I felt relieved by the remarks you made in Boca Raton. I understood your statement as the more passive cruelty of a man who once actively tormented a gay classmate and terrorized the family dog. Your remarks reminded me of the sort of thing one hears in airport executive lounges and on the golf course--dull, uniform places where men like you are used to being heard. I was glad you finally stopped pretending to be something you weren’t—a man interested in governing a nation, rather than an executive about to go on another war raid of government to guarantee the continued success of his economic class.
In 1987, when I was eighteen, I had a job in a factory that made cheerleader uniforms. The place was called Teammates, and it produced the entire uniform, from yarn to finished garment. I was saving to go to college. All of my friends had jobs, and though the factory was hot, loud and dirty, at least I wasn’t milking cows or working in the chicken processing plant like some of my classmates. This was the rural upper Midwest, where the 47% you dismissively noted in Boca Raton would more accurately be calculated as 75 to 80 % of the population. That summer, I typically worked ten to twelve hours a day—a full shift and overtime—for the Federal Minimum Wage of $3.25 an hour. For the three of us hired on for the summer and bound for college in the fall, it was clear to everyone at the factory that we had been given opportunities the others there had been denied.
I attended public school where I was taught how to write a sentence, how to look things up in a library, how to conjugate a German verb, use a microscope, drive a car. I learned the names of the noxious weeds of Wisconsin, and all the breeds of cattle common to North America. Teachers tried to help me understand complex math, and the periodic table of elements’ relation to the material world. I am grateful to every one of them. I attended a public university where professors went out of their way to expand my world and my sense that I could contribute something meaningful to it. Many of these people are part of the that 47% of Americans, and those who are not are likely contributing a greater percentage of income tax than you ever will, with your access to the money launderers of the rich in Switzerland and the Bahamas.
Unlike you, I am the first to admit that I have been helped at every stage of my life, and that I am the beneficiary of the sacrifices of others. My parents worked hard to make sure I received an education, and my teachers, librarians, coaches, club leaders and clergy encouraged me, taught me important skills and showed me the benefits of collective effort. Many of these people chose the work they did because they believed in working for the greater good. That they are paid at a lower rate than corporate executives doesn’t make their work, their lives or their contributions of any less value. On the contrary, these are the very people who create opportunity in a nation that, depite the prevailing myth, offers the fewest chances for economic mobility in the industrial world.
One can read clearly your notion that having wealth suggests not only greater financial prudence, but a superior moral position. I can’t say I received complex theology while in Sunday School and confirmation classes, but I learned the basics: We’re all in this together; compassion is the greatest virtue; we are equal in the eyes of God and we will be judged by our treatment of the least among us. While I don’t consider myself much of a believer, these truths have shaped me at my core.
If I were a Christian, Mr. Romney, I would pray that you find the capacity for greater compassion, and that you see your tremendous wealth as an opportunity to assist those among us who need our help the most. Since I’m not, however, I’ll just be sure to vote for someone else.
Mark Wunderlich is the author of three volumes of poetry, the most recent of which is The Earth Avails, forthcoming from Graywolf Press. He teaches writing and literature at Bennington College.