Crack the Whip–How a Child’s Playground Activity Speaks to Our Times

Snap_the_Whip_1872_Winslow_HomerThe following is the full version of an article I wrote for the Blog of the USCCB earlier this month. (Due to space limitations, I had to shorten the article for the USCCB Blog.)

Many years ago I heard an analogy for what has happened in this country and how the sins and unhealthy patterns of the elite, powerful, and wealthy trickled down to the poor, but with far more disastrous effects.

The analogy was to the game of “Crack the Whip,” which some of us may remember from our days on the school playground. The “game” involved 15 or 20 children making a straight line. Each child then reached back with one arm and took the hand of the one behind him to create a long chain. The child at the front of the line then took off running and everyone else behind followed, still holding hands. Suddenly, the lead child would take a sharp turn. The children immediately behind him could successfully negotiate the turn, but the further back one was, the harder it was to hold on. The children toward the end of the line didn’t stand a chance. They were flung off by the centripetal force and usually ended up on the ground.

This is an analogy for the social and economic ills of the last sixty or more years. There are some, those at the “front of the line,” who are well-positioned to take their thrill rides, engage in social experimentation, and indulge greed and excess with minimal damage. Among them are some of the Hollywood elite, pop music stars, political leaders, wealthy financiers, Madison Avenue marketers, Wall Street investors, and many other cultural, social, business, and government leaders. But at the “back of the line,” the damage is awful.

Let’s consider two basic areas of life where “Crack the Whip” is much in evidence: social/moral ills, and economic ills.

Social/moral ills – At the very front of the line are those who have sharply turned towards excesses of every sort: drugs, alcohol, sex, revolving-door marriages, glamorizing all sorts of dangerous and deleterious behaviors. These often come with terrible personal consequences.

At the front of the line they can afford (financially and socially, not morally) the consequences of what they do. They can pay for the stays in rehabilitation centers, the treatments for STDs, and the therapy for their children (who are traumatized by divorce and other issues their indulgences cause).

But at the back of the line the drug use, sexual promiscuity, and divorce culture has had far more devastating effects. Lacking access to treatment programs, the addicted poor go to jail. Diseases like AIDs and other STDs are less treated and spread more easily. Poor families are devastated by sexual promiscuity and divorce. Children are raised without fathers. The socials ills multiply quickly.

It’s a sad game of “Crack the Whip.” At the front of the line, all the misbehavior looks “fun,” even “glamorous.” But at the back of the line, folks go flying off in all directions, staggering and reeling.

I do not write to absolve the poor from all responsibility and merely blame the rich and powerful. Being mesmerized by the glamor of evil is a human problem; it affects all of us. But in the end we ought to consider how our cooperation (whether by active promotion or by sinful silence) in the glamorization of sin and excess affects others—especially those at the “end of the line.”

Economic illsThose at the front of the line can also afford the lifestyles that greed demands. They can generally afford to pay the higher prices of an overheated economy and a lifestyle that expects more and more.

The poor are fined for not having insurance. Many cannot afford to drive. They often face tremendous economic hurdles in trying to open small business or even keep their homes. College educations and even advanced degrees are (unreasonably) required for many jobs, but the cost is exorbitant. Obtaining a college education leaves many young people in debt for decades. And the poor are largely locked out of many options.

A few years back it became trendy to leave the stock market and enter the real estate market, buying and “flipping” properties. The market overheated, the cost of housing skyrocketed, and even the upper-middle class found it hard to afford basic housing. The “bubble” burst by 2007 and left the economy reeling. Investors took a few hits and got government bailouts, but mainly they just went back to investing in the stock market. They left in their wake devastated homeowners facing “underwater” properties and foreclosures.

“Gentrification” also accelerated, bringing with it all the difficulties of social dislocation. The poor are economically and literally being moved to the margins as the disturbances to the housing market are still working themselves out. Here in Washington D.C. the poor are moved to the margins of what many call “Ward 9.” There are actually only 8 Wards in D.C.—being in “Ward 9” is a euphemism for being moved to the margins, outside the city that is increasingly losing its economic diversity. What used to be poor, working-class neighborhoods are now filled with houses sporting prices approaching one million dollars.

It’s a classic case of “Crack the Whip.” Those at the front of the line can adjust to sudden shifts in the economy and “play the market,” but at the back of the line the less privileged are sent flying, staggering as they fall and go off to the “Ward 9s” of our cities.

I am a priest, not an economist, and I realize that economic realities are very complex. I am not calling for all sorts of government intervention, but I do know what I see as a priest working among all social classes. I cannot and should not devise policy solutions; I leave that to the experts among the laity. But what I can and should do is to remind the folks at the front of the line to remember those at the back. “Crack the Whip” is fun and exciting when you’re at the beginning of the line, but devastating if you’re at the end.

We need to rediscover concern for the common good. We should look at our own behavior regardless of where we are in the line. I am my brother’s keeper; his welfare ought to be important to me. It’s not just about money; it’s about taking care to build a culture that thinks more about those at the back of the line and those yet to be born. What of them? How does my life and lifestyle affect them?