Saturday, February 28, 2009

Lessons Written in DNA

There is no question that the New York Post cartoon depicting two policemen shooting a chimpanzee while one says to the other, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill" is blatantly racist and sickening.

The history of racism in this country is vile in the extreme. Although the New York Post cartoon is horribly offensive, it should come as a surprise to no one. Racism is deeply ingrained in our national psyche, and we still have a great deal of work to do to exorcise its demons from our midst.

But there is more to this image than racism. Underlying the cartoon and all the other efforts to conflate blacks and apes is the assumption of human superiority and ape inferiority. These assumptions are even more deeply ingrained than racism.

An editorial in the New York Times yesterday by Brent Staples chronicles the use of the ape as a racist invective throughout American history.
The effort to dehumanize black people by characterizing them as apes is central to our national history. . . .

By defining Negroes not as human beings but as beasts, the nation rationalized subjugation and cruelty—and justified laws that stripped them of basic human rights. The case for segregation itself rested heavily on the assertion that animal origins made Negroes feebleminded, smelly and intolerably offensive to white sensibilities.
In point of fact, we all have "animal origins." We are, indeed, all animals, and the chimpanzee is our closest evolutionary relative. You would think that that knowledge would garner the chimpanzee some respect, especially as we are so fond of seeing ourselves as vastly superior to "beasts." But we cling to the notion that we are set apart in every respect from other animals.

It is time for us humans to view ourselves with a modicum of humility. Of course we are unique among our fellow creatures, but the same could be said for every other species on the planet. Each has its place and its special brilliance, if only we have the eyes to see it. In our planet's complex ecology, none is superior or inferior or of greater or lesser value. Not only do we share most of our DNA with chimpanzees, but we also share much of it with protozoa, plankton, trees, and cows. We are one, inexorably intertwined and interrelated.

It is not only time for us to recognize that "race" is a notion entirely fabricated by humans, but so is the notion of human superiority. We are not the be-all and end-all of evolution. We are one among many, each with our own special brilliance and value.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

We Are Becoming the Ones

Neocons like to talk about "personal responsibility." This is shorthand for "don't expect the government to fix it for you" (unless you're a bank). This idea is also paraded as "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" (whether you have any or not) and the myth of the "self-made man" (if you're a woman, you can just forget it).

Think for a minute about these images: is it literally possible for a person to pull herself up by her bootstraps? Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines bootstrap as follows: "a looped strap sewed at the side or the rear top of a boot to help in pulling it on." OK. Now imagine yourself sitting on the floor. You're wearing boots, with bootstraps. Now pull yourself up by those bootstraps. Right. Not happening.

And has there ever been a "self-made man," or woman for that matter? No one makes her own self or has only himself to thank for a lifetime of achievements. We are all way more connected to each other than most of us ever realize or acknowledge. We are all reliant on our families, our communities, our teachers, our friends, the kindness of strangers.

Still, there is certainly a place for "personal responsibility." Yes, indeed, you are responsible for your own actions. But responsibility doesn't end there. You are also responsible for how your actions affect those around you. George Lakoff asserts that "social responsibility" involves empathy. "Empathy is not mere sympathy. Putting oneself in the shoes of others brings with it the responsibility to act on that empathy—to be 'our brother's keeper and our sister's keeper'—and to act to improve ourselves, our country, and the world."

So whereas "personal responsibility" may be taken to mean "caring for oneself," "social responsibility" is taking care of others as well: family, community, country, and even members of groups to which one does not belong: other communities, other faiths and belief systems, other countries, other continents.

The raising of personal responsibility to a position of paramount importance, boiling it down to unbridled self-interest and rampant greed, separating it from empathy and social responsibility—these ideological land mines underlie our current crisis, which is way more than an economic crisis. What we are experiencing is a crisis of identity and morality and values.

When we adopt social responsibility and use it to temper and contextualize our personal responsibility, we begin to realize that in the long term all of our destinies are interdependent. My well-being, the well-being of my family, and that of my community are intertwined with the well-being of people living thousands of miles away, people whose language, culture, economic means, and values are very different from my own.

Our baser instincts are to think in terms of "us versus them." This thinking also involves the assumption that there's just not enough for all of us, so we are necessarily in competition with "them" for the stuff we need (or think we need). Our better angels, though, aspire to more than greed and rampant consumerism. They aspire to looking out for the welfare of all in the secure knowledge that everything we need is available to us in abundance.

According to Robert Creamer,

Responsibility for others is not some "soft" or "utopian" value; it is critical to our success and survival on our increasingly crowded planet. More than that, it's the key that will both prevent us from destroying ourselves—and can unlock exponentially expanding human possibility in the 21st century.

So the old "us versus them" needs to grow up and evolve into "we." Notice that, grammatically speaking, us and them are both objects, whereas we is a subject. The objects are acted upon, whereas the subject does the acting. We are the actors; we are taking responsibility, not only for ourselves but for our fellow humans and our fellow creatures and our lovely green planet. We. We are becoming the ones we have been waiting for.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Animal Morality

Andrew Sullivan notes that an article in yesterday's Telegraph reports on research indicating that "monkeys and apes can make judgements about fairness, offer sympathy and help and remember obligations," in other words, that "the findings may demonstrate morality developed through evolution, a view that is likely to antagonise the devoutly religious, who see it as God-given."
Professor Frans de Waal, who led the study at Emory University in Georgia, US, said: "I am not arguing that non-human primates are moral beings but there is enough evidence for the following of social rules to agree that some of the stepping stones towards human morality can be found in other animals."
The Telegraph article opens by asserting that "morality has always been viewed as a human trait that sets us apart from the animals." Humans keep doing this, and science keeps dashing their hopes for being "set apart." It used to be tool use. And war. And culture. Turns out that chimpanzees have many traits we used to consider uniquely human.

News flash: Humans are animals. Humans are on an animal continuum. We are them; they are us.

In a narrowly religious way, some might consider this blasphemous. We are made in God's image. Just us. Not them. We are moral beings. They are not. Right? So when a gorilla rescues and protects a little human, what is that? Amoral? Anyone who has relationships with animals knows better.

Does this mean we are less unique than we thought? Perhaps. Less special? Not at all. Rather than it being a demotion, couldn't we view it as a promotion of the rest of the animal world? The human tendency toward species-centrism and hubris has created all kinds of havoc in this world. It's time for us to develop a new worldview.

Enough of the idea of human beings "set apart" from the rest of creation. It's time for us to embrace our identity as fellow creatures and learn to respect and care for the creation and our fellow creatures. It's time to dispense with the cursed hierarchy and enjoy a flatter and more compassionate worldview.

The animals with whom we share this planet are, in effect, our sisters and brothers. They are worthy of respect, and they have much to teach us, if only we will learn to listen.

To Investigate Bush or Not

In response to William Fisher's "To Investigate Bush or Not" in the February 16, 2009, Huffington Post
This divergence of viewpoints - from doing nothing to appointing a special prosecutor - is putting President Obama in an uncomfortable position. ... But Obama appears reluctant to take any action that might further divide the country. Moreover, he may be loath to antagonize Republicans, whose support he may need on many other issues in the future.
There is always a divergence of viewpoints. Justice should not have to depend on consensus. Nevertheless, you say yourself that "a sizable majority of Americans favor an investigation into Bush-era misconduct."

Investigations and prosecutions are never pleasant. There will never be a convenient time. "Further divide the country?" It was the Bushies who were deliberately divisive. The November election and popular support for Obama since then shows that we are currently less divided than we have been for a long time.

Obama is in quite a lot of uncomfortable positions. That's what he signed up for.

Republicans have just as many reasons, if not more, to want an investigation into Bush-era misconduct. Weren't they doing everything they could to put distance between themselves and Bush during the election? And isn't it the fault of the Bushies that the Republicans performed so abysmally in the election?

The bottom line is that if we don't investigate and prosecute Bush-era crimes, we set ourselves up for more of the same in the future. There will be absolutely nothing to prevent future leaders from doing the same unless we go forward with the investigations.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Question of Bipartisanship

Obama's attempts to practice bipartisanship would be more meaningful if both parts of the "bi" were representative of reasonable but differing perspectives. It should be obvious by now, though, that the party of Limbaugh is extremist in the extreme and completely out of touch with every aspect of reality--political, economic, and social.

Our national perspectives and conversations (if you can call them that) have been so skewed by feudalistic ideology that all of our political categories have been torqued to the right. What used to be considered a moderate Democrat is now considered a rabid lefty. Fortunately, that means that there are more rabid lefties around than there used to be. Lots more.

Alas, we have not only the Bushies to blame for the current skew but also the Clintonites, many of whom are back in power and are interpreting November's progressive mandate as a "right-of-center" mandate, with the "center" now sitting somewhere over toward 75 on a scale of 1 to 100.

So in fact I'm not surprised or displeased that the Republicans refuse to go along with Obama's attempts at bipartisanship. They continue to marginalize themselves and show their true colors, refusing to unclench their stranglehold on their disproved extremist, feudalistic ideology. Their supposed patriotism is clearly a sham. What they support is not the United States of America but the Feudal States of America. While they sing the old "tax and spend" song about the Democrats, they themselves can't let go of the old "tax cut (for the rich) and spend" ideology that got us into this mess in the first place.

Thanks to them the middle class is vanishing at an alarming rate. But they're not alarmed--they're delighted. The ginormous gap between the rich and the poor is exactly what they're after. It should be crystal clear that these ideologues do not embrace democracy or even republicanism. They are feudalists through and through. They want a king and an elite aristocracy and an army of plebes and peasants to do all their dirty work and grovel at their feet. They don't think this mess we're in is a mess at all. They think it's just peachy, and they want more of the same. The only reasonable reaction to their extremism is to throw the bums out, which is pretty much what we did in November.

These extremist ideologues are the ones who got us into this mess. And the mess around them--the pain of the growing numbers of unemployed and uninsured--will never convince them of the error of their ways, because they're enjoying it. Obama needs to accept the fact that the folks he's trying to make nice with don't have a worthy idea to offer in the present conundrum. The conundrum is their doing, and they're proud of their accomplishments. They have no help to offer.

This is not the moment for bipartisanship. This is the moment to dig us out of the mess those folks got us into. Here's hoping that the Republicans have managed to convince Obama that they're not going to play nice, no matter how dire the crisis, because to them it's not a crisis--it's an accomplishment. The people have delivered a progressive mandate, not a Clintonite mandate, not a right-of-center mandate. We have come to our senses and can see the ideologues for what and who they truly are. If they don't want to come along for the ride, don't lose any momentum trying to bring them along. It just isn't going to happen. We have serious work to do. Leave the feudalists to Limbaugh. He will marginalize them all the more.