We hold these truths to be self-evident

Oct 21, 2008 at 10:33 pm

I was laid off from my job last week.  

This took only three moves:

1. The securities market went haywire.

2. The very wealthy, very nice people whom I’ve worked hard for these last six months watched in horror as their portfolio spontaneously burst into flames like some enchanted parchment in a Tolkien novel.

3. I got shit-canned. 

If I told you this in conversation, it wouldn’t seem too weird if I followed it by saying something like, “Doesn’t seem fair, does it?” or, “I don’t think I deserved that.” 

This would be reductive, stupid and actually false. I don’t believe that I deserve anything. Not a fair shake, not a job, not a raise, not anything. If I get those things, then good for me; if not, I should try a little harder. And in a real pinch, I could probably get some help — not because I deserve it, but because I’m fortunate.

By all accounts, I could file for unemployment. I hope that I won’t need to. I don’t want unemployment because I’m perfectly employable and I will find work for myself. Unemployment is for people who aren’t able or can’t find work. It’s a good system based on sound ideas of compassion and community. It is probably abused by some, and certainly derided by many. But the notion of entitlement is not relegated only to the few at the bottom who find a way to juke the system.

A few weeks ago I got the red ass when I read a column in LEO Weekly by one Francene Cucinello, in which she bemoaned the fact that she wasn’t given her $600 Bush Rebate Check last year because she made close to $75,000 working in her chosen field of journalism (“Stimulate this,” Sept. 24). It was a goofy column and could’ve easily been overlooked, but I was struck by the tone of entitlement it implied. As I read it, I could almost hear the tumblers sliding into place, and a key turning in a lock. Here, right in front of me, was a perfect example of what has been driving me absolutely crazy about some of my fellow Americans. So many people are convinced they deserve something. 

The first thing that’s got to go is this assumption that has spread across the ass-crack of our culture like some mysterious and embarrassing rash: that people are entitled to anything.

Gang, I don’t want to rock the boat, but you all don’t deserve shit. Seriously. The word “deserve” is almost meaningless. Anything that you have has been won in a fight, worked for or given to you. The notion that we are owed anything by virtue of the fact that we are Americans or even Homo sapiens has about as much intellectual weight as Manifest Destiny, the Divine Right of Goldman-Sachs or the supposed viability of an NBA franchise in Louisville. (Viva Cardinal basketball.) There just isn’t any natural precedent for the idea of “deserving.” 

On the contrary, it’s clear from any survey of our illustrious history on this planet that all we’re really entitled to is a short life of varying degrees of discomfort. If you’re lucky, you might get some humane companionship or at least some laughs when people trip down the stairs. Outside of that, any creature comforts you manage to scrabble together are the result of work, theft or luck. 

“But, Joe, what about all-men-created-equal-liberte’-fraternite’-egalite’-double-decaf latte’?” Bollocks. It’s made up. Don’t get me wrong. I am completely supportive of the Enlightenment Idea of Rational Humanism. It’s a good idea. But the minute it’s taken for granted as an actual right inherent to human existence, you’ve gone off the track and should be sent to bed without supper. The words “fair” and “deserve” do not reference any thing that exists a priori in nature. The sooner we stop thinking and talking like they do, the sooner we will actually start to value the pursuit of those ideas in a way that honors their supposed importance.

My dire prediction: 

A lot of you are going to lose your jobs soon. The very wealthy will become just pretty wealthy and the rest of us will be pretty broke. Get what you can when you can. If it’s a job, get it. If it’s a hand-out, get that, too. Do yourself a favor though: Delete from your mind the notion that you are entitled to anything. Holding onto it will only rob you of your self-reliance and make your struggle more difficult.