Thursday, July 05, 2007

Hell's Golden Rule

A few days ago, CKR had the temerity to ask what the solution might be to the problems I described in this post.

It was a fair question, so I tried to give it some thought. In the meantime, I posted three quotes in honor of the Fourth of July. And today, I realized that somewhere in the interplay of these quotes lies pretty much the only answer I have. Taken together, they describe what's wrong, explain why change is difficult to the point of being unthinkable, and point out that we are the only miracle we're going to get.

Which brings me, only a bit gratuitously, to Amanda's review of Sicko. While reading it, I started thinking about the Administration's claim that democratizing the Middle East is doubleplusgood because democratic nations are less likely to go to war with one another. This bit of Kantian fluff normally travels under the name of Democratic Peace Theory, but BushCo has fashioned it into a casus belli through its usual logical contortionism.

Sometimes, the best way to approach this sort of argument is not to reject it, or point out its hypocrisy, but to carry it a bit further. I notice that countries with effective, equitable healthcare systems often seem to be a bit less belligerent than...others. And not just towards other democracies, but also towards the developing world. Perhaps there's something about honoring people as such - by protecting the weak, relieving distress, and so forth - that makes a country slightly less likely to embark on stupid military adventures. Or vice versa. At any rate, there's a lot to be said for formally rejecting the idea that human beings can become "life unworthy of life" simply by failing to thrive in the petri-dish conditions of late capitalism; it's a short step from shrugging at one's own ghettoes to bombing someone else's.

We know that the American healthcare system, along with the economic system into which it fits like a gun into a holster, produces excessive misery and anxiety, and that excessive misery and anxiety cry out for scapegoats; the system "engenders those to whom punishment is due," in Walter Benjamin's phrase. Which is why my efforts here - from titling this blog, to cluttering it with my scatterbrained, morose, and generally inadequate ramblings - have focused on the argument that if we're unhappy, frightened, or at risk, we have no one to blame but ourselves and no one to turn to but each other.

Apparently, these beliefs makes me a "collectivist." I won't deny any part of the charge, but it's interesting to consider what's popularly defined as collectivism versus what's popularly defined as individualism. Collectivism (which is actually moderately liberal common sense dressed up as Stalinism) recognizes citizens as individuals whose living conditions and state of health affect other individuals, and formalizes the responsibility of the relatively strong to look out for the relatively weak.

America currently does this, of course; we just stop far short of what's properly humane. To quote Hawthorne again:

There is so much wretchedness in the world, that we may safely take the word of any mortal professing to need our assistance; and, even should we be deceived, still the good to ourselves resulting from a kind act is worth more than the trifle by which we purchase it.
By contrast, individualism (which is actually cowardice dressed up as "character") reduces the poor, the sick, the exploited, victims of bigotry, and the mentally ill to an undifferentiated mass of underachieving sad sacks; its adherents glorify their paltry attainments by overemphasizing the delicate line that divides success from failure, health from sickness, and sanity from madness. It all boils down in the end to a vision of economic determinism that makes the worst excesses of vulgar Marxism seem like a page out of Dale Carnegie.

And it's as pitiless to us, ultimately, as it is to the people we deploy it against. But then, that's Hell's Golden Rule: Mistreat others as you mistreat yourself.

(Illustration: "The Circle of the Corrupt Officials. The Devils Mauling Each Other" by William Blake, 1826.)


roger said...

damn all phila, you have outdone yourself again. i refer to "....the American healthcare system, along with the economic system into which it fits like a gun into a holster...."

if i weren't already in the choir i would join posthaste, swayed by the power of your words.

Phila said...

Thanks, Roger. Blogging and renovation seem incompatible, most days, so votes of confidence are even more welcome than usual.