I am a liberal and I enjoy some of the finer things in life. Would the chattering class call me a Latte Liberal? I am middle income, I am an openly gay man living in a comfortable San Francisco garden apartment with my partner of 18 years and our purebred beagle, I enjoy good food and wine, have traveled to Europe several times in the last five years, went to private school and have an Ivy League education- so I guess they would. Should I feel guilty about living comfortably while there are those that are less fortunate than I?
A while back a friend of my family’s made a remark about my Thanksgiving menu, which was somewhat a “foodie” delight, that got me to thinking about being a liberal and what that means in how I live my life. Her comment was, “I always feel guilty anyway if we spend too much on a meal and then walk out on the street to see the homeless huddled over subway gratings or going through restaurant garbage cans for food”. This hit particularly hard since I had just made a reservartion recently to have dinner at the famed “The French Laundry” where a bill for two is typically about $650.00
Should I feel badly about my occasional indulgences while there is suffering and poverty? I truly do not think so if one’s liberal philosophy is more than just talk and there is action behind that talk. But regardless the comment caused me to do a little stock taking of my own life.
I have spent the better part of the last decade working on public health issues that impact those without health coverage. True most of my work revolves around HIV/AIDS and I am a person living with AIDS- but I am fortunate- I have always had decent health coverage. My work has focused on those who have no coverage and who often fall through the cracks. I have worked hard to ensure that people with HIV/AIDS in California have access to life saving drugs and that IV drug users have access to clean syringes. None of those things have affected me personally- but knowing what life is like for someone living with HIV/AIDS- I have harnessed that energy to work on better public policy. I’ve also worked in San Francisco on issues affecting including the direction of resources to those living with HIV/AIDS that are homeless or very at risk for homelessness. I have also opened my own wallet for many of these causes.
Politically I have actively supported candidates who have platforms that include services for those that are poor. But for me the most important issue is to look at candidates’ stands on health care and if they are willing to address the fact that 46 million Americans are without any health coverage.
I put my money, my time where my mouth is… I feel that I walk the walk. Does that mean I have to live like a monk? I really do not think so.
The New York Times magazine section on Sunday looked at American philanthropy and how much folks should give. There was a comment that Bill Gates who is the richest person on the planet- while giving away tens of billions of dollars still has the money to buy a Leonardo codex and live in a house estimated to be worth $100 million. Is he not entitled to enjoy his fortune while being an exemplar philanthropist? What about George Soros and Warren Buffett? Even though they are great philanthropists should they feel guilty about living well?
My answer is no. In my mind living well and caring for those less fortunate are not mutually exclusive. I might be accused of being an advocate of noblesse oblige- and I plead guilty. I do think that those who are well off have a social responsibility. If someone dedicates their life, their passions and a good portion of their resources to issues that is a good citizen in my mind. What is a good portion of their resources? I cannot answer that question- but for millennia tithing (giving 10% of one’s income) has been considered appropriate- maybe it should still be considered the minimum standard.
Regardless of my own contributions to the causes and issues that I believe in, I still have that liberal guilt about enjoying the better things in life and the privileges that I have been afforded. If I didn’t have that guilt- the comment about Thanksgiving dinner would not have resonated at all. I do not think I should have that guilt but when you care about issues and you cannot completely fix them with what you have done and with what you have given, you cannot help but wonder if these problems would be eradicated if you had just skipped that one extravagant dinner or forgone that last latte. Sadly giving those things up will not fix it, but good public policy mixed with philanthropy from all people of means and corporate responsibility might give these causes a fighting chance. Good public policy is the key. Without good policy no amount of private funds will ever be enough to fix the problems that face humanity.