On the other hand, what if the affluenza judge was right? What if Ethan Couch was raised in a moral vacuum, in an ethical deprivation chamber so devoid of worthwhile moral guidance that he couldn’t even tell drunk from sober, let alone good from evil? Is that possible?
If it is, even a little bit, what does it say about the world around him? Instead of spending so much moral energy despising DWI killer Ethan Couch and his mother, Tonya — or maybe in addition to despising them — should we also cast at least an occasional eye to the mirror? Does the affluenza case have anything to say about the larger culture?
Man, I hope not. And I don’t see why it should. Somehow I don’t think affluenza is what won the West. But immigrants might be. They certainly offer a contrast.
I spent part of New Year’s Eve day talking to teenagers and adults working as volunteer food-packers at the North Texas Food Bank, helping to assemble food packages for needy families. Some of the people I chatted with were members of the Church of South India (United) , a growing Christian denomination in the northern suburbs of Dallas, and some belonged to the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, a Christian denomination headquartered in South India that traces its founding to the year 52 AD. I also spoke with the adult leader of a Muslim youth group.
Listen. After a week on the Couch beat, talking to these folks was like a shower, a shave and a haircut. I walked out of the food bank feeling a whole lot better about my country.
These are all relatively affluent kids. Their parents have come here from India, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq — from all over the world — and have done well enough to settle their families in the better-off communities north of the city. Based on money alone, they could be as clueless as Ethan Couch, but they don’t seem to be.
I asked them why people are poor, what makes them poor. “Something happens in their lives,” said Nikitha Kurian, 14, a student at Uplift Infinity Preparatory high school in Irving. “It might be cancer or something,” she said.
Navin Mathew, 15, who attends the same school, said, “It’s probably something that happens suddenly. You can’t tell about tomorrow. Everything happens quickly.”
I asked them what they will be when they grow up, rich or poor. They were silent for a long moment. Nobody started jumping up and down screaming, “Rich! Rich! Rich!”
Linsa Sam, 19, a student at University of Texas-Dallas, broke the silence: “We all have a picture of what we would like to be, because it’s real in our heads. But everything can happen, and tomorrow is not promised.”
It’s not? Oh, yeah, I knew that. I just forgot for a second. Well, actually I think tomorrow is promised in Disney movies. Maybe not so much in India.
Kamran Shakoor, 36, brought a bunch of kids from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association to the Food Bank. They, too, were children of affluent immigrants living mainly in the northern suburbs.
“Their parents are mostly in the technology-related professions, mostly related to computers,” Shakoor told me. “Some of them are business owners as well. The kids who are here, most of their parents are pretty well off. Some go to Frisco and Plano ISD. Some go to UTD. We have a mix of them.”
The families of the young people he brought to the Food Bank last Thursday belong to several different mosques in the Dallas area, but they are united in a religious commitment to serve the poor.
“They came down here on New Year’s Eve to help out their fellow North Texans,” Shakoor said. “We are taught to serve mankind. We are taught to do this. This is our religion.
“The founder of our religion, the prophet Muhammad told us, ‘This is your job as a Muslim.’ There is a lot of responsibility for Muslims to help the needy people, help the hungry people. It’s not like being a Muslim you just go pray five times a day. You actually have to serve humanity and protect the sanctity of life.”
Look, please don’t think I’m trying to tell you that only the kids of immigrants have morals or modesty or a sense of service. I know a ton of Lakewood kids — yes, Lakewood kids, I’m not kidding — who have all of that. I have been told by people who would know better than I that specimens of moral decency have been sighted in the Park Cities. I must take their word for it, and I do.
Churches and synagogues all over North Texas send kids out on mission trips of various kinds, and I also know nonreligious parents who have done a great job teaching their children moral and social responsibility.
But, face it, nobody appreciates the value of American freedom and opportunity like people who have lived in places that don’t have it. For that reason, from the very first founding of the nation, immigrants have always provided America with the needle on its moral compass.
Is the affluenza family an expression of American culture? No. Not all of it. But, yeah. They express one very dark side of it, and it’s not only about being spoiled. Affluenza is also about Couch and his mother being utterly lost and alone together, adrift in the moral void, tethered only to each other like Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in the movie Gravity. Affluenza is a disease of disconnectedness.
All of the culture, religion and language that the immigrants bring with them, all of what Donald Trump derides as mere foreignness: together it forms a treasury of connectedness and a fresh infusion of moral decency that we can always use more of in this country.
I got back to the house in time to learn that Tonya Couch was back in this country at last. I know she wasn’t in Mexico very long, but I can still hope she may have been somewhat morally improved by her visit. Now let’s see what Ethan can figure out in Mexican jail.
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