Democracy Needs Generosity

January 22, 2019

What’s wrong with our politics is its too common don’t-tread-on-me selfishness.

“What’s-in-it-for-me” politics in the early republic held up roads, canals and other internal improvements for decades until we learned to share. Democracy needs some generosity.

After 9/11, Congress passed appropriations for local safety and security. I spoke with a former congressman from this area about New York City’s share. He responded about his district’s various rural areas. I pointed out that the people in his district had important ties to New York City – family or friends there for jobs or schools. Others with close business ties. He responded that he hadn’t thought of that. Frankly that’s what’s wrong with our politics. We need to think about what binds us together instead of what splits us apart. And yes, even the subways New York City depends on. If we starve the subways because it’s there, not here, we starve ourselves; and vice versa.

The same connections are true of our ethnic, racial, religious and gender groups. Some hate paying for anyone else’s schooling. Yet it’s even costlier to clean up after or imprison people who’ve never been given the tools to pull their weight in society.

Should God forbid equalizers like Social Security or Obamacare, though they’re cheaper than the costs imposed by inequality?

The alt-atrocious white supremacists would give us a war of all against all, which makes only corpses and refugees, leaving no one safe – not supremacists, minorities, family, men, women or children.

Since Revolutionary America, colleges kept inviting broader, more diverse groups of students in order to sustain themselves. Industry learned production required people working together regardless of language or faith. Commercial firms learned that lesson to sell their products. The military learned that successful missions required soldiers to support each other regardless of color, origin, language, faith or sexual orientation. Whenever diversity looked problematic, it ended by strengthening American institutions.

America IS great, not in spite of diversity but because of it. Our ideals have led Americans to work well together. The lesson of brotherhood has been our great strength.

Meeting and introducing my classmates to an African-American Olympic champion who won four medals in front of a fuming Hitler did me no harm. Befriending fellow law students from every faith and continent hurt none of us! Just the contrary as we became comfortable with and learned from each other. Perhaps the biggest lesson we all learned is that both lovely and nasty people come in all colors, cultures and tongues.

Climate change, terrorism, threats of war, and economic collapse truly threaten to embitter our lives. Pulling together will be essential to combatting them. Prejudice is a distraction and an obstacle. No children should be left behind. We all have to take care of each other. From federal workers to the homeless, we all have to take care of each other.

Remember President Kennedy’s call: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Some of what we do has to benefit others. Without sharing the gains, there may be no gains to share.

The second President Bush turned Kennedy on his head. He wanted us to counter terrorism by shopping. Bush’s vision was victory without blood, sweat, tears, money or sacrifice. After all we’re number 1. But that’s a fantasy. People unwilling to take pains for the benefit of America and its democratic inheritance cannot enjoy its gains.

It’s broader than that. We must care about the welfare of the European Union, Mexicans, Hondurans and each other, or reap the whirlwind.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 22, 2019.

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Response to School Shootings

February 21, 2018

After this latest school shooting with 17 dead, I’ve read wonderful pieces by people who lost loved ones to guns, and banal pieces by wonderful writers whose imaginations were fried by the horror. What’s left? Sometimes I try to convince, or fire the choir. Here I’m trying to understand why we can’t put the guns away.

There are many strands in our struggle over guns.

  • Some decided the Civil Rights Movement justified refighting the Civil War. There’s literature at gun shows and conclaves of gun owners that would be out of place anywhere else.
  • Some associations, like the NRA, respond to their most committed, and extreme, members. The NRA’s extremists found a way to hold and even enlarge their membership while pushing it further toward the wrong – the opposite of left is certainly not a synonym for correct.
  • Some politicians have been scaring people for decades. It’s us against them and support your police – hardly an issue until it’s used to justify shooting some people in the back – that’s against the law for everyone else and I can’t support so-called “law enforcement” that shoots people in the back.

Let me suggest another. The Founders’ divisions persist. The Founders talked and wrote about the general welfare, the opposite of selfishness. They did not glorify freedom from regulation. The record shows amazing levels of social regulation – and by the way you couldn’t keep ammunition in your house – it belonged in armories. The Founders believed in social responsibility, though they certainly did not always act the part.

On the other side, their “Don’t Tread on Me,” patriotic slogan is now taken as an emblem for extreme libertarianism. I’ve seen people so sure of their right to do whatever they wanted that they were outraged when cutting their driveway through a neighbor’s property and cutting down her flowering bushes drew a very angry response. And once the Revolution ended British restraints on westward settlements, the former colonists couldn’t wait to snatch Indian land across the Appalachians. Indians didn’t count any more than slaves did; in fact Indians were often enslaved as well as exterminated. If “we” want something, and “we” can get it, then “we” should take it. “Don’t tread on me.”

Many schools reduced violence by banning guns, but many gun enthusiasts think more kids with guns would make schools safer. Many cities reduced violence by keeping guns off the streets. To a carpenter problems can look like nails; to orthopedists problems can look like broken bones; to gun owners ….

The tools we hold invite the responses we make. They dis or disobey us, here’s my tool and it makes these surgical cuts in your internal organs. So as innumerable old western movies celebrated, you had to “hang ‘em up.” (Whoever thought those movies could teach us anything?)

It’s not just macho culture; not just about gender or sex. It’s about getting what we want, controlling the world, not sharing or living in it.

Trayvon Martin never threatened George Zimmerman even if he convinced a bizarre jury that he was in reasonable fear, but Zimmerman had a gun which made it easy to shoot a man in the back. That’s a piece of “American culture” I can do without. I much prefer people with the decency and the wisdom to try to live together in peace, paz, pacem in terris, shalom, salaam – peace in any language and the peace that we claim in all faiths.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 20, 2018.


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