It has taken me a couple of decades to properly understand the deep-seated presence of inequality in my life. I grew up in Malta, a small and young island-nation in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. I was always told by my family how lucky I was to be born in a safe place, how my grandparents' generation lived through the horrors and hungers of WWII, and how we now had everything that we always desired. We had food. We had social programs. We had free schooling. We had our own nation. Apparently, we had everything.
Yet, as I grew up I thought more and more about my presumed fortunes. Surely I was fortunate. I knew other kids who struggled in worse financial conditions. My father worked in a factory and held a second job painting houses. We made do for a while, but that was it.
Many years later and now living in the US, I can better comprehend the many fallacies that surrounded me and still surround me. We are in the midst of an election cycle that often feels existential. One side uses religion as a supposed answer to every un-Christian suggestion that these candidates come up with. From characterizing certain immigrants as criminals to suggesting that a nation should close its doors to refugees from one of the greatest conflicts in the Middle East, none of these candidates have a plan to better the lives of many of their low-income supporters. Instead, they use bigotry and racism to feed the anger of many, while the unmentionable GOP front runner claims that he is loved by all races.
Despite the obvious widening gap between rich and poor, the right refuses to recognize their blatant promotion of inequality. It is dishonest in so many ways. They tell their supporters, many of whom have long been sliding into poverty, that the rich will eventually make everyone else rich. Yet they never answer the basic question: how?
The left is not without its fault. It appears stuck in a struggle of different proportions. Will the left ever admit the fundamental importance of tackling head-on inequality? Why do our two candidates quibble between a $12 and a $15 minimum wage? That is a superficial debate. It should be a ten-year plan of this nation, a real attempt to diminish it and not simply another issue to pander for votes. Inequality is pervasive and crosses many lines (wealth, gender, race, etc). It is an urgent condition that has been left to grow for way too long.
Human nature is often dominated by self-interests.
As an archaeologist by profession, let me give you an example of our human past. If we return momentarily to Malta, albeit around five thousand years ago, we would see an archipelago dotted by massive monuments that dwarfed adjoining small villages. These monumental structures were used for rituals and built collectively by communities. They were not simple to construct. Most of the masonry weighed well over a ton. More impressively, these stones were moved and lifted into place with simple devices. One could almost look at such monuments and delight oneself at the site of human working cooperatively together. How impressive is human ingenuity and creativity? Instead, once completed, these structures were cordoned off for the most powerful community members. Not everyone was meant to walk into these places, which harbored important rituals and restricted knowledge. These peoples' lives required their labor for constructions that eventually kept them outside of the monuments. Their need to subsist and work towards their survival was additionally pressured by social obligations.
As a reader you might ask yourself: "why would anyone permit such unfavorable conditions? why cooperate when your gains are limited?" These questions bring us back to our own present settings. All of us work towards certain goals (employment, financial security, caring for others, sending children to college), but we rarely challenge the settings within which we conduct ourselves. In the meantime, we have allowed inequality to permeate our lives so deeply that some of us are scandalized at the thought of others demanding an overturn of unfavorable conditions. Others quibble on what inequality is and how far should we go in trying to end it.
Instead, we should take a deep look at our past to see how our global human history is riddled with the cautionary signs of inequality. Too often ideology has allowed individuals to act in despicable manners or accept unfavorable conditions. Ultimately, some gain while others lose. The problem in our own era is that those who are gaining are a significantly small portion of a wider populace. They control the reins of ideology. They use cheap ploys, like scandalous claims, or else they use us to appeal to the anger of disillusioned individuals. Their antics keep us from realizing a simple truth: inequality is a by-product of self-interest. It is a thousand times easier to look out for number one than to strive for fairness.
In light of all this, the debates in the political arena regarding inequality are not enough. We should demand our political leaders, most of whom come from lucrative financial backgrounds, to empathize with our fellow man, woman, and child. We should demand proposals/policies based on a collective improvement. We should not allow our leaders to simply address inequality because a series of polls are tracking the current mood of the voters. It should instead be a moral imperative because too many have struggled and will continue to struggle.
As someone who studies our past, I doubt that we will take this chance to do the right thing. Instead, we will risk defaulting to pursuing our self-interests and continue to go down this path of widening inequality. Will politicians use the lessons of history to improve their vision for a future? I hope so.