Tuesday, January 18, 2005

"The Hidden Wound"

I shouldn't rely on Atrios for my springboards, but what the heck. He picks this up from DailyKos, so we're all in it together. The question before the house is: when will the U.S. accept nationalized health care? And the consensus answer is: when business demands it. And that is because?

Because we are a humane culture that cares about people first? Because we are a caring and generous people who take care of the needy, the poor, the destitute, the downtrodden? Because charity begins at home, and we take care of our own in this land of the free and home of the brave?

No. It's because Coolidge was right, and the business of American business is business. And it's become the business of American culture, too. We're all about business. All the time. All the other myths we tell ourselves about ourselves: George Washington and the cherry tree; Abe Lincoln and the log cabin; the Alamo; religious liberty; our generosity: it's all smoke. Ours is a "bottom line" culture, and the bottom line is: when it starts hurting business, is when we start doing something about it.

As Rick Wagoner, chairman and CEO of GM says: "I don't feel good about health care costs. I don't feel good about what it does to our profitability." What it does to the workers, is another matter. If not, in other words, for union contracts, market pressures, competition, legal obligations, well...this issue probably wouldn't even arise.

It would do us all well to remember the violence that greeted the birth of the labor unions. It would do us all well to remember people like "Mother Jones," who championed the cause of child labor protection. It would do us well to remember that when Teddy Roosevelt had his "bully pulpit" and acted to establish Yosemite National Park and the National Parks System, he did nothing to change the practice of using children to run factories on the "graveyard shift," where they were often left alone all night to attend large, powerful, and dangerous machinery. Changing that situation, one that we consider as abhorrent as slavery today, took a an unstinting effort by a lot of people. It wasn't finally done because business demanded it. It was done because humane, compassionate, caring people, demanded it. It was done because using children like that was almost as corrupting and debasing and inhuman as treating human beings as slaves. The practice of treating humans as less than human is a deeply ingrained one in American society, part of what Wendell Berry calls the "hidden wound" that we inflicted on ourselves early in our history, and from which we have never fully healed.

And we won't heal from it, until we realize that people matter more than things, that families matter more than possessions, that neighborhoods and schools and communities matter more than corporations and bottom lines. One does not negate the other, but we act as if it were either/or: either we have profit, or we have compassion; either we have the corporation, or we have no jobs at all.

If we wait for business to demand this change, we concede that business is all that matters to us, that mercantilism is all that counts. Why does it feel daring and naive and pointless, to tell Americans that there is more in this world than that?

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:05 AM

    I think you both misquoted Coolidge, and mis-understood what he was saying. See here: