Sunday, August 19, 2012

Justice, Mercy, Parasites?

Justice is this ache,
This lingering limp, this –
Silence echoing.
   (Kensington, July 2010)
Thinking about prisons for last week’s post led me to thoughts of poverty and from there, to reflections on the neglected instruction of Micah 6:8:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.
In our current political discourse, I listen longingly for mention of justice, or mercy, or any hint of humility. Complex issues are dispatched with emphatic sound bites. Any attempt at nuance or suggestion of uncertainty is ridiculed as weakness.

The only justice imagined is retributive justice: Give them what they deserve. Lock them up and throw away the key. Send them back where they came from. Make them get a job and stop freeloading on society.
Who are “they”?

And does justice really consist of ridding ourselves of “them” as quickly and completely as possible?

The tone that comes through suggests subsets of less-than-wanted parasites, sucking life from an otherwise healthy body. The solution, of course, is to remove the parasites, through prison, extradition, vociferous outrage, or some strange, misguided hope that withdrawing food and funds might simply make “them” vanish.

Ayn Rand has been in the news: patron saint of some of our economic theorists, favorite author of popular politicians. Here’s an excerpt from The Fountainhead to set beside the Micah passage:
 “Nothing is given to man on earth. Everything he needs has to be produced. And here man faces his basic alternative: he can survive in only one of two ways—by the independent work of his own mind or as a parasite fed by the minds of others. The creator originates. The parasite borrows. The creator faces nature alone. The parasite faces nature through an intermediary.
     “The creator’s concern is the conquest of nature. The parasite’s concern is the conquest of men.
     “The creator lives for his work. He needs no other men. His primary goal is within himself. The parasite lives second-hand. He needs others. Others become his prime motive.
     “The basic need of the creator is independence. The reasoning mind cannot work under any form of compulsion. It cannot be curbed, sacrificed or subordinated to any consideration whatsoever. It demands total independence in function and in motive. To a creator, all relations with men are secondary.
     “The basic need of the second-hander is to secure his ties with men in order to be fed. He places relations first. He declares that man exists in order to serve others. He preaches altruism.
     “Altruism is the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above self.
     “No man can live for another. He cannot share his spirit just as he cannot share his body. But the second-hander has used altruism as a weapon of exploitation and reversed the base of mankind’s moral principles. Men have been taught every precept that destroys the creator. Men have been taught dependence as a virtue.
     “The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves. The relationship produces nothing but mutual corruption. It is impossible in concept. The nearest approach to it in reality—the man who lives to serve others—is the slave. If physical slavery is repulsive, how much more repulsive is the concept of servility of the spirit? The conquered slave has a vestige of honor. He has the merit of having resisted and of considering his condition evil. But the man who enslaves himself voluntarily in the name of love is the basest of creatures. He degrades the dignity of man and he degrades the conception of love. But this is the essence of altruism.”
Yes, it’s a long passage, but Rand wasn’t known for brevity. To summarize:
  • “Creators” matter. The rest are parasites.
  • Altruism is immoral. Selfishness is a virtue.
  • Service to others, forced, or voluntary, is repulsive. Live for yourself. 
  • Any restriction compromising the independence of creators should be opposed.
Somehow this all sounds painfully familiar.

Ideas have consequences. My college Western Civ teacher, Katherine Lindley, demonstrated the powerful influence of ideas through the middle ages, enlightenment, industrial revolution, two world wars. She reminded us again, during my senior Humanities seminar: ideas have consequences.  I indulged a blessedly brief infatuation with Friedrich Nietzsche, then repented, as we traced the idea of the death of God, the will to power, social Darwinism and the implications of unrestrained individualism through existentialism, fascism, Hitler.

Ideas have consequences. What we believe about individual worth, human value, service to others, justice, mercy, will shape our conversation, attitudes, policies, budgets.

So, here are some questions playing out in the national media:

Is it true that the “creator” faces nature alone, starts with nothing, produces his own success, needs only to be left alone, totally independent?

Is it true that some people – poor, slow, different, “other,” – are of no value, and survive only through exploitation of creators?

Is interdependence a vice? Independence a virtue? Altruism a grim mistake? Selfishness the highest good?

Here’s another Rand quote, currently echoing through our federal budget discussions:
“Parasites, moochers, looters, brutes and thugs can be of no value to a human being - nor can he gain any benefit from living in a society geared to their needs, demands and protection, a society that treats him as a sacrificial animal and penalizes him for his virtues in order to reward them for their vices, which means: a society based on the ethics of altruism.” (The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism 1963 )
Is it okay to call groups of people parasites? Leeches? To suggest we’d be better off without them? To discuss possible avenues of elimination?

Should our society be structured to benefit “creators”, with little regard for “second-handers,” average workers, the unemployed, those not able to work?

Who do we reward? Who do we punish? Who do we protect? Who do we honor?

What happens when we scorn "the ethics of altruism"?

And what, exactly, is justice? Retribution? Redistribution? Restoration? Something beyond all three?

Is there a place for mercy? In our courts, our economy, our global trade?

Would we recognize humility if we saw it? Would we value it? Or stomp it down?

Thinking is hard work. Tracing ideas, envisioning consequences, finding sources, imagining alternatives.

I’ve been imagining a world where Ayn Rand wins. I don’t want to live there, but I see it pressing close on every side.

What does it mean, today, in suburban Pennsylvania, to act justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God?

Maybe it starts by refusing to call others “them.”

By insisting on the value of those least like me.

By turning the channel on rants that dehumanize.

By finding ways to hear the stories, share the concerns, shoulder the burdens of those who have never found a way to fit the current structure.

Maybe it starts with questioning philosophies and policies that favor selfishness over service and compassion.

Maybe it starts with understanding more deeply what the prophets meant when they spoke, again and again, of “justice.”
“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.
               Zechariah 7:9
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
    to those who issue oppressive decrees,
 to deprive the poor of their rights
    and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
    and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
    when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
    Where will you leave your riches?
                       (Isaiah 10:1-3) 
This is part of a continuing series on politics and faith What's Your Platform?

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