Anne Klaeysen's Blog
It has been a long time since the heady days of Occupy Wall Street in the fall of 2011, when winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Economics Joseph Stiglitz traveled downtown from Columbia University to teach activists in a corner of Zuccotti Park. The following year, he published The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, in which he wrote: “It’s no use pretending that what has obviously happened has not in fact happened. The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent.” And while these privileged few enjoy the best health care, education and other benefits of wealth, they fail to realize that “their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live.”
The New York Society participated in Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in several ways: The Board of Trustees endorsed its mission; I was a chaplain on site, and our teens accompanied me to an interfaith service; members rallied both in the park and on the street; and we hosted speakers, working groups and programs. How well I recall telling a member of Ethical Culture Fieldston School’s board that our 2012 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Remembrance Platform would feature an OWS panel and, upon hearing her response – “What could they possibly have to say?” – picturing founder Felix Adler, who proposed a maximum wage, spinning in his modest grave in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
As it turns out, they had a great deal to say, and many more people have been talking and writing since then. The “1 percent versus the 99 percent” meme caught on and spread around the world. In 2012, there were 25 percent more academic articles about inequality than in 2011 – and 237 percent more than in 2004. It has become today’s defining issue. Even the school Adler originally named The Workingman’s School, “especially intended to serve the needs of the children of the poor” (The New York Times, November 23, 1890), was featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine dedicated to inequality (5/4/14). “The Tale of Two Schools” with its photographs of, and quotations by, students from Fieldston and neighboring University Heights High School in the South Bronx refers to exercises in “radical empathy,” not to ways of remedying the gross disparity described by Lisa Greenbaum, English teacher at University Heights: “They walked into Fieldston, and they were just overwhelmed. They couldn’t imagine that this was just minutes from where they lived, and they never even knew about it. One kid ran crying off campus. It made them so disheartened about their own circumstances.”
In addition to Stiglitz’s work, economist Robert Reich released a documentary called “Inequality for All” in 2013; Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi just published The Divide: American Justice in the Age of the Wealth Gap; and Fast Food Forward, started last year in NYC, took its worker strikes on the road and across the country. The latest notable is French economist Thomas Piketty, whose 700-page tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has become an international bestseller. His thesis is that inequality is the inevitable collateral effect of capitalism and that, if governments don’t act to contain it, it will grow until it seriously threatens democracy and economic stability. The “Piketty effect” is well known to academic economists and is finally becoming familiar to the rest of us. Here is the solid evidence and scholarly underpinning for the phenomenon we have been experiencing since the depression of 2008: radical social injustice.
Yes, there is a great deal to say, but now is the time to act. Long gone are the days when Dr. Adler called captains of industry and labor leaders who were members of his congregation and parents in his school into his office and convinced them to join him in building institutions and transforming society to meet the needs of public welfare. Although today we lack his powerful connections, we are nonetheless called upon to act in solidarity with the 99%. In addition to maintaining a homeless shelter and fighting for a living wage, we can also support quality public education by housing pre-kindergarten and after-school programs. Let’s do it! We can and we must take a stand.
There is a story I often tell about Felix Adler at our monthly receptions for newcomers. Because the architecture of our meeting house can seem austere and our vision a little unclear (religion or not religion?), I introduce Ethical Culture through its founder, a young man who wondered what life would be like if we put ethics first – and then did it.
Felix was expected to inherit his father Samuel’s position as head rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, a Reform Jewish synagogue in Manhattan. His family came from Germany in the mid-19th century to join this congregation and help it grow. By all accounts, Felix learned his lessons well from his scholarly father who guided his reading in the family’s enviable library and his compassionate mother whom he accompanied on visits to poor families with baskets of food and clothing. If his school teachers thought that he should study as hard as his brother, who was destined to become a doctor, they also appreciated his help with the younger children. Everyone recognized him as a serious and deep thinker who also enjoyed word play, especially puns.
When it came time to study for the rabbinate, Felix left for Heidelberg and Berlin. Imagine him far from the love and security of his home. Yes, he was fluent in German and well prepared academically, but he had grown up in a privileged American setting. Student life in Germany was wild: no dorms with empathetic RAs and “helicopter” (hovering) parents Skyping every day; students lived on their own and attended lectures, wholly responsible for their education. Felix was exposed to both intellectual heights and social depravity. He was shocked that his esteemed teachers didn’t incorporate literary criticism into biblical study and that his fellow students frequented prostitutes. When it became clear to him that the Torah was ancient mythology, he turned to philosophy for a moral foundation. He attended political rallies and observed labor upheavals, which drew him to sociological studies. Young Adler was engaged in an independent study far from what his parents and congregation had envisioned for him. Legend has it that when his mother received a letter expressing Felix’s enthusiasm for philosopher Emmanuel Kant, she replied that “no good can ever come of studying philosophy” and insisted he return home.
Return he did and, at the age of 23 years, delivered a sermon at Temple Emanu-El called “The Judaism of the Future.” Now it was his turn to shock: Adler didn’t mention God and introduced his concept of Judaism as a universal religion of morality for all humanity. It was his first and last sermon at his father’s synagogue. Soon it became clear that he would not become a rabbi, and members of the congregation helped him gain a teaching position at Cornell University where he became popular with students for his radical religious ideas that included an understanding of labor struggles and power politics. Others, however, attacked him as an atheist, and Cornell declined to accept the grant that paid Adler’s salary, so he returned to New York City. And that is where, in Standard Hall on May 15, 1876, Ethical Culture was founded.
Today Ethical Societies and the Ethical Culture Fieldston School celebrate Founder’s Day in early May. We hark back to young Adler’s founding address and continue to find inspiration there, not least because the conditions about which he spoke still persist and demand our action. “There is a great and crying evil in modern society. It is want of purpose. It is that narrowness of vision which shuts out the wider vistas of the soul. It is the absence of those sublime emotions which, wherever they arise, do not fall to exalt and consecrate existence.”
We still need a religion without the trappings of ritual or creed that unites us all – theists, agnostics and atheist – in ethical social action. “Believe or disbelieve as ye list — we shall at all times respect every honest conviction. But be one with us where there is nothing to divide — in action. Diversity in the creed, unanimity in the deed! This is that practical religion from which none dissents. This is that platform broad enough and solid enough to receive the worshipper and the ‘infidel.’ This is that common ground where we may all grasp hands as brothers, united in mankind’s common cause.”
Today we include women and the LGBTQ community on his platform. As Adler well knew, ethics would continue to progress, embracing new groups of people and empowering them to claim their rights. The Ethical Movement he founded is now part of a larger Humanism that extends globally and touches everyone who puts “deed above creed.” We hear his voice echoing from Standard Hall in 1876:
“The time calls for action. Up, then, and let us do our part faithfully and well. And oh, friends, our children’s children will hold our memories dearer for the work which we begin this hour.”