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The Great American Think-Off and the murky matter of America’s rich and poor

Of all the issues roiling about in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill, there is one that seems — to me at least — to loom above the others like the Grim Reaper in an intensive care unit, complicating efforts to meaningfully resolve all of the horre

Of all the issues roiling about in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill, there is one that seems — to me at least — to loom above the others like the Grim Reaper in an intensive care unit, complicating efforts to meaningfully resolve all of the horrendous economic and environmental problems caused by the disaster. And it is something that has been with us since money was invented, something that has threatened societal order for centuries. It’s the matter of the rich and the poor. Or the rich versus the poor.

Although one can argue that most of the people suffering the greatest economic hardship in the Gulf were not, prior to the spill, poor in the sense that most of us define poor (being without the financial means to purchase life’s necessities and some of its wants), so much of the discussion that has taken place since the spill has focused on issues of us versus them, little people versus big corporations. Rich versus poor.

I was thinking about this latest crack to hit the rich-and-poor divide at this year’s Great American Think-Off, where I listened to four ordinary Americans debate the question of whether the rich are obligated to help the poor.

The Think-Off has been held for 18 years in New York Mills, Minn., a town of about 1,400 located some 180 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Every June, people from around the country and the world come to this place also known for farming and leisure-boat manufacturing to argue a question of significant philosophical importance. Some are average folk who seem to have a fair amount of money (I counted more than a few luxury import cars in the parking lot), and some don’t appear to have enough cash to buy a tank of gas.

Oil spill seemed to seep up to Minnesota
At this year’s event, I was struck by the vigorous conviction exhibited by both the debaters and the audience members. Now no one talked about the Gulf disaster, or the obligation to provide compensation that just about everyone agrees must be borne by any individual (or corporation, or organization) rich or poor, if something is done by that individual or organization that endangers another’s life or livelihood. But somehow, I felt the oil spill had seeped all the way up to the land of Sky Blue Waters. The us-versus-them line, although present in a more polite form (as this is still Minnesota), was definitely in that auditorium. And the thing that was remarkable was that the divisions were not as obvious as the extreme right and the extreme left might want us to believe. Or as sharp.

One of the debaters who argued that the rich do not have any obligation to help the poor was a retired teacher and school board member from rural Minnesota. Although she said that she gladly gave what she could to various civic causes, she was fierce in her view that too much of today’s society has come to expect handouts and that some of the poor are poor because they choose that way of life. OK, her views did not surprise me.

Bursting stereotypes
One who advocated the idea that the rich are obligated to help the poor had a corporate job and an attorney wife but he did sort of fit that stereotypical National Public Radio urban liberal mold, complete with his cheerful hug of his opponent. One of the debaters who believed that the rich must help the poor went on at length about how defining rich and poor is not just a matter of money. She was a young wife and mother from rural Minnesota who said she had been financially poor as a child but didn’t look as much anymore. If I had not heard her argument, I might have wrongly pegged her, just upon first sight and a quick read of her biography, for one of Sarah Palin’s fans.

The event winner (chosen by audience vote) was a North Carolina entrepreneur in a simple checked shirt who talked about the responsibility, but not obligation, that the financially rich should shoulder regarding assistance to the poor. At one point, he disparaged the gold-ice-cream trend popular among some glitterati and thought the money should be voluntarily spent on things such as helping people make a living through proper stewardship of farm lands.

So the rich and poor divide remains. But we should carefully consider who the rich and the poor might be, because they are not always who or what you might think. They may not be evil or deserving. Or obvious. Or unwilling to render assistance or willing to grab handouts. 

Just like the spill, it’s a murky matter that, minus more reasonable thought, threatens a nation already marked by too many divisions.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in Minneapolis.