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Agape While Waltzing at the Precipice

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With the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or parts of the act as a possibility, the question about what compassion means and why so many both in government and in the larger society could care less about their fellows.

If the ACA is a positive though very, very flawed law, then a discussion is necessary about what it means to insure an additional 23 million people, extend benefits to young adults, and not discriminate against people with preexisting medical conditions.

It is a given that the Republican establishment in Congress and in the White House and their paymasters from the 1% could care less about whether or not people stay well, kids suffer, and people get needed medical care.

By Wednesday afternoon (July 26, 2017), the Republican anti-ACA juggernaut appeared to have hit a stone wall (“Health Care Vote: Senate Rejects Repeal Without Replace,” The New York Times). The so-called Republican deconstruction of government includes support of the military and police functions of government while looking the other way while big business operates in a predatory climate. There is no place in this Republican universe for compassion.

It was of some passing interest to learn that John McCain, who was recently diagnosed with brain cancer, traveled back to the Senate to cast a vote against the ACA. Compare that total lack of compassion with the compassion expressed for the senator when his diagnosis was made public. The outpouring of both sympathetic and empathetic support for the senator seemed to be fairly consistent. He was lauded as a war hero, a discussion of which belongs in a different place, and even those who disagree with his political stands took a sympathetic view of his plight.

But no such reciprocating response was forthcoming from the senator who has defined his political life with a steadfast militaristic response to each and every crisis, whether real or manufactured (such as the wars in Iraq and Libya and a war in Iran for which he hankers—remember “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran?”). It seems that the single issue in matters of war and peace that the senator has learned is that torture is wrong. He learned that lesson while a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War in which he was a fighter pilot.  An observation might be useful at this point that the awful disease that he now battles might merit the same extension of compassion and empathy to some of the 23 million fellow Americans that may be made to suffer unnecessarily because of the loss of their health insurance. The guns and butter equation certainly applies here.

During the hight of the civil right era, Martin Luther King, Jr. was asked about his philosophy of loving one’s enemy while he was being subjected to the racist brutality that eventually led to his assassination. It was a simple question about compassion.

In 1967, Dr. King made a speech titled “Agape Love” (December 1967). In it, he explores the idea, as a deeply religious person, that loving one’s enemy is possible without liking those enemies who would do harm. His thesis is a variation on Christ’s “Love your enemies.”  Agape is the ancient Greek idea of platonic love.

In reality, adhering to the doctrine of agape is a difficult philosophy to follow. Watching how popular and radical movements got the shit kicked out of them over the past 50 years, it’s hard to identify in any way with the oppressor. A person may feel sympathy for those who suffer who would do harm to others, sometimes grievous harm, but liking or loving such people when they threaten the very existence of life on Earth is beyond most.

During the height of the Vietnam War, the murders of unarmed students at Kent State and Jackson State was followed only days later by the beating of masses of protesters in lower Manhattan by a vicious band of construction workers. Now workers, who have been harmed by decades of right-wing and neoliberal globalization, are on the side, for the most part, of those who rise to protest. In the halls of a hospital to which the dead and injured were taken after the massacre at Kent State, many passersby could heard, according to a close relative of one of the slain students, saying that more students should have been either shot or killed. The difficulty here is that a person remembers much from their formative years when he or she cut his or her teeth on the repressive nature of how the system and its institutions react to those at its walls, and that reaction is not always within the Judeo-Christian ethic or the acceptance of the other within the humanistic tradition.

And within these traditions was the waltz between Senators John McCain and Bernie Sanders following McCain’s vote to repeal Obamacare. The latter had to send a symbolic signal to at least some of the Sandernistas who worked arduously for the senator from Vermont in the 2016 presidential campaign:

The Arizona senator’s return to Washington met bipartisan applause. Almost every senator hugged McCain after the vote, lining up at his desk to take turns paying his or her respects. A hug with Bernie Sanders turned into an impromptu waltz as the two men ended up spinning each other around the aisles of the Senate (“Bipartisan hugs and a waltz with Bernie: John McCain’s emotional return to DC,” The Guardian, July 25, 2017).

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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