The Banana Republic near Boston Common has small, untidy stacks of books as decoration around the store. While helping my mom help my dad pick out a decent fall jacket, I couldn’t help but open a few books to discover that they contain nothing but blank pages. The faux-books come in four varieties, with different dimensions, and tan or brown or ivory colored hardcovers.
On one shelf near a rack of pea coats, there was actually a real book, a fiction novel. A quote inside said:
“We have to distinguish between playing by the rules and making the rules”
- George Soros
I didn’t say anything out loud, I just kept looking for decent coats my dad might enjoy and might even feel compelled to pay for. But after getting ice cream (but no coat), walking through the park, and driving home, I looked up the full context for the quote.
A New York Review of Books article captures Soros, investor-philanthropist, citing himself from a book he wrote in 1998. Continuing from the above, he improvises: “…Playing by the rules, one does the best one can, irrespective of the social consequences. Whereas in making the rules, people ought to be concerned with the social consequences and not with their personal interests — in other words, not to bend the rules to their benefit or their advantage. This is a principle which I have certainly observed.”
The original, extended text is a bit more refined… but at any rate, the key insight Soros offers is that democracy is not a partner for capitalism, but rather, a counterbalance.
A few hours earlier, my parents and I went to the Boston Public Library. In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, they had a fiddle duet playing in the courtyard — dancing Bacchus fountain shut off — while an elderly black man in a grey shirt, and red suspenders and necktie read selected poems and verses into a microphone. We ate sandwiches in the shade and, annoyingly, out of the direction in which the tinny amplifiers projected his voice.
The library had a modest exhibition set up, consisting of maps of the United States in the time leading up to the war’s beginning. From what I gathered, the gist of the exhibit was to show geographic disparity underpinning great differences between the north and south. This includes much more than classic images of industry and agriculture, and it is best embodied in the hand-written missives of a plantation man whose family owned land for generations. The 57-year old was quoted as saying, “… they label us slave-mongering demons, but they trap factory workers in a life of debt that never ends. Their workers have no freedom, and my slaves are better treated than any factory girl of theirs. My workers are fed well and kept healthy, while theirs starve and freeze to an early death from their working conditions. And if we have not the right to govern ourselves, they want us to throw away the Constitution of these United States. We have no reason to be united with them any longer and would well be rid of them.”
Stumbling upon Soros’ quote inked 138 years after the landowner’s seemed to bookend a thought: that incompatible political views of freedom will always exist in America — but also, some people will be trapped under any view. Are wage slaves today or yesterday really more free than plantation slaves? And, did the Union army successfully steamroll over the debate?
In a way, my parents carry the tension with them. We saw a black boy in a straw hat peddling a swan boat full of plucky tourists back to the wooden dock where other crew and tourists were setting out for a tour of the duck pond. I said to my mom that the scene looked like a distant time and place before the Civil War, to which she and my dad both replied, “Well, it’s a job.” I never like hearing that, and we launched into talking about why some groups of people are given less of a fair economic hand than others. On one hand, my mom made a comment about black students having less confidence, commitment, stick-to-it-ness, and so on. I tried to string together a reply about many black people finding less access to opportunities through rings of barriers put up by biases. On the other hand, as we were walking out of the park, my mom offered up a story that she said did indeed show bias. A black woman who was a vibrant gospel choir expert interviewing for the music director position at her school was passed over for a clumsy white woman with unimpressive training. My mom found this to be an injustice and a loss for the woman and the students, too. I said, Yes, that’s exactly the kind of bias creeping up everywhere, and not just in major moments in a life, like getting hired for a job, but in more subtle, constant ways that influence a life outlook for the person on the receiving end of things.
I’d say my parents generally play by the rules. But, in doing so, they also enforce the rules made by others. I had picked up one of the blank books and put it down on a table of shirts, but it was gone when I turned around and I didn’t give it a second thought — I assumed someone roving the store put it back on a shelf, neatly out of place. But my dad thought it was mine and carried it with a newspaper out of the store. We all got a laugh, and I got a new sketchpad with a white elephant logo on the spine.