THE RICH ARE DIFFERENT
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Editort-in-Chief
I often wonder at the good fortune that has brought so many rare and interesting people into my life, as I do today recalling brief encounters with Fr. Phil Berrigan and Roone Arledge, two men who also probably admired each other from a careful distance.
The fact that they died so close together has thus caused the memories from two very different times of my life to collide and encounter themselves. In 1966, I met Phil Berrigan in the desperately poor neighborhood of Baltimore where he was then a priest, and I was a young actor just out of high school, touring the country with friends in a interesting production that a mutual friend, reporter Chris Farlekas, had organized. I met Roone Arledge at George Plimpton's townhouse while his friend Howard Cosell razzed me as I played world champion Willie Mosconi a one-handed game of pool.
In Berrigan's Baltimore, the car we were traveling in was broken into and all our money was stolen, while in the townhouse on the Upper East Side every single person there except me was a household name (well, in my household).
But what digs at me now as I remember these two men is the War on Terrorism, the apparent likelihood of war with Iraq (although in the end, I don't think there will be), and the way these two men symbolized worlds that are very much at war with one another.
There is an article in today's New York Times Sunday Magazine about payouts to the families of the men and women and brothers, sisters, sons and daughters of those killed in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks last year. The article makes much of the fact that the Victims Compensation Fund was enacted as the fourth clause of a bill primarily designed to bail out the nation's airlines in the drought of air traffic immediately following the attacks. The congressional aides who wrote the bill were physically writing it even as President George W. Bush was speaking to a Joint Session of Congress live on television, where he was telling America about his plan to compensate the victims.
Th war between men of the Arledge kind and men of the Berrigan kind in a sense is symbolized in the compensation scheme. Under its provisions, the beneficiaries of a person who was rich and likely to get richer would get a lot more money from the government than those a person who was poor and likely to get poorer. The sums of moeny are staggering; a firefighter's family gets $500,000; the family of Joseph Patrick Shea, who was managing director of the brokerage house headquartered on the floors where one plane hit, will get something like $5,000,000. If you were killed by American terrorists, however, in Oklahoma City or elsewhere, you get nothing.
The thing is that this arrangement seemed fair to all concerned when Congress was drafting the bill. They had obviously taken their cure from the many different kinds of settlements and jury awards based on future income. They did not take their cue, on the other hand, from a Constitutional or Biblical perspective that treats mall men and women as equals under both. I am not sure how it came to be that we have come to frame the world in terms of lawsuiits, but the compensation plan surely proves that we have, and that we are the sorrier for it.
The people that Phil Berrigan fought for in the broken down-parish hall in Baltimore were a lot more like the laborers at the World Trade Center than the brokerage company bosses that loved Roone Arledge, who in turn must have loved them for embracing his recapitulation of the ancient Roman pastime of watching gladiators on ABC's Wide World of Sports.
A good analyst would note here that there is not an exact parallel between those who watch gladiators and those who are laborers; the better analogy, which memory does not afford me, would be the difference between being a gladiator and watching the same. I would answer that analyst by saying that today's laborers are almost in the same plight as gladiators; they are human flesh being used up to feed a vast economic engine that will spit them out in the end with little hope left for their familes, while those who can afford to watch gladiators in their leisure hours are often those who operate the engine that consumes their fellow men and leave their families vastly enriched for their work..
I took a strong liking to both of these men, and the disparity between those they served awes me even as it provokes me to search for a common ground between them. I turn as I usually do for answers to religion, and in this case to my belief in animism. You see, I believe that life is absolutely identical in its essential quality, that of being alive, in every form of living thing. If you could isolate the life essence of a tree, it would not be differnt than the life esence of a man or woman or child, a gladiator or a laborer, except in one possible way: its volume. There may be more life in some things and less life in others; in fact, every piece or art, and every poem, and every speech from every player's mouth points that out. Some have more life than others. What, then, if we could devise a compensation scheme in which those with more life got more money, and those with less life got less.
Then we would have the man who gained life essence by saving the life of another person getting more than someone who sucked the life essence out of another person, only to get it sucked out of him in turn by the life-sucking environment in which he must live. There would be more for the person who sang and less for the person who worried. More for the person who laughed and less for the person who analyzed. More for the joyful, less for the staid, more for the wild, less for the sober. God would delight in such a plan.
Regardless of how much life one has, however, all life is precious and powerful, and that is the common ground between Roone Arledge and Phil Berrigan. They both hoped to make it better for us, one by entertaining and informing us and the other by preserving the peace and purposefulness of our lives. I don't begin to question God as to when he might start to try to resolve the issues their lives create, but I do know that both of them made my life fuller, and that is why I am, indeed, such a very, very rich man. The victims, meanwhile, can only measure their true compensation in the mirror, and in their own hearts.