13 January 2011

Are we a society?

I hate to give more space to Sarah Palin's bizarre speech on the horror in Tucson, but one thing she said, no not the incredible "blood libel" thing, needs discussion in the United States, in Australia, in Ireland, in the United Kingdom.

"We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker,” Ms. Palin said. “It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions."

Yes, Mrs. Palin has made her political philosophy clear: We are not our brother's keeper.

Which would be one thing if she were a "lone nut," but she is not. She speaks for a significant minority of Americans when she says this, a minority which includes many elected officials.

There has always been this "anti-society" feeling running through the history of the United States. The whole Horatio Alger myth, sold aggressively to the nation's children in the last half of the 19th Century, was all about "the individual," not ever about social responsibility.

No, it is always "the individual" who is guilty. How easy. By declaring that it is, not only Sarah Palin and her ilk who escape both responsibility and any need to change, but none of us has to change any priority.

When I noted this week on Twitter that I didn't think that a state like Michigan - a state which spent well over $2 billion on school and university football facilities this decade, and $4 million just firing and hiring a college football coach this week - or New Jersey, which could afford to lower tax rates on its wealthiest (including its Governor) last year - really "lacked the money" to support children and education, people complained. After all, people like their three-car garages and their winning football teams. If we say "society is not responsible" we need not worry about the choices we make. (The University of Michigan spent almost $125,000 last year just "searching" for a new Athletic Director on the other side of town, and Dominos Corporation will lower their state tax payments next year by expensing the cost of flying that AD around the country in search of a new coach.)

Today we see this idea more embedded in political debate than ever. This week, an event featuring American Express pitchman Geoffrey Canada pretends liberality while insisting that impoverished communities "save themselves." Of course they don't really mean that, whether with the Black Panthers in Oakland, California 40+ years ago, or in Arizona today, any actual attempt by a minority community to control its destiny is shut down. So what is meant is that impoverished communities are guilty. It is their fault that their kids are poor and their schools are bad and that heath care is often horrible.

After all, if it was not their fault, why would they be the ones whose behaviours must change.

But I subscribe to a different set of values. I'm not particularly religious, but there are concepts in human thought that I value, and the responsibility of society is one of those.

We are our brother's keeper. And we are responsible if people are hungry, are ill without hope, are educated in terrible schools. We are responsible if violence which we might stop runs unchecked, and we are responsible if our resources are so unevenly shared that many have no chance in life.

I can quote the bible, "And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest." - Leviticus 23:22 - which establishes that those with resources have a legally set - and governmentally determined - responsibility to share with those who do not. "When thou beatest thine olive tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow." - Deuteronomy 24:20. But that really should not be necessary. 

As humans, as social animals, we are called to understand this innately. To understand that we only have resources because our shared society enables us to succeed, and that we have a human obligation to ensure the success of all of our human community. 

Last night in Tucson President Obama touched on this obligation, in a moving tribute to the victims of last Saturday's shootings.

And now we must make good on this. Competition is fine. We should compete on the playing fields, in games, in the marketplace of ideas. But we are a society. And in the things that matter, whether it is safe housing or health care or opportunity or certainly education, the time for choosing winners and losers is over.

When it is important, we need to stop racing, we need to stop putting the responsibility on the least powerful, and we must act as a human community. 

- Ira Socol 

1 comment:

Mitchn said...

Amen and well said, Ira.