Jen Sorensen, on our new depths of heartless Darwinism.
I realize that, over the course of history, humanity has sunk to some pretty low levels. But when you study those periods in history, the narrative is "for awhile some bad people did horrible things ... "
And then, given the triumphalist nature of history textbooks, it goes on "... but then the decent, brave, admirable people realized how very wrong it was."
Sometimes those decent-brave-and-admirable people have to go to war, or lead a revolution. Other times, they take the forms of Jane Addams and Jacob Riis and other advocates, but we're good people and so righteousness will triumph in the end.
It's silly to teach history on the theory that it is, by nature (by our nature), an upward movement towards greatness. As James Loewen points out in "Lies My Teacher Told Me," it's an approach that figures in no other subject matter:
These textbooks in American history stand in sharp contrast to the rest of our schooling. Why are they so bad? Nationalism is one of the culprits. Their contents are muddled by the conflicting desires to promote inquiry and indoctrinate blind patriotism. ... The difference begins with their titles: The Great Republic, The American Way, Land of Promise, Rise of the American Nation. Such titles differ from all other textbooks students read in high school or college. Chemistry books are called Chemistry or Principles of Chemistry, not Rise of the Molecule.
Loewen's book goes off the rails a bit, as is typical when a solid, pithy jeremiad is expanded to book length, but the core is solid: Like fundamentalists who seek only the science that supports their unscientific assumptions, we pick and choose the history that buttresses our pre-existing, positive self-image.
But it's equally wrong to portray white, Anglo-Saxon America as some cunning and powerful group that set out to specifically harm others, because, aside from the fact that we had practiced doing this kind of horrible stuff to each other for centuries before we imported it to the New World, it assumes a self-awareness that is simply never present.
In retrospect, sure. Everybody's a freaking genius in retrospect.
But, in matters historical or mundane, the most honest answer to "What the hell were you thinking?" is "We weren't."
Which brings us to the here and now, and Sorensen's cartoon.
And this column by Paul Krugman, in which he discusses the topic of heartless bastards and feeding the poor as a matter of sound economic policy, but in which he also addresses the moral issue:
I understand the supposed rationale: We’re becoming a nation of takers, and doing stuff like feeding poor children and giving them adequate health care are just creating a culture of dependency — and that culture of dependency, not runaway bankers, somehow caused our economic crisis.
It's not so much that this kind of cruel, scapegoating, illogical belief is unprecedented -- it isn't.
But it certainly flies in the face of the common decency that Jesus assumed was beyond question:
If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?
Well, yes. Yes, that is what we would do.
Or maybe we'd give him nothing at all, but, in any case, we will continue to insist that America was built on Christian principles, and that our schools ought to invoke the name of Jesus often, so that our children will understand the importance of Christianity to our nation.
And we'll not only insist, like Ebenezer Scrooge, that we gave at the office and so nothing more is required of us, but that we actually spend too much on those prisons and workhouses, so that even our mandatory giving needs to be cut back.
This isn't hypocrisy.
It's insensitivity, insensibility and self-serving equivocation, but we don't have the self-awareness to be hypocrites.
It's bad history to assume that the people who did all the rotten things in the past sat down and made an active decision to choose evil over good, especially since, given that we need to believe bad things are only done by villians, we invariably create countervailing historical myths to let ourselves off the hook.
Like the myths that every Frenchman during World War II was an active member of the Resistance and that nobody in Germany knew what was happening in those mysterious camps on the edge of town.
And the myth that, in 19th century America, every storage cabinet in every northern house was built to hide slaves on the Underground Railroad.
And the current myth that, because you toss coins in the basket at church, you have done not just all that you possibly can, but all that you should.
These inevitable, self-serving myths, you must realize, stand apart from the outright, deliberate falsehoods -- that the slaves were happy or that the Holocaust has been exaggerated or that most welfare recipients are cheating the system -- which are nothing more than the contemptible lies of societal criminals and their active, willing collaborators.
Innocent fictions are more insidious than purposeful lies, because they mask the simple fact that, when bad things happen in a society, it is because that society allows bad things to happen.
It's quite simple: Decent people do not debate whether they should feed the poor.
And there are no myths we will ever be able to devise to tell our grandchildren that can justify the fact that we even entertained that immoral, inexcusable debate.