Of Accommodation and the Good Society

SmokinSociety

Photo Credit: Pierre Rougier

Sitting and waiting to pick my wife up from a meeting at a youth piano festival, I can see a marvelous thing.  I am witnessing a steady stream of people coming and going—and accommodating one another.  They are doing what it takes to spend time together, setting aside what they might wish to do on their own, bending their plans to involve the plans of others, each doing so to some extent, and all more or less satisfied with it.

Parents are taking time at whatever inconvenience to hear children play the piece that has been sounding from the living room for weeks.  They will crowd into a classroom converted for the day into a makeshift music hall where young performers will queue for their three-minute performances.  Nervous children will wait their turns, relieved children will be glad that their turns are over, and parents will politely listen to other parents’ children, perhaps playing the same piece that their child just attempted.

It cannot be called much of a musical experience—I have been there in those temporary conservatories—but it is an experience in accommodation in a good society.  Most of the people in the room have never met, little know one another, and do not expect to meet again, and they get along fine.  Those who run the festival have freely given hours to organize the event to accommodate the hundreds of participants.

As the participants leave, in quite orderly ways, they continue to accommodate one another with little thought.  It is the normal, customary thing to do.  They take turns through doors, they help carry books, some hold hands, and they smoothly arrange who will sit where in the car.  Some may chat about the performance, some may chat about other activities of the day, continuing to adapt schedules and plans.  This is how society and its people get along.

It can easily break down.  Some accommodation is easy and natural, some takes effort.  It all involves an element of sacrifice of some personal desire or plan or wish.

I contrast this with the horror of the current presidential campaign.  It comes in the climate change of a chief executive who for seven long years has offered an example of little to no accommodation, asserting his will forward by dividing society, pitching Americans against one other.  This very real climate change endangers the future of our Great Republic, our hard-won society, and our very real welfare.  It breeds imitators. President Obama’s executive narcissism has fomented fears and frustrations while making egocentrism in high places unsocially acceptable.

By long tradition we have come to call our Presidents public servants.  Would anyone apply that term to Barack Obama, or imagine those words describing would-be presidents Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?

Donald Trump in particular has built his candidacy on personal braggadocio about running roughshod over others.  He threatens retaliation against opponents, warning them Caesar-like of when it will be “their turn” for his attention.  He promises thunderbolts of lawsuits as tools of Olympian vengeance should anyone pin effective criticism on him.  In short, when given a podium he gives new meaning to the term bully pulpit.

Should any doubt his intentions, Trump points to a business career built on his model of punishing human interaction.  Now Trump seeks the full power of the Presidency of the United States to be placed in his hands—all of the federal government’s economic tools and the might of our military at his disposal to pursue his wishes and run over any and all who would stand in his way.  The discipline of the marketplace will no longer hold him back.  No wonder he expresses admiration for Russia’s would-be-czar Vladimir Putin, a kindred spirit.

Remember what the military—any military—does.  It kills people and destroys things.  In the hands of genuine public servants operating within constitutional limits, for 200 years that power has been controlled to defend and preserve the Republic and the liberties of its people, and liberated not an insignificant number of peoples around the world.  What would a Donald Trump do with such power?  How would he accommodate his personal ambition to the will of the people?  What happens when those powers are used to apply the ego-laced Trump model to the national and world arenas?

We have had too much of this abuse of power already with the Obama administration.  A republic like the United States thrives by accommodating the great variety that makes our nation.  The current President has sought to get his way by manipulating the differences among us.  His has been a cynical program to rule by dividing and conquering, when necessary running over constitutional constraints designed by the Founders to require government officials to accommodate the diverse elements of our union.  Too often, but fortunately not always, President Obama has gotten away with it.

Donald Trump promises to give it a go, with an audacity that surely makes Barack Obama envious. Of course, we see examples each day of unaccommodating and rude actions, but we do not usually applaud boorish behavior.  The usual pattern for ourselves and our neighbors has been to make way for each other, extend courtesies, and even help; we show patience and even kindness, that are akin to love.  The little and frequent and vital considerations to our neighbors are of the glue that holds our good society together, transcending our personal foibles.

What can we say, then, of opposing examples presented by would-be national leaders?  What are the consequences for society itself (beyond the potential calamities for national and global affairs)?  Given the degree to which people take their social cues from the chief executive—for good or ill—what do we get from a President who is a brash boor who threatens any and all to feed his ambition?  What kind of imitation, here and abroad, will that spawn?

For the good of our society we can aspire to something better.  I believe that most yet do.

Of Blasphemy and Racism

Blasphemy! Heresy! Treason! Racism! All loaded words, used less to convey meaning than for their effect as weapons. Few weapons in history have been as powerful. They have killed thousands, perhaps millions, and silenced many more. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” These will. They are intended to.

Consider “blasphemy.” It is a common hammer of religious leaders who are doubtful of their deity’s ability to defend himself. These nervous clerics and acolytes step in to threaten and, where they can, inflict the harshest penalties against any and all they accuse of “blasphemy,” which usually means saying anything that the listeners consider untoward or disrespectful vis-à-vis their deity. The harshness of the penalties, and the vagueness of what qualifies as an infraction, create a terror that intimidates both speech and action among others, which is the basic purpose of the label. The religious leaders of Judea during the days of Jesus’ mortal ministry repeatedly tried to silence Him by hurling “blasphemy” at Him. On the day of His death, they cried blasphemy to stir up the anger of the population—although they used another word, “treason,” when addressing the Roman authorities. Several dozen nations today (with little opposition from the U.S. State Department or other executive branch officials) are seeking to make blasphemy a globally recognized crime, at least when touching upon Islam or its sensitivities.

“Heresy” has similar uses. Rather than a crime of the impious, it is invoked in pious disagreements about whom or what is sacred. The Spanish Inquisition comes readily to mind. The accusation seems to be most commonly employed by those who lack confidence in the convincing power of their doctrines when faced with competing ones. “Heresy” is intended to close ears, “heretic” to silence speakers, both intended to end the debate.

Next we come to “treason,” which can be a real phenomenon and a genuine crime against the nation or people, and when proved and the traitor caught usually answered with stern—if not brutal—penalties. Genuine treason puts the nation or community at risk by exposing weaknesses to enemies.

In former times, as well as in nations governed by authoritarian regimes, “treason” has been invoked, however, less to label traitors to the state and the society as to subdue opponents to the supreme leader. Kings, emperors, czars, dictators, and others of the ilk sit nervously on their thrones—and for good reason. They lack legitimacy yet enjoy immense power (or its illusion), which lures other would-be despots. Nearly every one of the Roman emperors, for example, met death at human hands. The Soviet Union never had a legitimate transfer of power from one boss to the next. Tyrants, therefore, have little tolerance for opposition and are credulous of every rumor of resistance. That makes accusations of “treason” powerful tools of terror for scoundrels in such societies to employ to settle grudges, dispose of enemies, steal lands and wealth, or otherwise gain advantage. Many innocents have been so victimized.

Which brings us to “racism.” This is a modern weaponized word. Originally coined to identify people who would justify plunder and oppression by employing racial prejudices, it has been preserved long after such plans and schemes are suppressed by law and proscribed by social convention. Indeed, the word only works as a weapon because of the universal social opprobrium already attached to it. Its power as an epithet comes because no one in civil society considers it tolerable, any actual existence a bizarre aberration. Calling someone “racist” is tantamount to accusing him of being unfit for public association and worthy of ostracism. It is therefore used most commonly today, like the use throughout history of the other weapon words, to end debate, to intimidate opponents, to plunder wealth, and in general to gain advantage. “Racism” is the modern world’s “blasphemy,” “heresy,” and even “treason.” “Racism” is used to cause hurt, even where the absence of authentic racism causes none. Worse, it is used by real racists to shield or camouflage their own bigotry.

Employed as a weapon word, racism is losing meaning. When was the last time you heard a reasoned discussion and debate of racism? Intellectual dialog is avoided for fear that raising the subject in an impartial way will court exposure to accusation, much as discussion of blasphemy, heresy, and treason in times past. What is left, for example, when racism no longer means conscious prejudicial action but is applied—as it is by the Obama Administration—to mean manufactured statistical discrepancies among people who admittedly have no intention to act in a prejudicial manner?

For the wielders of the weapon, the meaning of racism must be kept general and undefined to maximize the number of potential targets. Feeding the outrage attached to it is a constant labor as is constantly finding new eruptions of racism where none exist. The recognition of racism (especially where it is absent) must be automatic and assumed proven when employed—addressed if at all only by the mea culpa of the accused, followed by public contrition and the ceding of wealth or advantage to the accusers.

Where, I wonder, does the real racism lie? Can racial distinction and prejudice wither when they are regularly conjured for personal advantage? What does that do to a society where laws and culture already universally hold racism in contempt? What is the appropriate term for the moguls of the racism industry who prosper by the preservation and promotion of racism? When will the public immolations for private gain end?