Commentary: Choosing Not To Know
By Lee Cullum, KERA 90.1 Commentator
Dallas, TX –
What happens when elites become so wealthy that they can insulate and isolate themselves, and, apparently without impunity, choose not to know what's going on around them? Nothing good, according to Dr. Bonnie Wheeler, a medievalist at Southern Methodist University. This was the case, she said, in the last days of Rome, when "great wealth became more and more concentrated, and the ruling class didn't have to pay attention to anything but themselves."
They chose not to notice that the middle class was shrinking when a growing middle class was essential to the success of the state. It was all too easy, all of a sudden, to keep others from rising. They were unaware, also, that they didn't have enough men in the far-flung stretches of the empire to defend the frontiers. But this was "not a military problem," she explained. It was "a social problem," born of "deliberate ignorance."
Is it possible that Americans are indulging themselves in the same malady today? I think so. The emergence of immigration as the issue of the hour is shocking to many who chose never to think about the 11 million people living in this country illegally. U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Tony Garza, a Texan, said in Dallas at one point that Mexicans really want to work in the United States for a few years, then return to their families in Mexico. I see very little evidence of this. On the contrary, it seems plain that many of them want to stay, and to bring their families here. What is accomplished when Garza chooses not to know this? Nothing good.
The same thing has been going on in Washington. When the insurgency began to surge in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld chose not to know it. He would not call it by its rightful name. This had important consequences for our forces in Iraq. As an American officer explained to writer George Packer, there is a doctrine for dealing with insurgency that must be assessed if this trouble arises. It calls for hunkering down in a city and building up services, communities and infrastructures to deny safe haven to insurgents. It has proved, when tried in Iraq, at least in some instances, to be far more effective than capturing, killing or disrupting the bad actors, important though that may be. But the military was slow to adopt this response to a problem that, officially, did not exist.
What did Rumsfeld accomplish with his vow to be oblivious? We know the answer only too well. Which means that there is no choice but to wake up to the question posed by immigration: How can we bring immigrants who are employed, as most of them are, into the mainstream of America? It wouldn't hurt, either, for CEOs, many of whom, the Dallas Morning News has told us, are taking home more than $30 million in some years in various forms of compensation, to notice what layoffs are doing to this country. According to a reviewer of Louis Uchitelle's book, The Disposable American, layoffs hollow out "companies so they can't compete," and hollow out "the country by removing middle class jobs." Most of those who are laid-off sink into lower-wage work, and the nation suffers. As in Rome, this is something it won't be possible forever to choose not to know.
Lee Cullum is a contributor to the Dallas Morning News and to KERA.
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