Sunday, April 29, 2012

What We Owe Each Other

The human is a social animal. It always has been, and it always will be. To abandon that essential fact about us is to destroy us. Live together or die alone. A human who rejects society and goes off to live entirely alone has always--everywhere--been regarded as a saint or a mystic or a madman. Everywhere.

We have a myth, in this country, that we are rugged individualists, and that we need no one outside of our immediate family. To accept help from outside the family is to be weak. To accept help from some government entity is to be beyond weak. Of course, the fact that the people in this country who hold this position (loudly, publically) are also the people most likely to be taking aid and support from the government doesn't stop any of us from holding onto this opinion. We do not let facts mess up our stories.

The idea that the best way to solve the economic problems of the many is to line the pocketbooks of the few is not a new one. Franklin Roosevelt attacked it in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention of 1932. But that doesn't stop us from raising the idea from the dead, again and again, as though it's revolutionary and new.

Government is not a separate entity, utterly foreign and alien to us. It is us. The laws it passes are the laws we request...or at least allow. The services it provides are the services we demand. And no one running for president, now or lately, seems capable of offering an explanation of how those services will be delivered if we continue to decimate our civil institutions and reduce our infrastructure spending. If we think taxes are evil, then who is going to pay for the police? Or fire fighters? Or snow plow operators? Who is going to repair the bridges when they collapse? Is everything really going to be fee for service? If you have a fire, hire a private fire department if you can afford them....or burn? If you use a particular bridge, pay the toll every day; if you don't, it's not your problem?

Here is an incisive and well-written--and horrifying--account of what happens when we indulge in our deepest cynicism and selfishness, and withdraw our support--monetary and otherwise--from our civic institutions. This is what happens when we decide that we are not social animals, that we do not owe anything to each other--not money, not care, not even a casual thought. It is what happens when we decide to look out for ourselves only, and let the rest of the world burn. It is called "In Nothing We Trust," and it's worth a read.

Tell me you don't breathe a sigh of relief at the end of it, when one, lone institution comes through and helps the man who is in trouble.

Maintaining every American's right to become exceedingly wealthy (however ridiculous and unattainable that dream may actually be) shouldn't have to require allowing every American to die alone in the street if he fails to get there.

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