Monday, July 02, 2018

My Brother's Keeper...or not.

The philosopher and author, as the PBS Newshour identified him, said a society like ours is driving itself to disaster by creating intractable inequality.

This is actually an old argument carried out across many fields. A legal scholar described the "Rule Against Perpetuities," the idea that the law abhors a dynasty.  Property, in simple terms, should not be held by a small number in perpetuity. The problems of such a static society should be apparent. The age of this argument should be apparent, too. It is the Hebraic idea of the Jubilee, resetting property ownership every 70 years to prevent the injustice of unequal gain. It is the argument against the static society of feudal Europe, where property was more important than people, and keeping it in the hands of the "right" people was society's primary purpose. It is the argument of anti-trust laws and Andrew Carnegie's The Gospel Of Wealth.  It is the feudal society, the philosopher argued, that we are creating. And we are doing it with the best of intentions.

We are doing it, he didn't say but I do, because we are so easily content to be self-centered. His argument seemed to me to be both self-evident and obtuse. It was what I learned in seminary (any society not organized to make the first last and the last first inevitably comes to this). It was not new, and immediately put me in mind of this quote from Wallace Shawn.

The prisoners of the jails in my country are not hung upside down and tortured; our poor do not die of cholera or plague.  But my relation to most of the people in the world just cannot be described as exactly the one which morality would demand.  And this is why I realize that as long as I preserve my loyalty to my childhood training I will never know what it is to be truly comfortable, and this is why I feel a fantastic need to tear that training out of my heart once and for all so that I can finally begin to enjoy the life that is spread out before me like a feast.  And every time a friend makes that happy choice and sets himself or herself free, I find that I inwardly exult and rejoice, because it means there will be one less person to disapprove of me if I choose to do the same.

As I write these words, in New York City in 1985, more and more people who grew up around me are making this decision; they are throwing away their moral chains and learning to enjoy their true situation: Yes, they are admitting loudly and bravely, we live in beautiful homes, we're surrounded by beautiful gardens, our children are playing with wonderful toys, and our kitchen shelves are filled with wonderful food.  And if there are people out there who don't seem to like us and who would like to break into our homes and take what we have, well then, part of our good fortune is that we can afford to pay guards to man our gates and keep those people away.  And if those who protect us need to hit people in the face with the butts of their rifles, or if they need perhaps even to turn around and shoot, they have our permission....

The perfectly decent person who follows a certain chain of reasoning, ever so slightly and subtly incorrect, becomes a perfect monster at the end of the chain.

--Wallace Shawn

Since Shawn wrote those words our country has engaged in torture, and justified it.  Our current President has called for more of it, from time to time.  Now we separate families at the Mexican border for no other reason than they are not American citizens, with absolutely no concern for those children or those families.  They aren't Americans, after all.  Neither were the people we tortured.  We were monsters long before Paul Solman was shocked, shocked! to find out the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  Nothing has changed since 1985; we've simply become more completely who we always were.  Age does that to you; you grow into who you always were, and it's seldom who you meant to be.

The argument is about the horror, the inhumanity, of selfishness. Yes, inhumanity; we are not doomed to be selfish, only prone to it. Shawn is not saying we are selfish and we can't escape that.  He is saying there is a moral code that we either all uphold, or there is no morality.

And every time a friend makes that happy choice and sets himself or herself free, I find that I inwardly exult and rejoice, because it means there will be one less person to disapprove of me if I choose to do the same.

Yet how determined we are to deny responsibility, to be surprised that our actions might have unintended consequences. We are not monsters.  We are reasonable people.  The screen shot of Mike Huckabee above is from a FoxNews interview where he argued that all the sins of the present, from social violence to government ineptitude, is the fault of the Democratic party.  

“You cannot just stop governing and gum up the works like the Democrats are. The worst thing is calling people  racist because they don’t like the way your believing and practicing a government,” Huckabee told Hilton during Sunday’s show.

The sign over his left shoulder is surely ironic:  "Come Let Us Reason Together."  But whose reasoning?  His?  The reasoning that everything you do is wrong, and as soon as you acknowledge I am right, then you are being reasonable? As the article points out, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner publicly announced their opposition to Barack Obama moments after he was first elected, and Mitch McConnell exercised the power of his Senate position to block Obama from replacing Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.  Yet, in the World As Reasoned by Huckabee:

“Our founders gave us the most magnificent gift. A government that we have the power to change when we didn’t like it. The manner in which we change it is through the ballots, not the bullets,” Huckabee said, seeming to imply that protests were the same as shooting someone.

He went on to say that every two years, Americans have an opportunity to change their government if they don’t like it. 

McConnell and Boehner, among others, decided if they couldn't change the government, they'd oppose its every effort for 8 years.  Which apparently was reasonable, if you reason as Mike Huckabee does; and if you don't, well, you're just unreasonable.  Mike Huckabee is sure he is the standard by which "reasonable" is measured.  Indeed, how could he not be?  And undoubtedly he acts with what he considers are the best of intentions.  But the goodness of his intentions are all aimed, as his Bible would tell him if he listened, at his own comfort, and not at justice:

Woe to him who says,
"I shall build myself a spacious palace
with airy roof chambers and
windows set in it.
It will be paneled with cedar
and painted with vermilion."
Though your cedar is so splendid,
does that prove you a king?
Think of your father: he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly; all went well with him.
He upheld the cause of the lowly and poor;
then all was well.
Did not this show he knew me? says the Lord.
But your eyes and your heart are set on naught but gain, set only on the innocent blood you can shed,
on the cruel acts of tyranny you perpetrate.

Jeremiah 22: 14-17 (REB)

Like I said, this isn't at all new.

But the behavior of selfishness, of self-interest, of "reason" that is "my reason" and yours is banished, this is ordinary and acceptable behavior.  It has been in our national politics at least since Bill Clinton was elected President.  Actually it predated that, as it was reasonable to ignore the civil rights of African Americans, and reasonable to segregate by race, and reasonable to punish homosexual behavior  and deny women anything more than the right to a husband, for most of my life.  Part of what we are facing now is a reaction to the "new reasonable," a rejection of it that still insist on snapping the rubber band back into place.  That it is coming from Boomers is no surprise to me (Huckabee is a few months younger than me).  They are the ones, in my experience, most prone to defend the past against the future.  Millennials may get old enough to do that, one day.  This is reasonable, in the way the PBS interviewer seemed to understand reason.  He was positively surprised and concerned to learn that his ordinary and acceptable behavior might make him culpable regardless. Not really a surprise, but it was not so long ago Christian churches reminded us of our responsibilities, of our sins.  We grew tired of that, decided we didn't need to hear that any longer. Not that we were better then, more cognizant of our duties to each other. But without even that reminder, who now is going to listen to the philosopher?  And what surprise is it that his words are presented as a revelation?

Do we remember a father who upheld the cause of the lowly and the poor, who dealt justly and fairly?  Or do we just remember the lowly and the poor as minding their place, and justice and fairness meaning we were comfortable, no matter who was not?  Maybe that's the problem; we don't have a model.  But when have we ever had a model?

How many times can we start over again, and get no further than we were the last time we started over?

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