“Oedipus and the Superrich”

“Oedipus and the Super rich”

Emanuel Pastreich

September 1, 2013

The story of King Oedipus is so important for us in this age because describes a man who is forced to confront a terrible truth that he had been entirely ignorant of. When he was confronted with indications of his own responsibility, he continued to ignore them. Like Oedipus, we want to imagine that out there lurk some terrible people in corporations, in government, in positions of power who are constantly launching conspiracies to do terrible things to us, to ordinary people, out of their own greed and cruelty. Although it is certainly true that there are any number of conspiracies in government and that there is a group of extremely self-interested wealthy people around the world, if we confront this problem honestly will learn eventually, and painfully, that the causes point back to ourselves. We must ask ourselves whether such a selfish class exists, or whether what we see is but part of a sick culture that we all occupy. The latter interpretation is much harder for us to accept, of course. It is much easier to imagine some bad people out there. But there is much we can learn from the tragedy of Oedipus: our own actions are part of the reason for what we see around us and if we want change, we should start with modifying our own behavior.

We are very much a part of this world and we play a far larger role in the evils that we see around us than we imagined possible. But like Oedipus, we were either unaware, or tried to ignore, the indications of our role in parasitic forms of capitalist exchange so common today. Even when confronted by the relationship between our actions and what we see around us, we fight against the truth just as Oedipus did.

You may object, as would Oedipus, that not all humans are equally responsible for the problems of the world. There are those 1% who live in luxury and waste, and then there is the rest of us. This point is of course entirely accurate, but it is not much of an excuse for the actions of most of us. There are some who are downtrodden and impoverished who have little to do with the problems that we witness, but I assume that my audience consists of those who have had the opportunity to attend high schools and universities. We do not have the same excuses.

You may think you have nothing to do with the high-handed behavior of the super rich. But think about yourself. How do you treat the extremely poor people that you see pulling carts down crowded streets or scavenging for food? You can find them in the United States or China—the only difference is the degree of poverty. Do you want by them and pretend they do not exist? Do you try to take a different road so that you will not run into these reminders that the logical world you live in is not so perfect? You should be frank with yourself.

I have turned away from homeless and poor people repeatedly in my life. Although I now make a point of speaking to all such people I meet, and calling them “sir” or “ma’am,” that is not how I behaved before. And even now I am at a loss as to what exactly I should do. What I do know is that pretending nothing is wrong is not honest.

I remember the moment that I arrived in Taiwan for my studies there in July of 1995. When I arrived at the arrival terminal of the airport, I saw an elderly lady who was having trouble getting her bag down from the baggage carousel. I helped her to get the bag down and on her cart, and then spent a few minutes practicing my Chinese with her. I felt very proud of myself for being such a considerate young man. But when I stepped out onto the street, I came face to face with an elderly woman of the same age as that well-off women I had just left behind. This woman, however, was carrying a heavy cart loaded down with goods for sale. Her burden was far greater than the little bag that the women in the airport had been reaching for. But this women carried her burden all day long. It was her job, her only means of survival to drag that cart around Taibei from dawn to dusk.

For a moment I was forced to open my eyes, to look away from the protected work I had lived in. But I closed them soon after. There did not seem to be anything I could do to help that woman. She was in a position dictated by forces beyond her control and beyond my control. I could not easily help her to pull that cart. There would be no end to that work and I would look ridiculous. In fact, when I would offer to help a poor elderly woman in Korea pull her cart in a similar situation—I remembered that first incident and could never forget it—she was so embarrassed by what I said that she turned away from me.

But what I am suggesting by describing the way we respond to the poor around us is that it is exactly the same way that the superrich respond to us. They feel uncomfortable with us because we are not their equals and we remind them of the contradictions in society that they make them uncomfortable. They would rather not see us at all because we remind them of things they would rather not know about. We are all blind to how our own role in the terrible inequity in our own society—they are blind and so are we. Like Oedipus, we see only parts of the truth, and hesitate to put together the whole picture. But I would argue that only with such honest recognition of how the world actually works do we come closer to a solution.

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