The real price of all those shoes.

Over the past four months, we have heard a lot about Ferdinand Marcos—the world’s most recognizable political “leper.” He is a man without a country, with no country in sight. Recently the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the West Indies turned down a $65 million offer from Marcos, who had requested haven there.

Marcos was and is most vehemently despised by his own people. His tremendous wealth was salt in the wounds caused by poverty. In this regard, the question of whether he gained his power through corrupt means is irrelevant. He was literally in a class by himself. His aristocratic status rendered him incapable of identifying with his suffering fellow citizens, and this created the wave of bitterness now sweeping over him.

Scorn for Marcos grows as indications of his wealth are uncovered. Among other things, Marcos’s wife, Imelda, left behind at the Malacalang Palace 2,700 pairs of shoes. Referring to this embarrassing fact, Time essayist Lance Morrow asks the appropriate question: Why? It’s nice to be rich, Morrow writes, but “when most people imagine what life would be like after winning the lottery, they do not come up with 5,400 shoes.” (Morrow points out that had Mrs. Marcos changed her shoes three times a day, it would have taken her almost two-and-a-half years to exhaust her supply, assuming she did not buy any more.)

Why, exactly? Marcos was interested in money not for the good and useful things it can buy, but for what wealth symbolizes: power and status. After all, he was well along in years, and apparently suffering from a degenerative disease. Did he ever plan to retire, to relax and take life easy? Had he stepped down voluntarily, he might have been able to spend his remaining years in his homeland in peace and comfort. He might even have been remembered as a hero. But the last thing he wanted was to take life easy. In the final days, he clung to power as a baby clings to a bottle.

We wonder how someone could possibly be so obsessed with power and status. Yet this obsession is not rare. Ferdinand Marcos symbolizes a logical outcome of the strivings of people all over the world to rise above others.

As soon as our children are born, the race begins. How much did yours weigh? Is Lisa walking yet? Is Billy saying any words? Those not born with the killer instinct have it thrust upon them. Anyone taking a trip to a local Little League baseball game this summer can see how much the thrill of sport has been consumed by the compulsion to be the best. These children, with plenty of help from their managers and parents, have often forgotten how to relax and have fun.

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In a society where the effort to get ahead and stay ahead is instinctive, it is no wonder our priorites have become so mixed up. We sacrifice the institution of family for “successful” careers without which we could not attain the social status we desire.

And of course, society causes problems for parents whose lot does not fit the mold of what is deemed acceptable. Suppose a child is born mentally or physically disadvantaged. The parents find people maneuvering them to feel embarrassed. Their feelings are rooted in society’s collective judgment of what constitutes status.

Like puppets on a string, we are often controlled by what others think. We derive our status in large part by comparing ourselves to others.

Prof. Herbert Gans, of Columbia University’s Department of Sociology, writes, “In a stratified society, where social mobility is an especially important goal and class boundaries are fuzzy, people need to know quite urgently where they stand.” He adds that the “working class … must find and maintain status distinctions between itself and the poor, much as the aristocracy must find ways of distinguishing itself from the nouveau riche.”

From this perspective, some efforts to help the poor seem woefully ironic. Recording and movie stars are regularly praised for ventures like “We Are the World” and “Hands Across America.” Yet these same people cultivate their image as social demigods, feeding the hunger for status that helps create poverty.

Into a world of people scrambling to set themselves above others, God came in human form, born in a barn among animals. And he taught that those who are greatest among us are servants, not rulers, that those who humble themselves will be exalted. He died as a criminal for all people, regardless of their economic class or social grace.

Even with this example before us, we can be led subtly down the path of Marcos. And we may not even realize it. It is sobering—almost frightening—to consider that what the world saw in Ferdinand Marcos, he did not see in himself.

Do we, too, have blind spots? What does God see in us that we do not see in ourselves? Do we perhaps make unconscious judgments of others based on their clothes, cars, or work? Are we satisfied living in communities that—through tax rates and neighborhood standards—effectively preclude any association with the “lower echelon”? Are we sure people feel welcome in our middle-class churches regardless of where they live or how clean they may be? Or are there some things in life—or some people—who are below us because of the status we have achieved?

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If we are willing to sacrifice relationships with other people for the sake of maintaining our status, then the difference between Marcos and us may be one of degree. The alternative path demands an outpouring of contempt on all our pride.


Watching the news some nights, you might imagine that the AIDS epidemic is a threat to all Americans—indeed, all humans. But keep watching. On another night, the same reporters emphasize that actually AIDS is nearly impossible to contract: we get it only from shared needles or from highly intimate sexual conduct.

One night we are meant to be extremely alarmed at the worst health hazard in modern history. The next night we are reassured that we could hardly catch it if we tried.

One night we are berated for not caring. The next night we are scolded for reacting hysterically.

Behind these apparent contradictions is the fact that we are a divided nation. A lot of Americans think, very sincerely, that a variety of sexual partners and practices is normal. Another lot of Americans think, equally sincerely, that a variety of sexual partners and practices is immoral. Caught in the middle are the medical people who scrupulously avoid ethical questions, but who know too well that a variety of sexual partners and practices is a good way to get very, very sick.

These medical specialists are trying to promote “safe” sex, and are prepared to admit publicly that the only truly “safe” sex is monogamy (described euphemistically in Newsweek as “the single-partner lifestyle”). But they are careful not to sound as though they represent the Moral Majority.

“This is not a question of morality,” says Dr. Walter R. Dowdle of the Center for Disease Control. “It’s just a biological fact.”

Which brings us to our point. Dr. Dowdle’s words imply that if the “single-partner lifestyle” were a question of morality, you would never catch him saying so in a family magazine.

“Narrow” Moralizing

It seems that morality, to a lot of people, connotes narrow-minded, knee-jerk reactions, usually from high-decibel preachers with flashy suits and greased-back hair. And while such preachers are happily harder to find, they live plentifully in the American conscience, especially when morality is the topic. If you want to convince Americans today about the rightness or wrongness of something, don’t talk about morality. Don’t impose your narrow moralizing on a free-thinking populace.

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Instead, talk the language they respect. Talk about health. Talk about scientific facts. Talk about learning to like yourself. Talk about money.

But don’t talk about morality.

Dr. Dowdle’s “amoral sensitivity” could have a revolutionary effect not only on how we approach AIDS, but on other areas traditionally dominated by moralizing. Crime, for instance.

Is it possible we have failed to make our streets safe because we talk about crime in moral terms? I envision the following scene:

The mayor of Big City, U.S.A., announces a major educational thrust to reduce the assault rate.

He is at pains to emphasize that he is not questioning anyone’s moral integrity. “We realize that some people are disposed to assault others, and we have no intention of harassing them in any way. This is not a question of morality. It’s just a biological fact that muggers live under tremendous stress. They are a high-risk group in terms of heart failure, liver disease, and concussion. Also, property values fall in their neighborhoods. We’re asking them to be good to themselves—to make an investment in their own health and economic success by not mugging, or at least by reducing the frequency of their mugging.”

One mugger publicly thanks the mayor for his explanation. “When he talked about property values, hey, the light went on. I said to myself, ‘This guy’s talking sense. From now on I’m keeping my gun in my pocket.’ ”

Will such an approach win general approval? Frankly, we have our doubts. We have grown used to thinking in moral terms, even when it means imposing our narrow morality on muggers.


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