods.

My sister and brother-in-law raised their children with the same set of values of sharing that my parents raised my sister and me with. When their children were small, along with the holiday gifts I gave them, I also had them choose a gift for a charity of their choice. It meant fewer gifts for them, but they were each thrilled by being able to make a choice of giving to another child–or animal shelter, or other charity. They enjoyed this gift of giving as much as they enjoyed their own gifts. It made them feel good to know they were helping someone else who didn’t have all that they had.

Parents can do this with their own children as soon as the kids are old enough to understand both the concept of giving and the idea that there are other children who don’t have anything. Tell your child that they are going to pick out a gift for a needy child. Make it a special event. Explain to them what it would be like not to have any toys–or even a home–and how special the gift they choose for another child will be to them. And that it might be that child’s only gift at the holidays. Then go shopping. Tell your child how much they can spend and let them pick the toy. But also make it clear that this gift for another child is one less gift for them. That in giving, one has to learn to give up as well.

Then, go with them to deliver it to Toys for Tots or Joy of Sharing or the Salvation Army. Let them have the full experience of giving. Remind them on Christmas morning or Hanukkah eve that they gave this gift by wrapping up a note that says “I gave this gift to a child in need.” Positive reinforcement for giving is a life-long lesson.

We are a very acquisitive society. We have a lot of stuff. We want a lot of stuff. We want new stuff, more stuff, better stuff.

But in the end, of course, stuff is just that–stuff. On Thanksgiving night there was a story on a local TV news station about a family whose father was home from Iraq. It was the man’s first leave in over a year and he was being redeployed a few days after Thanksgiving. He had been in Iraq last Thanksgiving. His wife, children and extended family were all supremely grateful that he was home to share the holiday with them.

“Last year there were no hugs and kisses,” he said, his eyes misting up. The gift of the love shared between this soldier and his family was obviously as huge as his sense of loss had been the previous year.

Americans need to learn how to give more and give differently. When we load our kids up with endless stuff, their appreciation is diminished. They are surrounded by stuff; nothing is special. Kids no longer tell Santa that one special thing they want–now it’s a list. A long list. The more we get, it seems, the more we want.

Don’t stop giving—giving is vital to society. But stop the wanton consumerism. Teach your kids some restraint. They don’t need to have every new toy or gadget or electronic item they see on the tube or online. If you give in to their endless wanting–because it is intrinsic to being a kid to want stuff–then you are training them to be selfish and greedy, traits that will not serve them well as adults. You can see in our leaders who was spoiled as a child and who was not by how they comport themselves as adults. Teaching your child to be generous is a life lesson they can build on as adults.

But it’s not just about the kids. It’s about us, too. We need to pare down our lives. The family of that soldier was so thankful just for his presence–that he was still alive, with them, able to hug them and kiss them and give them what they most needed: him.

The people lined up each night along the Parkway seem to have run out of chances for a new and better life. But for most of us, the chances keep coming, again and again. If someone we know is sick or in need, we can offer to help. If we have enough money to buy ourselves a latte at Starbucks, we can forego that drink for ourselves and instead buy a sandwich for a homeless person. Giving is so very easy. Giving up, much harder. But the two go hand-in-hand.

It’s the season of giving. And while this may seem arbitrary, it’s a start. Each of us not living in poverty should be giving ten percent of our income to charity. If we all did this, poverty could be radically diminished, if not ended. Ten percent of the new video games or LCD TV can make the difference of food or winter coats for a needy family.

This season, think first about all you have, rather than all you want. I have heard people say to give until it hurts. But the reality is, giving never hurts. In fact almost nothing feels as good as giving, so there’s no reason not to do it.

The bottom line is this: A new generation of givers, rather than takers, could change the world. It all starts with you.

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-Noah Greenberg