The Book of Questions

Book-of-QuestionsBack in the ’80’s, when I was yet a young sapling, The Book of Questions was on the NYTimes Best Selling list, and I bought it. It was, in some ways, a coming of age experience at a time in my life when I was beginning to more closely re-examine everything I had been taught to think. What did I really value as opposed to what had I been trained to value.

This is a book for personal growth, a tool for deepening relationships, a lively conversation starter for the family dinner table, a fun way to pass the time in the car. It poses over 300 questions that invite people to explore the most fascinating of subjects: themselves and how they really feel about the world.”

My friends and I, mostly in university, would sit around and ponder the questions. The experience was both entertaining and reflective. I actually remember one of the questions from the book. The question was something like this:

If you would be paid $10 each time you plucked the wings off of a living butterfly, would you do it? How many times would you do it?”

The fragile, beautiful creature simply goes about its business of pollenating our plants.

Amidst the outrage at the concept of doing such a cruel thing to a living creature, some would excuse the act as killing a mere bug, others found the notion of destroying a helpless, living thing of beauty deplorable. The questions were about degree as much as it was about ethics. At what point would a person cross the line of something they and others widely regarded as cruel to attain something they wanted: money—lots of money.

I can hear, actually have heard, religious people rationalize their choice to get lots of money by proclaiming that God gave man dominion of the world; therefore, destroying the life of the innocent butterfly, who was merely doing what butterflies do, was acceptable.

Having never plucked the wings off of a butterfly, I can only assume that doing so the first time would create a personal feeling of turmoil and internal pain for many people. However, I would also assume that each time one would step beyond this ethical boundary, doing so again would be less distressing, even though more beautiful creates were dying because of an insatiable desire for money.

Times Gone By

I think this very thing is what has lead to the vast majority of people from my religious upbringing to stop feeling guilt and shame and unkindness and even begin to feel comfortable taking advantage of people and the earth at every turn. You see, I can remember a time, when I was a child, when people of faith would be truly and deeply upset by taking advantage of others for their own personal gain. These people of faith stood with the less fortunate and didn’t try to justify their own personal greed by simply claiming that the less fortunate were lazy, were free-loaders, were less than, were somehow getting what they deserved. These people of faith understood that they were blessed with varying degrees of privilege and sought to even the playing field.


I think of the shamelessness with which people of unprecedented wealth, hundreds of millions, tens of billions, claim to care about the less fortunate by donating to this, that, or the other charities, even creating their own charities and trust funds1 rather than providing decent, hard working people not with just livable wages but with decent wages.

To enrich themselves, the exceptionally wealthy choose to ship good jobs out of the USA to China and India, paying those workers a pittance, and paying American workers nothing while pocketing the savings for themselves. The “job creators” are really creating jobs in Asia, not the United States. They then do the most unpatriotic thing they can do by offshoring their wealth to avoid US taxes, claiming the tax rates, which are far lower now for the wealthy than when Ronald Reagan was in office, are too burdensome.

The mega-wealthy are doing better than they have ever done in the US and are paying lower tax rates than many middle class American. The middle class is collapsing as its purchasing power shrivels. Rent, now the standard housing arrangement for most Americans, is the highest it has ever been. In fact, the average cost of rent is now beyond the reach of the household earning $45,000 annually!2

Take a Delta town such as Hollandale, Miss. Two years ago, the entire tax base of this community of around 3,500 was (so the now-deceased and much-mourned mayor Melvin Willis told me) less than $300,000. What the town had on hand to spend for police officers, firefighters, public works, outreach, welfare and town hall salaries was roughly the amount of a Bill or Hillary one-night-stand lecture fee; what Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, earns in a couple of days.

Source: NYTimes: The Hypocrisy of ‘Helping’ the Poor (The entire article is a must-read.)

Towns and cities go bankrupt not because people are lazy but because the American Dream is dead. No longer can one be guaranteed that with hard work and a little ingenuity you can make a better living than your parents did. The jobs are gone. The wages for the remaining low skill jobs are substandard. The mental ability required for many of the jobs that now seem to matter (STEM) are beyond the average person, and one does not change one’s mental ability which is fairly well determined at birth.

And to add insult to injury, people actually support the very people that created this mess, the inequitable redistribution of wealth, who now claim they will “make America great again.” Really? So to reduce theft you put the thieves in charge?

Was I Wrong?

Years ago, should I have chosen to pluck the wings off as many butterflies as I possibly could over my lifetime rather than choosing a career in public education and paying my taxes? After ripping the wings off of the tiny living bodies of hundreds of thousands of helpless, beautiful creatures, I could have used a small pittance of the money my investments would have accrued to build a butterfly habitat in some remote region of the world that now wouldn’t have any more butterflies. Would that have righted my wrongs and turned me into a hero at the same time?

  1. Here’s one single example: No, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg did not donate $45 billion to charity 

  2. Source: Harvard‘s Joint Center for Housing Studies