It feels so good to have someone to look down on. That way, no matter our socio-economic status, no matter how unproductive or unexciting or unworthy our lives may have been to date, we can feel good because we're not on the bottom rung of the ladder. People who are a different color, a different religion, a different gender, a different anything, are all potential vessels of assumed inferiority, existing to lubricate the grinding gears of our assumed superiority.
One of the most popular groups today on whom to look down upon is the poor, if only because they're so plentiful. I don't say this out of any animosity toward the wealthy. I didn't set out to become wealthy myself, and I've succeeded brilliantly, but I don't object to wealth as such. I do object, though, to people who don't have to worry unduly about having life's essentials and who find it uplifting to snarl about those who do.
A favorite snarl these days is to point out that America's poor have it so much better than the poor in underdeveloped countries. I've tried to figure out what this has to do with anything. Evidently, if the poor in Calcutta survive on one sorry meal per day, our poor ought to be ecstatic if they can manage two meals a day. I don't hear anybody pointing out that American middle class citizens would be considered incredibly wealthy in much of the world, and thus they should stop striving to acquire more.
When I was growing up, people would from time to time gesture at a decrepit tenant house, occupied by a black family, and point out the television antenna on the roof. This was offered as proof positive that the family had no judgment at all, else they would not be wasting their obviously limited resources on a luxury like television. And what could you expect, as they were black? Were criticisms graded, I suppose this would have gotten credit for a twofer, looking down on people both for their race and for foolish spending.
This urge to look down on others translates into busybody mania at the supermarket, where some people fortunate enough to have plenty watch furiously as a customer with food stamps (actually a SNAP card) checks out. Those miscreants might, if we don't watch them, buy something tasteful beyond simple grocery staples. Most of us have something like an invisible fraction of a cent coming out of our tax money to pay for this program, and we sure don't want our money wasted on anything that might be considered luxurious.
I was reminded of this watchdog tendency by a recent comment in "Sound Off," in the Ledger-Enquirer. The commenter admonished minimum wage earners that, "The minimum wage was put in place to take care of the basic necessities of your family. It was not to pay for your cell phone, cigarettes, cable, or alcohol." This was news to me. Actually, the minimum wage is a wage, not charity, and it was put in place to ensure that any wage earner working 40 hours per week would be above the poverty line, which is obviously not so today. No one has a right to dictate how that wage is spent by its earner, even for pleasure, any more than I have the right to tell Warren Buffett how to spend his money. I performed hard, backbreaking labor for the minimum wage when it was 75 cents an hour. If anyone had had the audacity to tell me how I could spend my hard-earned wages, I would have told him to buzz off, only in much more colorful language than that.
I am by no means suggesting that I'm immune to the inclination to enhance my feelings of superiority by looking down upon those I perceive to be inferior in some way. But over the years I have gradually come to realize that it is more profitable to lift my gaze from those I think beneath me and look instead more closely at myself.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."