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Dissecting the American desert complex

Peter Quaranto | Monday, March 29, 2004

Dating back to the days of the Jamestown colony, Americans have always loved their deserts. And I am not talking about desolate and uncultivated lands, though I am sure there are Americans that cannot get enough of the Great Basin Desert in Nevada. I am talking about the definition of desert as the state of deserving rewards and punishments; a state with which Americans are infatuated. We are obsessed with freedom of choice and the value judgments that we attach to such choices. We are a culture that believes people get what they deserve.This obsession with desert is deeply rooted in the traditional American Dream, which asserts that in America, any individual with work ethic and ambition can achieve his or her goals. Such a rationale, defended most clearly in the few rags-to-riches stories of our history, is not intrinsically wrong, but placed in a context of a flawed and unequal society, it can be problematic. In our day, too many people use this desert complex to rationalize actions that fail to be directed toward helping the poor and promoting the common good. Too many good people use this complex to help them sleep comfortably at night, while tens of thousands of Americans live in utter poverty.Think about it. How often do you hear people speak of deserving to do something or live a certain way because they have worked hard and made sacrifices? How many of our parents believe they deserve to send their children to Notre Dame because they have succeeded in their work? How many of us believe that we deserve to be here because we worked hard in high school? It is apparent that this notion of desert plays a significant role in our culture.Even in outreach to the poor and marginalized of our society, we often project this obsession with desert. We place standards on who should receive aid and we make judgments on who is worthy of our help. Why do we feel more sympathy for the family that is homeless because they lost everything in a fire than for the homeless man who lost his job due to alcoholism? Again, I am not suggesting this is necessarily wrong, but we must be more aware of the emphasis that we place on desert in our culture.This American desert complex does hold legitimacy in certain respects, but it also does lend itself to many problems. Such a complex assumes equal opportunity for all, which is not the case in our country and world. In our tremendously unequal world, the social status, location and wealth into which one is born have drastic effects on one’s opportunities, resources and support. It is naive to suggest that someone growing up in an economically-poor family in a troubled neighborhood of Chicago has the same opportunities as someone from a middle-class family in suburban Massachusetts. In our country, the notion of social mobility is becoming ever more mythical, and to ignore such trends in exchange for a rationalization of desert is to make a grave mistake.At Notre Dame, I often wonder how many people really believe they deserve to be here. In a world where less than 1 percent of people get to receive a college education and billions of people live under $2 a day, why do we deserve to be here? Is it because we worked harder than our peers in high school? Well then, what if we were born in another country, such as Uganda? What if we grew up in a family that could not put food on the table? To assert a justification of desert for one’s right to a college education is to show a serious lack of global consciousness.Finally, for Catholics, this notion of desert is problematic. For an individual to assert that all is a gift from God and that no one is outside God’s love and mercy, and then to turn around and assert that one has every right to make hundreds of thousands of dollars at the expense of millions of people in poverty is hypocrisy. Jesus dined with the prostitutes, the tax collectors and the most undeserved of society. Why then, here at the most Catholic university in America, is the desert complex so rampant?In the course of this questioning, I find myself wondering what a society and world would be like where people could move beyond this ungrounded obsession with desert. Would those who are blessed enough to make large amounts of money or achieve great amount of power use it more humanely? Would conceptions of justice and responsibility for others, especially the poor, take hold more in our consciousness? And would Notre Dame students spend more time utilizing the many opportunities available here for growth, giving and gratitude? Only when we begin to think outside this excessive desert complex can we begin to build a just world where people are more responsible to one another.

Peter Quaranto is a sophomore political science and international peace studies major. Contact him at pquarant@nd.edu.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.