(My column for February 2016)

Yeah, I know what they meant, but…

Wait, wait, wait, let me back up. Another one of those Internet memes caught my attention the other day on Facebook.  Maybe you’ve seen it too. The picture is of a page of a spiral notebook. The caption reads, “A comprehensive list of everything you’re entitled to and that the world owes you.”

The page, of course, is blank.

Unsurprisingly, this meme is circulating among my more conservative friends… and I do understand the point they are trying to make, inveighing against some attitude of entitlement and privilege that I suppose they imagine to be prevalent among, oh, I don’t know, young people, minorities, the poor, immigrants, who knows…. you know, “those” people.

The sentiment isn’t new, of course. The statement “Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living; the world owes you nothing, it was here first” is frequently ascribed to Mark Twain, but according to the very handy website Quote Investigator (see credit actually belongs to a late-19th-century wag named Robert J. Burdette. And you might remember this little existentialist nugget from around the same time, from the pen of poet and novelist Stephen Crane:

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

But still, I find the idea as stated vaguely disturbing for a number of reasons.

For one thing, it’s kinda untrue. There are plenty of things that the world provides for us – even if it isn’t out of any sense of “obligation,” or because we “deserve” them. Sunlight, oxygen, water, birdsong, rainbows, mountainsides, seashores… All there for us to enjoy, just inherent in the simple nature of things.

For another – why is there no mention of those rights that our historical documents assert are endowed to every person? One would think that things like “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” would be included on that barren sheet of paper, and that history-loving  conservatives, of all people, should be the first to put them there.

Furthermore: it’s setting up the wrong question entirely. The question shouldn’t be “what, if anything, does the world owe us?” – the real question is, what do we owe each other while we are in the world?

I fear that such sentiments as these are frequently used as a cover to avoid that very question. After all, if the world doesn’t owe you anything, than it’s not much of a stretch to conclude that I don’t either… that, as the saying goes, “you’re on your own.” Or as Cain put it, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

But we do have rights and there are things each of us deserves – things like dignity, respect, compassion, fairness, and justice – and we do have an obligation, either to provide them for each other or deal with the inevitable consequences.


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