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Today, fully aware of the hell of Syria, the pain of the Washington Navy Yard, and of my ignorance of the agony of millions of my fellow creatures, I had the temerity to celebrate my good fortune in going to an auction and buying four lots of art and antiques which I know will double my investment, if I take the trouble to put them ‘on the market’. One was a present for an elderly relative who is 99. I hope she will like it.

I bought a couple of books, both of which will undoubtedly appeal to enthusiasts of their subject matter, although neither relate to my particular obsessions. And the other two lots were paintings. I liked both, and recognised their skill and value as soon as my eye fell upon them at the viewing. Neither is a Picasso or a Van Gogh, but both artists have ‘a following’. I would happily keep the paintings: one is the fifth or sixth I have acquired by the artist who lived locally but died sixteen years before I was born, and the other is by a Czech woman who lived at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Her work never fails to make twice what I paid.

Because I’m in the fortunate position of being able to spare a reasonably large amount of money – about twice the monthly income of the average British worker – I was able to make myself two months more in the course of a single day. If you have, you get more. If you have not, then you lose even the little you have.

Then I drove a hire car to visit the auto-engineers who are rebuilding my own car engine. They’ve had it now for almost six weeks, and they are skilled at what they do. I went to complain that they’re taking too long, and costing me twice their their labour because I need to rent a car to keep my life on track. They’d love to be able to spare the time and the capital to enjoy a day like I had. But they admit that they wouldn’t know how.

It’s that “there but for fortune” thing. It’s not their fault that they didn’t have the expensive education I had, and their lives gave them neither the space nor time for the luxury of developing their potential for what Abram Maslow called ‘self actualisation’. My lot say that their lot inhabit the ‘lowbrow culture’ and that they simply don’t appreciate the ‘higher’ values of life. The voices in my head tell me that someone once suggested that the breadless should eat cake. The voices in their heads tell them to mistrust ‘clever’ people.

In some places the carless walk for hours merely to obtain enough water to survive, often at risk of being killed, maimed or raped by people who think of them as inferior, because they aren’t members of their own group. And my priorities are to make sure I justify my existence in a place where water is piped straight to my home. If I helped those people, by sending money to build wells and infrastructure, eventually I’d be unable to find the money people want from me to keep me in luxury. Cross the line and become homeless. But our homeless are better off than those with homes in many other countries.

Life seems to create a dichotomy between the person I wish I could be, and the things I’m told I must have in order to be able to co-exist with the civilisation in which I live. How dare I appreciate and buy art – intrinsically useless stuff of no practical use whatsoever – when it’s meaningless to the child who walks for hours for water? How dare I pollute the planet by driving a car?

I’d like to imagine myself capable of compassion, since lack of compassion is the epitome of ignorance. In some ways privilege is accompanied by a paradoxical envy of poverty. Even to have the potential for developing aesthetic values is depriving others of the same opportunity. In the worst of situations a Van Gogh might be more use to patch a leaking roof than to provide spurious intellectual and aesthetic gratification for a member of a group of our species who consider themselves ‘superior’ to others. Is achievement in making profit more admirable than walking for six hours a day to fetch water to keep a family alive?

We can condemn the brutality of internecine tribal violence in countries we describe as primitive or underdeveloped, but how do we justify using unmanned drones to kill the people we judge as ‘bad’? Is it really any better than taking a machete to members of a tribe we do not like?

I wonder if every gain I think I make is merely another loss for someone else. If I too survive to be 99, which other lives will I have damaged? One man’s more is another’s less.

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