The late historian Milton Mayer tells this story of an event in suburban Berlin in February, 1939:
A crowd of children had driven an old Jew from his candy store and were carrying out sacks of candy while their parents stood around cheering them. An old man walked up, an “Aryan.” He watched the proceedings with a troubled look, and then he turned to the cheering parents and said to them: “You think you are hurting the Jew. You do not know what you are doing. You are teaching your children to steal.” And the old man walked away.
Of course, compared to what was to come, this was a mild Nazi atrocity; but how could a “civilized” society cheer barbarism and thievery? Was this a society totally without a conscience? In his book Bonds That Make us Free, Terry Warner tells us, “like perceptions, memories, emotions, moods, or impulses, and so on, conscience can be distorted, so as to support the lie we’re living. We can make right seem wrong and wrong seem right.” In other words, we should never trust our ego’s perceptions.
Thoughts and feelings lie. The Germans cheered the looting of the store, as they trusted thoughts and feelings that “told” them the shopkeeper was a lesser human being. In fact, they had allowed themselves to believe that the shopkeeper was an enemy of the nation. In their distorted thinking, looting the store was simply an act of taking back what was rightfully theirs. The shopkeeper was not the victim but the victimizer. We can imagine that the crowd that day felt pride in the behavior of their children, feeling that they had taught their children well.
Could America ever sink so low? Today’s America is far from Nazi Germany; we are far from a society that condones the looting of stores. But, have we not begun to go down a slippery slope?
In this political season, it would be hard to attend a political rally without hearing candidates promise to give to one group money that would have to be taken away from another group. A candidate will talk as though is he is spending his own money or that the money to be spent is created out of the thin air. To be sure, the part about taking money away from one group may not be spoken, but it is understood.
President Obama, for instance, talks a lot about “investing” in green energy jobs and in public transportation and in automakers and in education. But he is not talking about “investing” his own money; he is talking about taking money from some and giving it to others. So when he “invested” our money in the now failed, but politically connected, solar energy firm Solyndra, he was looting money that someone else had productively earned.
To be even more precise, all across America, you can find entrepreneurs who are not politically connected. They earn a living by making a product that others want to buy, while politically connected entrepreneurs—favored with tax dollars—are peddling products that others have no interest in buying. Whose pocket was looted to pay for the favored treatment?
Politicians tell us they are just forcing individuals and corporations to pay their fair share. “Fair share?” How easy it is to feel righteous and justified when we take someone else’s money if we merely take our “fair share.”
Like the Berliners in 1939, we are teaching our children to steal. We are teaching our children that the means to wealth is political power, and that is a lie. The real means to wealth is to sell a good or produce a service that others value. When our bipartisan political rhetoric is covering up such a simple and obvious truth, we are damaging the nation by making wrong seem right.
Yes, the German population inflicted unimaginable suffering on their Jewish neighbors; but in the process, they inflicted catastrophic suffering on themselves too. How could it be otherwise? The most basic law of life is that we are all connected in a fundamental way. Physician Eben Alexander recently wrote, “Modern physics tells us that the universe is a unity—that it is undivided. Though we seem to live in a world of separation and difference, physics tells us that beneath the surface, every object and event in the universe is completely woven up with every other object and event. There is no true separation.”
Those who cheered the looting of the store that day in Berlin never imagined that their barbarism would lead to their own destruction. The same is true today; those who cheer as politicians demonize certain segments of society imagine their own greed has no consequences. They are wrong, and all of us will pay the price.