TODAY, ON THE TELEVISION IN MY KITCHEN, my wife and I saw the image of a small child, a toddler, wrapped in a colorfully-woven blanket - the kind that wealthy New Yorkers might pay hundreds of dollars for in a specialty import shop - dying. The child had clearly not eaten anything of substance in weeks. Its stomach had sunken and its ribcage breached against parchment-thin skin, half its face and neck were turning blue, and the impossibly large eyes bulged and stared in perpetual astonishment but saw nothing. Flies swarmed, and fed on the encrustations around the child's lips and eyelids. This occurred in what is only with extreme charity called a "hospital" set up for refugees in Darfur.
At some time, it behooves us to realize that the image on our screen is a shadow cast by something real. These are more than just phosphorescent patterns on a cave-wall. Behind the screen, behind the cathode-ray cannon, behind the flow of electrons though a coaxial cable, behind the hard drive at the tv station, before the camera's eye a real event occurred. The child was there, in that condition, at that moment.
This is not something we would tolerate for our own children, or our neighbors'. We would recoil with horror to see dogs, cats, houseplants, even the dead meat in our fridge consigned to such a fate. If our children scrape their knees, cry at a Disney film, lose a goldfish, we are devastated. In our culture childhood is worshipped, not by children, perish the thought, but by adults for whom the childhood of others - especially their own children - is a vicarious path to manufactured sentimentality and innocence regained. Childhood and childish emotions are, increasingly, at the core of many of our adult entertainments and social experiences - it is the natural end result of cultural neoteny. It is there in how we dramatize the mundane, prance about in epiphany, hugging the city-scape after a eating a cookie. It is there in the new car, won on television, producing screams of orgasm. This is no doubt by design. Our masters would prefer that we expend ourselves entirely on the products of their output, before our feelings catch hold of anything real. But in the end, it is our own boundless self-indulgence that allows us to celebrate material surplus like the grace of the divine, and weep over trivialities. Children do this because their world is small, and they don't know any better. As adults, we realize that the world is larger, but here, in America, we have chosen to make it small again.
So then, what is our response to such real suffering? Shut down. Blank out. I'm just trying to survive, and live my own life. Put it out of your head. These images remind us of the world outside - a brutal, Darwinian world whose rules are inconceivably different from our own. They spoil the illusion which we struggle to sustain - that life is free of suffering.
And yet, the images persist. They do not disappear completely, and at the odd moment that some politician or celebrity pays the inevitable lip-service, delivers a bland and uninspiring "something must be done" sermon, we solemnly nod, happy to know that someone is working on it. Is there, perhaps, something in us, that needs to see these images, just once in a while, just enough to remind ourselves that we are not they? Does it help us to be happy and grateful? Because it does seem, with each passing decade, we must work harder to be happy. With our vast array of options for diversion and amusement, we plunge deeper and deeper into a cavern of illusions. The pillows in our ears grow thicker and softer, and still we wonder why we're not happy, why we need pills and therapists and new religions, why none of it ever seems real.
It is because we cannot engage the real. If it takes hold of us, the actual reality of that child, if we tell our own children that "that, little Jimmy, is one of your playmates, slowly turning into compost," it is simply too much for us to bear. We cannot begin to allow ourselves to feel it, because, somewhere in our subconscious, there is the voice of a craven coward that tells us we will never see the other end of it - that the pain will be of a magnitude too great to bear. The pain, we think, will change us, and we don't yet know in what way.
The voice is right. It will change us. It will remind us of our helplessness, of the indifference of the world and its natural laws to our lives and happiness. No deity, neither angry nor loving nor even moderately competent, intervenes to prevent this suffering. It will remind us how much energy we expend on trivial matters. It removes us from the artificial dramas of our professional lives, from our sexual conquests and social intrigues - all modeled on the tv shows we've seen - and puts us in an emotional place where we are utterly lost and confused.
The time to go there is now. It must be done. Too much to bear? No one has asked that child's mother what she could bear and what she couldn't. Her own personal limitations were not included in anyone's equation. Her village was burned, its women raped, its men slaughtered. Her child decays into a small bundle of tinder in her arms. She bears it.
But, how do we do it? How do we go there? With what courage do we make the journey? In fact, the first step is to realize that we need not travel at all - that we are already there, it that lightless space, without a guide or a compass, twisting in the wind.
Allow me a digression. It is not, in fact, a departure from the topic at hand, though it may seem so at first.
It begins with the word Enlightenment - one of my favorite words. Let's add on another word: "values." Enlightenment values. Now, a complete phrase: "A political culture based on Enlightenment values."
The United States Constitution is a product of Enlightenment philosophy. It was written in a time when, much like the present, political power followed primarily feudal patterns. Let us remind ourselves what is meant by "feudal" - it is the belief that there exists in humanity a limited and privileged class of individuals who are naturally endowed with the right and capacity to rule the majority of other men and women. These aristocrats are the central nodes through which power and wealth are administered. If you think we are free of this illusion today, consider what it takes to succeed as a politician now, and how readily we declare those not indoctrinated into the insider culture, and well-versed in the bland rhetoric of political speechmaking, to be unfit for rule. Consider also that the vast majority of voters prefer candidates based on entirely personal and emotional constructs, on who seems sincere, who seems honest, who has "character." When we watch political debates between candidates, we are rarely analyzing their arguments. We look, instead, to see how they handle the camera, how well they perform. In short, we are not thinking critically about their specific intention, we are looking for parent or a hero - whom we may trust implicitly, whom we may trust to "save us" without our having to keep an eye on them. We are, once again, children.
The notion that "all men are created equal" is a sword driven right into our child's heart. It is not meant to be a comforting phrase. Rightly perceived, it is in fact a terrifying truth, a command that rips us from the womb. You have responsibilities, you rule your own circumstance, you determine your own fate. Furthermore, it asks us to embrace a notion utterly at odds with the preferences of culture and individuals throughout history, because it states that the magnitudes of my own emotions - my loves, my fears, my laughter and my sorrow - are not measurably distinct or, in fact, any more important than anyone else's. Anyone else's in the world.
It is not now meaningful to object that the authors of those words were hypocrites in their own lives, or that they only intended to include among "men" certain men of privilege, and not men and women the world over. We are in no position to make this objection, for we are even worse hypocrites than they. Unlike them, we no longer even make the effort to apply these principles to our political lives. We do not profess that it is possible, we do not care to do it, and we scoff at those few who do. It does not enter our minds, much less into any discussion of policy domestic or foreign, that the rights of Iraqis, Afghanis, or the Sudanese are inalienable by virtue of their being human - and that their plight is therefore of utmost urgency to us. We have not made a single decision based on the principle that rights can only be protected by governments or violated by them - a government cannot logically do both simultaneously, and it cannot "create" rights any more than it can create human beings out of thin air. We are no longer trying to improve our lot; with ourselves, we are all too satisfied.
It is very easy to demonstrate this last point. We claim to recognize property rights, and democracy. Yet when the vast majority of Iraqis express the fervent wish that we depart their property immediately, it falls on deaf ears, is not absorbed, does not sit on the table for our consideration. And we continue to debate the pros and cons of Murtha vs. Bush as if this democratic expression by men and women with rights did not occur.
Or consider the actions of our government immediately following the attacks of September 11, when the walls of the modern American womb were violently pierced. We did not simply seek to bring the perpetrators - a small group of fourth-rate fanatics whose aspirations to the Kilimanjaro of all terror-attacks succeeded only through the mind-numbing incompetence of our own intelligence agencies - to justice as individuals. They did not act on behalf of any nation. And yet we stated, without any sense of irony, that we would "make no distinction between the terrorists, and those who harbor them." Really? No account made of why they were harbored? Whether those who harbored were coerced to do so? Whether they were aware of what was planned? Whether they were able to stop them? Justice is blindfolded, and holds a scale. Justice makes quantitative distinctions. Bush's "justice" overseas would not pass muster in the tiniest town-court on our shores, yet we have lost no sleep when reigning death over untold thousands whose only crime is a certain physical vicinity to the accused.
Fear, of course, is what makes this possible. Fear allows us to turn off our rational minds, become reptiles, serpents, creates for us an axial cortex of fear and aggression, a nation of towering hierarchies. Let us revisit then the Enlightenment, and its purpose.
There is, say the framers, and those that preceded them, no "higher power" determining our fate. The existence of a higher power - that is a different question. But its effect upon our lives is essentially nil. God's only influence on our lives is in how we choose to conceive of Him. Our ideas, not God's, shape the world we have inherited. Our own earthly happiness is our greatest moral calling, and our intellects are the best means to this noble end. Here an important distinction is made - our responsibilities and lives are individual, but they are not isolated. Implicit in our participation in the society of free men and women is a social contract, that the protection of our mutual rights must be mutually recognized, and that therefore our individual moral choices have a distinct social meaning. Since, as beings, we are constituted of the same physical and mental parts, we are morally compelled to understand the human animal completely, unflinchingly. We are not permitted endless illusions or fictions about ourselves, no matter how pleasing. In order to be rational, just, in order to perceive truth clearly, we must empathize.
Empathy is one of the fundaments of democracy; without it, the basic ethical structure of democracy cannot exist. Empathy is the anodyne of solitude, an expansion of consciousness that is both eminently rational, and fundamentally spiritual. It allows us to make of our emotions more than mere mythological phantoms - rather, our feelings become a means by which to measure, to understand, to comprehend. Empathy is imagination put to practical and moral use. In the Enlightened society, community and love are essential fuels for the intellect.
For the first century of its post-revolutionary existence, America was not a "capitalist" society. The word "capitalism" did not yet exist, and capitalists were a small and largely suspect group of individuals for whom the acquisition of wealth was of far greater interest than mastering a craft. At the end of the 19th century, when America had finally embraced the "ism," there blossomed forth a new master-class of wealthy titans, and a vast underclass of industrial wage-slaves. It is no coincidence that, at this time, our society moved away from Enlightenment values and embraced Christian sentimentality. The ennoblement of suffering and a fatalism regarding the poor became ingrained in American popular culture. The rich equated moral greatness with wealth, while the poor and those who helped them equated moral greatness with poverty.
For roughly half a century, this is what prevailed. Then, following the horrors of World War II, we began a slow-but-steady slide even further back in time. Our politics have devolved into an Old Testament mentality. Forget Christ - we now take our cues from the Book of Job: suffering is irrelevant to us. We may coddle ourselves, but the true implications of our Constitutional values elude us. Let us then hunker down, and horde our resources. Let us punish with a wrathful fist those who strike at us and their neighbors. Let us know that our anger is always righteous. Our artificial pseudo-heaven has been infiltrated, and an example must me made.
We are like the child-god of the Old Testament. Having now a political culture which appeals to childish emotions, we assume only the same of those from abroad who criticize us. They attack us because they hate us, we say. They do it out of envy. They're jealous.
But look now at our priorities, the mathematics of our twisted value-system.
In 2003 (1):
The United States Congress has stepped in to find nearly $300m in humanitarian and reconstruction funds for Afghanistan after the Bush administration failed to request any money in its latest budget.
In 2005 (2):
Four years after American forces invaded Afghanistan to purge the Taliban, the United States has spent more than $1.62 billion to reconstruct this war-ravaged Central Asian country...
In the effort to deliver roads, schools, clinics, irrigation canals and other public works, U.S. agencies fell short of most of their own targets and misrepresented their progress to decision makers in Washington, according to the GAO, an investigative arm of Congress whose July report covered reconstruction results through May 2005.
As of October 22, 2006 the total cost of the Iraq war is $336 billion. Let's do the math. Four years after Afghanistan, we had spent $1.62 billion helping the citizens of that nation to rebuild their infrastructure and secure their "freedom." Less than four years after invading Iraq, we have spent 207 times that amount to violate the rights of a society that wants us gone from their home.
Here's more (3):
To date in FY 2006, the United States has committed more than $175 million for immediate life-saving interventions, targeting the most affected areas in the Horn of Africa with water and sanitation, health, nutrition, and food assistance.
Congress has already appropriated about $850 million for aid to all of Sudan in 2005 and 2006, and the White House has requested another $880 million.
Well goodness, that's almost more than we've given Afghanistan! It is almost 0.5% of the yearly budget in Iraq, where it seems we may have killed more than the 400,000 than have already starved to death in Darfur, and no doubt displaced a number comparable to the 2 million displaced there.
Nowhere in our public forums was there a debate over the limits of our resources (We're Child-God America! We have no limits!). Nowhere did we compare, weigh, evaluate the risks posed by Iraq to risks posed by other entities, or whether those risks outweighed to possible needs of other nations in a humanitarian crisis. Nowhere did we question the justice of killing hundreds of thousands for 3,000 Americans. Not enough hands were raised in protest when Bush cut the Death Tax in this time of endless need and suffering - giving market-leeway, it would seem, for more death. These numbers do appear in the mainstream media, occasionally, but they are never compared. Because we have abandoned some of the basic tenets of our founding Enlightenment culture, we have forsaken reason and rational evaluation of the facts at hand - in conjunction with our own human empathy - and embraced the narrative of Wild West adventurism.
Indeed, the choices we've made reflect the morals of a death-culture. Our administration maintains a certain coziness with the Sudanese government, which is at least in part responsible for the genocide in Darfur Why? For one, because they have worked with the CIA to help find Osama Bin Laden. That is the moral choice we have made - hanging a small handful of outlaws is of greater urgency than taking the appropriate measures to prevent an unfolding genocide. This is not a choice we could have made, if we believed that the lives of human beings in Darfur were as valuable as our own. No, we cannot expect our government, and its limited resources, to save everyone, everywhere. But we must demand that it takes stock of its own abilities overseas, and its limitations, and that it uses this information responsibly, to the end of promoting the greatest good. Can any rational analysis of the situation conclude that the value of the Sudanese government's info on Bin Laden is of greater importance than the lives of millions in Darfur? Could Bin Laden ever perpetrate genocide on that order?
This, ultimately, is a failure of our imagination. Our surreal moral compass - which now distorts and bends across our HDTV landscape like one of Dali's melting timepieces, allows us to embrace one absurdity after another. We have mobilized the technology of death behind nothing more than a loose haystack of rationalizations - ideas glued together without common structure or phenotype. Sound bites, with guns and ammo.
If we choose, as a culture, to be indifferent to the world, then so be it. It is easily accomplished. We close our borders, use only those resources available to us on our own land, and defend ourselves when attacked. Let the rest of the world rot. We could do it quite easily - we would be safe. But we are not that; we are everywhere. Our military is stationed around the globe, and we involve ourselves with the affairs of every economic power that can be named. We claim a desire to spread democracy and peace. If we use our power, we are morally compelled to follow those morals we seek to defend - and we must act on them.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Andrew S. Taylor. All rights reserved.