Sunday, May 30, 2010

Empathy, Community, and the Nature of Evil

I was leaving a comment on a blog post by my friend Nance, Mature Landscaping, when I realized that my comment was getting a bit long. Thanks, Nance for the inspiration for my own post.

I don't recall when it was that I first realized that there was a lot of meanness in the world. I do know that by the time that I read The Diary of Anne Frank, that I suspected that she was wrong, and that people were not really good at heart.  I think that I was 12 years old when I first read Anne's diary.

Sometime during my twenties, I became absolutely certain that people are not essentially good at heart. I don't think that I'm a cynic, just a realist, and it's a realism born of experience.

Neither do I believe that we are essentially evil. I think that we are neutral until we choose to act on the specifics of our experiences and/or circumstances. Life is all about choices yet far too many of us consistently make those choices based on misinformation, prejudicial beliefs, and self-interests.

I think that we confuse aging with maturity, and make the fallacious assumption that empathy is an innate quality that develops as we mature. As children, we are all motivated by self-interests, by instant gratification. Small children are adorable but they are also inadvertently cruel in their actions. If you don't believe me, spend some time with a group of two-year-olds. Each wants whatever he or she wants when they want it. There's crying, biting, a blow here and there, and a lot of run by toy snatching. As we age, left unchecked, those desires continue to predominate. Empathy has to be taught and it has to be taught by example.

Empathy--the ability to identify with others, to put yourself in their shoes--is the most powerful force for good in the world; sadly, it is the emotion most lacking in so many of us. We're taught not to hit and to share our toys, but most of those lessons are narrowly applied to our immediate circumstances and we never learn to adopt the empathy model as defining our world view.

Listen to the tea partiers, they are obsessed with making certain that undeserving people do not receive a free ride. Who's undeserving? Anyone whom they deem to be so. Of course, that translates into anyone who doesn't look like them, or who speaks with a foreign accent. A free ride includes basic necessities like medical care. One of the biggest objections to the Health Care Reform Act was the belief that illegal immigrants would receive free health care at taxpayers expense. Even the terminology indicates the distancing from any identification with the perceived "other." Typically, the language refers to illegal "aliens," not people but creatures from another planet, inherently different and dangerous.

The recent anti-immigrant law passed in Arizona is further progeny of the empathy deficit. Angry supporters of the law insist that it is fair, secure in the knowledge that they will not be the ones stopped and challenged as to their legal right to be here. In their minds, the fallout from this law is not their problem.

The slide from disinterest in the well being of others into outright evil is accelerated by the fear mongers that appear in every generation. The Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs who nurture the fear and feed the hate. These people make conscious choices to ramp things up, to stir up a frenzy among the masses. They are not unique; history is full of these depraved folks who for profit and egoism disseminate malicious lies and half-truths designed to fuel the anger of those who believe that they have an entitlement that separates them from those they have designated as other.

I don't believe that there is some essential goodness in humankind that will simply win out. I'm not a total pessimist; to the contrary, I think that we have the ability to teach people to make more humane, informed choices. However, it means that we have to continually reiterate the need for change. We can't simply live locally and hope that the global issues will resolve if we build a sense of local community. Humankind is interconnected and we are global, regardless of what we may want to be. I understand the desire to withdraw from the larger world and to focus on one's community, but we do not live in isolation. There are no walls that can be built that are high enough to keep out the rest of the troubled world. Our local community is global.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Fundamentals of the Social Contract: Why Rand Paul Is Wrong

According to aspiring legislator, Rand Paul, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 went too far in prohibiting racial discrimination by private businesses. All the while asserting that he would have voted yes for the Civil Rights Act, Rand nonetheless believes that private businesses should be allowed to refuse goods or services to black people, at least that's what he told Rachel Maddow in an interview. His words have thrown the GOP into something of a frenzy as they try to distance themselves from his remarks and yet reap the benefits of his popularity with the tea party contingency.

PhotobucketI have a very personal reaction to Paul's observations. I grew up in the era of Jim Crow when segregation was the norm. White Only and No Colored Allowed signs were as common as traffic signs. All businesses were legally allowed to discriminate, to deny goods and/or services based on the color of the consumer's skin. I don't have any desire to return to the good ole days. I also don't hold with the thinking that given time to evolve, Jim Crow would have died a natural death. Jim Crow wasn't born. The system of racial discrimination known as Jim Crow was artificially and intentionally created as a response to the post civil war efforts of black people to claim their rightful place in the social, economic, and political hierarchy of this country. There was nothing natural about it. It couldn't die; it had to be executed. I have no doubt that without government action legal segregation would still be a part of the fabric of this nation.

Rand Paul's position is seriously flawed; however, based on the comments littering the Internet on this topic, there are a lot of folks out there who have succumbed to the same flawed thinking. Much of it stems from worship of the cult of individuality. A characteristic of this cult is a belief that my individual rights supercede all other rights. Of course this is totally irrational. If my rights are more important than your rights, then aren't your rights more important than mine? What about Mary Sue next door, where do her rights fit in this hierarchy? Although said much more eloquently by such diverse thinkers as Locke, Rousseau, Jefferson, and Hobbes, it's this tension regarding individual rights balanced against the needs of the whole that necessitates the formation of governments. (My listing of only western philosophers is not intended to suggest that only white males have wrestled with these issues. It's just that as a product of a limited American public education, I am most familiar with the works of Eurocentric writers, which is an entirely separate topic to be addressed someday.)

Society is the whole, individuals are the parts. Societies were formed by the individuals to create a system in which the individuals could agree to live governed by rules to protect the common good. Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, Jefferson and many others have defined this concept as it relates to the purposes of goverment. Those who do not wish to agree to the social contract are free to live outside of it but cannot then also benefit from it. (i.e. you don't have to own a business) This is the basic flaw of Rand Paul's argument that a private business has the right to engage in discrimination. Businesses are by definition public enterprises. Its goods and services are sold to the public and as such the business is part of our system of commerce. The regulation of commerce is constitutionally assigned to Congress. If the businessman wishes to engage in discrimination, he may do so but not via his public enterprise. It's up to him to figure out how to run a profitable business enterprise without engaging in public commerce, if he wishes to engage in discrimination as to whom may partake of his goods and/or servces.

The most extreme example of those who place individual liberties tantamount to the society as a whole are those who commit crimes. The thief believes that his/her needs are superior to the needs of all others thereby justifying their right to take what they need. Indeed, if we follow the argument of the superiority of individual rights to its logical conclusion, then those who commit criminal acts are merely choosing to place their individual needs above the needs of the whole. Under this logic, our prisons are populated by true libertarians.

However, in a society, we all agree to subvert our individual liberties to the benefit of the function of the whole. To not do so results in anarchy and a society in which no one has any security. Whatever property that I may have secured would constantly be at risk of being taken by someone who had the strength to do so in a world governed by the supreme right of the individual. Instead, we have laws, enforcers, and systems of punishment to maintain order so that property rights, mine and yours, are not subject to the arbitrary will of might makes right. Which brings me to the final element of the social contract, governments are not instituted to protect the rights of the strong but rather to ensure that even the weak have protections. Otherwise, in the words of Hobbes,we would be in a constant state of war, and man would be a solitary being living an existence that is nasty, brutish and short.

P.S. A good friend, Mark Olmsted, writes for the Huffington Post. In his most recent piece, People and Property: What Rand Really Wants, he presents an astute assessment of Rand Paul's disturbing views which suggest that civil rights should be optional. Check it out.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Thinking of Mama

Our mother died suddenly on September 15, 2008. There was no warning, no lingering illness, just a phone call while I was at work from Bobby, my sister's husband, telling me as gently as he could that mama was gone. I say our mother because it seems selfish to claim her as mine alone. My sister Rhonda, and my brother Jimmy, and I lost our mother.

I have no doubt that there are many others who on Mother's Day think of loss, memories, and wishes. I hope that you also find comfort in your remembrances.

When we were children, my mother listened to the radio and sang along. My own love of music and my eclectic tastes in artists is linked directly to her. She listened to Aretha and Patsy, taught me to appreciate James Brown and Johnny Cash.

In the summer, when the days were long and hot, we liked to go outside late in the evening, in that lull before dark when the fireflies were just barely visible and the evening breeze had begun to blow a little coolness into the air. My mother would chat with our next door neighbor and my sister and I, and one of our playmates would inevitably form a line and pretend that we were the Supremes, or Martha and the Vandellas, or any one of the myriad girl groups that were a part of popular culture. I wrote the following poem years ago. Thank you mama for giving me a soundtrack to my life.

To Martha, Aretha et. al.
On warm nights my sister and I

danced the streets,

toe tapping,

hip swinging,
finger popping—

do whopping up and down the block.

Singing “stop” and

   “stay” and

       “ooh baby love”—

doing a slow soul strut under a summer moon

as the night breathed fire in the step.

The Marvelettes performing "Mr. Postman." Please hit the pause button on the player in the left column prior to watching the video. This is still one of my favorite sing-a-long songs.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ignorance & Arrogance: The American Legend

With all of the things in the news from oil spills to bombs in Times Square, I really thought that I was done writing about those tea party folks. However, it's like when you're a kid and can't help but pick at that scab on your knee. A friend posted this March video from a tea party protest of the health care reform bill, which prompted another friend to comment, "I'm so over America." This in turn prompted me to think about my own feelings about this country.

I've never been one for love of country. I know that this upsets a lot of people, heaven knows Michelle Obama got all kinds of flack for suggesting that she hadn't always been proud of this country. I just find it somewhat absurd to love things. I love my friends and my family, but I don't love my car or my table lamps. Besides, love of country leads to patriotism which segues into nationalism, which I think of as akin to patriotism on PCP.

I don't think that we are the worst country in the world but neither do I think that we are as great as we have deluded ourselves into believing. This is a country founded in blood, built on taking over the land and forcing the native population off of their land. We made laws to justify this usurpation of property (the Discovery Doctrine), declaring that the Indians had never owned the land but merely occupied it until it was discovered by Europeans. It was the Europeans,who cultivated the land and fenced it in, that created ownership. The Supreme Court case, Johnson v. M'Intosh, 21 U.S. 543, L. Ed 681, 8 Wheat. 543 (1823), espousing this view is standard reading in every first year property law class. Then there's the whole slavery thing, building a country on the backs of a kidnapped and enslaved people. Emancipation of those slaves was followed by 100 years of Jim Crow--legalized, government sanctioned discrimination based on skin color that denied basic rights of citizenship to Americans having or perceived as having "one drop of black blood."  There's the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, robbing people of their property and their dignity. Reparations finally were paid for the property but how do you provide reparations for stripping people of their dignity? Another question to ponder is why there was no such internment for German Americans, also our enemy in WWII? Then there is the new Arizona state law, that legalizes racial profiling. Arizona is a single state but at least seven other states have already announced that they are considering following Arizona's lead.

The tea partiers are the culmination of generations of Americans reinforcing a belief in the superiority of America simply by virtue of its existence. There is really nothing surprising about the birth and growth of the tea party; it is the expected progeny of a country that feeds ignorance to its youth and revises history to fit our notions of who we think we are with no regard for the truth of the past.

I think that the biggest problem with the tea partiers is that they reflect the pervasive ignorance and arrogance that characterizes this country. As a whole, we can be a pretty narrow minded and provincial lot. We have no sense of history, we view ourselves as morally superior to all other nations. Because we choose not to remember the past, we don't understand our present. In our minds we have always been great, always on the side of right, always behaved in a noble fashion. Every other nation pales in comparison. America is a legend in its own mind.  Like most legends, there is some truth in ours but our delusions of grandeur are mostly the result of smoke and mirrors. Nonetheless, we cling to the legend and meet any attempt to disavow us of that legend with anger and self-righteous indignation.