Blaming Virtue for the Excesses of Greed

I normally wouldn’t waste my time responding to an article by Margaret Wente. For those who are lucky enough not to have come across her, she is a right-wing ideologue columnist for the Globe & Mail. Born into privilege, educated at private schools, and lucky enough to be able to put her MA in English literature to work by cutting down the weakest members of society, she has gained a reputation as a – how to put this delicately? – provocateur. For those of us in the internet generation, we’d call her a troll, her writings flamebait; she seemingly writes her column to stir up all the vitriolic responses that she can muster. Well this time I am forced to take the bait, because she’s touched a personal nerve.

In her latest column for the Globe & Mail, Ms. Wente blasts the Occupy movement as architects of their own demise. She paints a picture of what she calls the “virtueocracy”, a generation of graduates who pursued degrees in sociology, environmental law, or (heaven forbid) human rights and are upset that there’s no work to be had. I fall directly into her category, and so I find it hard to not take her attack personally. Says Wente, “They aspire to join the virtueocracy – the class of people who expect to find self-fulfillment (and a comfortable living) in non-profit or government work, by saving the planet, rescuing the poor and regulating the rest of us.”

I would be the last to argue that my desire to work in this sector is driven by pragmatism rather than idealism, I never expected to make much money. I did however pursue this career based on the lessons that were taught by the previous generation, lessons taught by Ms. Wente’s generation. Lessons that taught it is the responsibility of the strong to help the weak, and the responsibility of the wealthy to assist the poor. The post-war generation tried to show us that the world could be improved through cooperation and understanding. They built a world that is, for better or for worse, interconnected and interdependent. Those of us who work in international development (or social work, education, rights law) do so because we believe that everyone will be better off if we all give a little bit more, and stop taking quite so much. We believe in principles of fairness and equality, principles that were enshrined in documents signed by our parents and grandparents. We did not start this movement, we are simply trying to keep it going.

Yet according to Margaret Wente, unemployment is our fault. We graduated with degrees that made us unemployable because of our own reckless foolishness – never mind the de-streaming  policies and standardized testing of the Mike Harris Conservatives, never mind universities that charge exorbitant tuition fees while teaching standards plummet and class sizes balloon, never mind a media that blasts us from a young age with messages of grief, despair, and fear.

Somehow she has the gall to say, “It’s not the greedy Wall Street bankers who destroyed these people’s hopes. It’s the virtueocracy itself. It’s the people who constructed a benefit-heavy entitlement system whose costs can no longer be sustained.” And then this gem, “In Canada, it’s the social progressives who assure us we can keep on consuming all the health care we want, even as the costs squeeze out other public goods.”

Margaret Wente would have us believe that the financial system is broken because we are spending too much on helping people. She would argue that we are not being greedy enough! What an ego she must have to sit comfortably in her job that she gained through an education in the arts and blame the naiveté of youth. Ivory towers be damned, here is a woman marching the streets in gleaming ivory armour, waving a flaming sword of hypocrisy and screaming death to the peasants, for they are revolting!

What’s revolting is a comfortable upper and upper-middle class blaming the poor and downtrodden for their own ills, and similarly blaming those who are trying to make a difference. I am fully aware that the work I want to do is funded on the backs of taxpayers, but I am a taxpayer myself. I believe in distribution of wealth, and I am willing to do my part. But for Ms. Wente and her ilk, we are a drain on society – who needs health, pensions, and government-funded education? Let the weak sink, and the strong will rise. Survival of the fittest, she would claim; the world is a jungle. Well if the world is a jungle, then I suppose I have to make room for the snakes.

In conclusion, I should note that Ms. Wente never actually spoke to the protestors that she quoted, and through such painstaking research she managed to quote someone who has absolutely no connection to the Occupy movement. The protestor “John” who wants to work in environmental law for a non-profit? He was filched from a post on the website of the Obama election campaign. But who needs journalistic integrity when you were born in a lucky time, you own your house, and you don’t have a student loan. Honesty is yet another virtue, and one it seems it is profitable to ignore.

(Feature photo courtesy of Alexis Gravel/Flickr)