Friday, June 19, 2009

Of Personal Responsibility

I need to give out gold stars today, to remember that so many people are trying in their own small ways. Over the last few days, I have forgotten. Last night, I forgot.

I sat on the 4th floor of my children's school, in the library I so love, listening to journalists try to explain to a rapt audience how we got in to this economic mess. I heard them blame "entitled" Wall St. bankers, the inept government, insurance agencies and corrupt credit rating agencies who--shock of all shocks--actually got paid to try to put things into perspective. I became incensed. And not just because my husband works for a credit rating agency. I got incensed, as I always did at work as a journalist and as I do on the playground, when people wish to pass the buck, to blame someone else, to deny personal responsibility. Sorry, I think, that's a little too easy, a little too simplistic. We are all at fault. I am going to get a t-shirt or at least a bumper sticker asking the question I always want to ask in nearly every situation, "What did you do?"

The problem is, the question makes me a pariah, makes me very unpopular. We'd rather not see our role. Better always not to blame ourselves, to turn our anger outward, to imagine that we have no role in the problem, that we are keeping our heads down and going to work or taking care of our kids, that we are paying our taxes and our occasional parking tickets like good samaritans and, so, don't have to do anything, don't have to change. Bullshit.

Blood boiling, silencing conversations when dialogue turned in to my raving monologue, as so often happens, I headed to 12th St. Bar & Grill to visit my friend, who bartends. I needed a kindred spirit and a glass of wine. I got the glass of wine but the kindred spirit was busy and I got the ear of a stranger instead. My anger grew.

"What's the matter?" he on the next bar stool asked. I, stupid as usual, told him.

"I'm mad because I went to event where they were supposed to explain how we got into this economic mess and they blamed only a handful of people when, really, we're all at fault. We don't ask the right questions."

He just shook his head and picked up a forkful of Caesar salad. "Not me," he said. "It's not my fault. I work hard, I pay my taxes, I lost money on my mortgage..."

"But don't you see? That's what everyone thinks, including the guys on Wall St. and at the ratings agencies...They were just doing their job." He just shook his head in disagreement. He wasn't about to take any blame.

I didn't let him off that easy. "What do you do for a living?" I asked.

"I'm a sales rep," he said.

"What do you sell?" I asked.

"Software, for Adobe," he said.

"And who are your clients?" I asked.

"Banks," he said, "insurance agencies, the government...Right now, AIG is my account."

Perfect. He had walked right into my web, just as I knew he would. I can snag anyone since, of course, I believe everyone plays a role.

" help these guys how?"

"They want to go paperless with their billing, but it's hard because that takes away a major part of how they promote themselves to customers. We help them figure out ways to get their messages across online, give them the software."

"Ok, so you help them market themselves and streamline themselves, make them more efficient and effective, make them more profitable?"

"Yes, if we're lucky."

"Right," I said, "because if you don't you're out of a job."

"Right," he said.

"So, you're to blame..." I said.

He looked confused. I had failed, as I often do, to connect the dots.

"If AIG is to blame, you're to blame. You're helping them. You are complicit, not asking any questions as you quietly do your job to help them do theirs..." I gloated, at least in my mind, imagining he would have to obsequiously agree with me. How I expected that, I don't know. Pathetically hopeful as usual. He just shook his head.

"Nah," he said. "I'm just doing my job. And, anyway, I just got on the account. I don't agree that everyone is to blame."

Why I went on I have no idea. I thought maybe pulling out the big guns would work. I often, in my adamant arguing, take the giant leap I think will drive my point home: I invoke The Holocaust. To me, it is the greatest of all recent lessons, this horrible devastation in our not-so-distant past, this brilliant systematic genocide of a variety of peoples, a genocide that could not have worked had not so many "innocent bystanders" played a part.

"Like in the Holocaust, when people were just doing their job, minding their own business, not asking any that what it's like?" I asked.

At this point, the guy on the barstool to my left obviously rolled his eyes or made some gesture to the guy on my right that I was crazy, since Mr. Right looked over my head at him and started laughing, clearly at me. I looked left, then right. What was the point?

"I don't need to talk to you, I don't need to convince you..." I said, getting up and gathering my things, angrier even than I had been when I came in, near-paralyzed with the pointlessness of trying.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we're on all the right path and it's only a few bad seeds who spoil things. But I don't believe that, not for a second. When we fire, arrest or even kill those guys, there will be a new crop of greedy bastards. That's because the greedy bastards are us, every one of us. Given half a chance, we will take that bonus no questions asked. We need it to pay our mounting credit card debt, the mortgage we gambled we'd be able to afford. We, most of us, wriggle out of paying taxes if we can, through loopholes or inventiveness, the same way we wriggle out of jury duty. Many times, it's as simple as not turning back when we discover the extra $10 the cashier mistakenly handed us.

Even for the perfect among us, even for me who is trying to be better about going back in to return the $10, to drink coffee out of a mug instead of environment-killing paper, something in our past or present makes our hearts race just a little bit faster when a police siren blares. It should. We should be trying to think all the time about what we did, what we do, what we could do differently. It's the only way things are going to change. It is the only way that we can prevent repeating the same cycles, blowing and popping the same bubbles over and over and over again.

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