We were in the sitting area of my in-laws’ home in La Castellana, a municipality in sugar cane country on the island of Negros. The television was on, as it always seemed to be; and my son, who is three, was playing with two small trucks we had bought for him in Iloilo. A group of kids appeared at the door to see these strange visitors from the place faraway, and the little boy who, though distantly related to them, did not look much like themselves.
The kids’ eyes fixed right away on the trucks; Filipino kids don’t have many toys, and they prize them in a way most American kids can’t They made gestures to join my son in play, which he did not welcome. He became agitated, and concocted a rule, as he tends to do in such situations. Those toys were only for kids who were three, he said, by which he meant himself. He said this over and over. The kids didn’t understand the words, but they got the drift. They retreated, bruised. And I felt something I rarely feel regarding my son – namely, shame.
I don’t want to heap too much on him. Sharing is an issue for many kids his age. He had just emerged from a somewhat scary (if ultimately unserious) stay in a provincial hospital, which is why we had bought the trucks to begin with. After two weeks of crowded conditions with strange people in a strange land, he was anxious to re-establish territory I’m sure.
Still, the look on those kids’ faces made me writhe inside. Would they henceforth think of Americans as people with a lot of toys they would not share? While it isn’t fair to load that on my son, it comes awfully close to my own concerns about the nation of which I am a part.
Josh and I went into another room and had a chat. I tried to articulate for him, once again, why he needs to share. We made a new rule – okay, I made the rule. If he can’t share it then he can’t keep it. What he won’t share we will give away, to that child or to someone else. Then I started reflecting on something I have observed about life in America: how riches often make people less inclined to share rather than more so; and how the version of childhood we have invented – more precisely, that the corporate market has invented – might contribute to this.
It is the very rich, those who can most afford to pay their taxes, who belly ache the most about them. (The drive to repeal the estate tax was concocted, it turns out, by the Walton family of Wal-Mart billions, et. al.) It is the very rich who often are the least inclined to give to someone else, relatively speaking. I once helped start a program for homeless people in New York City, which involved sales on the street. It was common knowledge among the vendors that a working person from Brooklyn was more inclined to reach into their pocket for a buck than was the suit from Wall Street.
The Philippines are a very poor nation, materially. The U.S. is very rich. So what is the Bush Administration’s priority in the Philippines? Enforcement of intellectual property laws, so that poor Filipinos will have to pay more — often to us — for cd’s, auto parts, and most egregiously, prescription drugs.
This tendency is so much a part of life in our country that we often cease to notice. How many houses, how many cars, do these people think they need before they can say “Enough”? Doesn’t a CEO making hundreds of millions of dollars a year ever stop and think, “Hmmm, if I took just a few million less, we wouldn’t have to lay off so many people. Or we could give raises to the people in the stock room. Or we could spend a little more on controlling the muck we pour into the water and air.” On WFAN, the all-sports station in New York, the big-mouth hosts cut off questions about player salary demands with an “Of course he’s going to take what he can get. You can’t blame him.”
But why not? Why is not this retentiveness and grasping a valid, even necessary, topic of discussion? The way Victorians couldn’t talk about sex, is it not possible for us to talk about greed?
The comparison is not inapt. What Freud did for lust, Adam Smith and his followers have done for greed; they have rationalized it and made it appear both justified and benign. In fact you could deduct much of what passes for “ideology” in America from that starting point. The Right indulges greed and chastises lust, while the Left does the opposite. Everyone points the finger at the other guys’ sins while justifying their own.
This proclivity is not new in human nature. But America’s corporate economy has cultivated it, especially the greed side; and as I suggested up top, it begins with childhood, and kids.
In the Philippines childhood is still a commons, defined by the play children share rather than by the things they have. You see few toys in the homes, certainly not the clutter you find often in America. You see instead things that kids make for themselves – tops made from nails in pieces of wood, for example, and slingshots carved from tree branches with slings from old inner tubes. On the farm we saw kids using these to fell beetle nuts from trees.
It was like Huck Finn’s America. These kids who had very little were nevertheless happy, and free in a way most American kids are not. You also see something else rare in America – kids playing games that are part of the shared culture rather than ones their parents have to buy for them. On the farm, the grandkids – all 18 of them or so – played a game that seemed a cross between Relieve-O and Rover Rover Come On Over. Josh is generally reticent in the U.S., a “watcher” as they call them But he got caught up in the frenzy and had a ball. The freedom from things seemed to free him too.
In La Castellana we saw kids at the plaza in the public market playing a game that involves leaning a flip-flop sandal (the nearly universal footwear in the Philippines) against a soda can, standing in a line about ten feet away, and then flinging one of their own flip-flops to knock the lean-to down. My brother-in-law, who grew up there, told me he played the same game as a child. Outside Manila, in the barrio-like subdivision where another set of in-laws live, the kids played basketball at makeshift baskets their fathers apparently had built in the street.
All of these games were in shared childhood space – common space. They make childhood a place of abundance for kids who, in many cases, have little besides the clothes they wear. Sharing is natural because the sharing, in the form of play, is the substance of the wealth. In America, by contrast, kids inhabit a culture of possession and enclosure, and feel chronic lack despite – or perhaps, because of — all the stuff they have.
Surveys show that the Philippines ranks ahead of the U.S. in the overall happiness of the populace. Generally the “poorer” nations, in monetary terms, ranked higher than the “richer” ones. That doesn’t surprise me, based on what I saw in the Philippines. (One recent survey at the London School of Economics put the U.S. at 46th.)
Maybe it’s the constant bombardment of messages regarding things we don’t yet have. “We covet what is near,” said Hannibel Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, or words to that effect. By making things always near – seductive and near – the commercial culture keeps us always in a state of low grade covetousness, a constant simmer over what we lack.
Maybe too it’s something about the stuff itself. To reduce good to a commodity by definition limits it and makes it scarce. A market, economists tell us, is a mechanism for allocating scarce resources. The corollary, which they don’t often mention, is that in order to be so allocated, the resource in question must first be made scarce. Childhood must be reduced to something material and finite. Play must become a thing – that is, something that can be fought over, instead of participated in.
Do kids raised in such a culture naturally become less sharing? Do they tend to become investment bankers and management consultants so that they can continue their quest to appease their chronic yearnings as adults? It hardly seems a stretch. What other effects could such a culture have? Anyone know of any research?