Americans are fascinated by and obsessed with guns because they give the illusion of allowing one to work one’s will by action at a distance.
Americans are mesmerized by and obsessed with handheld ‘telinternet’ electronics because they give the tenuous illusion of shielding one’s non-action, and of being insulting, from a distance.
Both of these fetishes are indictors of the lack of social cohesiveness among Americans. We separate ourselves by fear and shame. Hence, our society is fractious, disunited, weak. Our politics fully conforms to Ambrose Bierce’s definition of that word: “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”
It is then no mystery why, as Daniel Warner laments, random collections of Americans are consistently morally irresponsible by failing to stop injustices occurring right before their eyes.
Behind the belief in an ability for action or non-action at a distance rests the illusion of having a store of personal power: each of us a little Zeus with a quiver of thunderbolts to hurl at offenders from our safe remote clouds. We cherish this illusion because it is how we stifle the voice of gnawing fear at the root of our behavior: in truth we are powerless individuals among uncaring people in an uncaring world.
While it is comforting to complain about being in a “99%” victimized by the leading actors in our national political stage play, the soap opera they put on accurately reflects our consensus about what kind of society we are willing to accept, and what kind of individuals we allow ourselves to be. While American democracy is blocked from implementing the populist socialist aspirations of the American public, by the Fort Apache attitude of our political advantage-takers, it is still true that American government reflects the general character of that American public. In this regard our government remains representative. So, we both are and are not victims of our political managers.
Individual reactions to our societal mediocrity can include: charitable action intended to ameliorate suffering and inspire wider imitation; activism intended to promote greater justice and inspire others to similar activism; a disdainful loss of pity for the crowd because its individuals are seen as too easily and ignorantly allowing themselves to be exploited and enslaved by their political gullibility and lack of social solidarity.
Fortunately, there remains a portion of the population that is clear-eyed about our fractious social reality and yet makes the individual effort not to acquiesce to it but instead “do the right thing” as a matter of principle, and of personal pride, even if convinced that life is intrinsically absurd and the idea of any future “triumph of good” is an illusion. Probably most of us think we are in this group, but of course most of us are not (as our society shows). Probably all of us can recall some instance in our lives (and perhaps many) when we have been lovingly and generously touched by the consequences of kind acts by people, known or unknown, who were trying to inject goodness for others into our times.
In his article, Daniel Warner repeats the myth (widely publicized by the New York Times in 1964) that the assault on and murder of Kitty Genovese proceeded without anyone seeking to stop that crime while it was in progress. From Wikipedia:
“In the early hours of March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old bartender, was stabbed outside the apartment building where she lived in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens in New York City, New York, United States. Two weeks after the murder, The New York Times published an article erroneously claiming that 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack, and that none of them called the police or came to her aid.”
For the full story about the tragedy of Kitty Genovese, the responses of neighbors who tried to help, and the disgusting duplicity of the newspaper writers who jumped with alacrity to social criticism — “the bystander effect” — while ignoring investigation of the facts, see ‘The Witness’, the 2016 riveting documentary movie produced by Kitty Genovese’s younger brother, William.
I lived in Jamaica, Queens, just east past Kew Gardens until 1962 and then further east in Suffolk County into the late 1960s. I remember the shock, dread and sadness of the Kitty Genovese murder as a local current event, and always thought about it when the Long Island Railroad train I was taking to or from Manhattan would stop at the quaint Kew Gardens station whose small parking lot was where Kitty Genovese had left her little FIAT sports car, which she never returned to after the early hours of 13 March 1964. Kitty Genovese bled her life out in the arms of a neighbor woman who rushed to her aid while waiting for emergency services to arrive.
While I believe that American society is corrupt, and perhaps even irredeemably so, I also believe we will always have individuals who will instinctively embody goodness and selflessness for the sake of others overwhelmed in crises of pain and sorrow. This is taking action at hand, of human connection and of solidarity, without concern for feeling powerful.
The natures of our national and world societies are reflections of the (deficient) proportions of their populations who take the risk of adopting that altruistic attitude. The “risk” to the individual, of trying to live by some standard of communal altruism, is of failure at advantage-taking, as evidenced by the counterexamples of “the winners” in our world, who achieve their “successes” (money, status, de facto legal immunity, the envy from the multitudes) by taking the exact opposite attitude: being parasites.
Daniel Warner quotes Virginia Held, that “a random collection of individuals may be held responsible for not taking collective action,” and he concludes that “a universally accepted institutional moral magnet no longer exists” for remagnetizing the failed moral compasses of a people who in random groupings fail (or will fail) to take collective action to stop moral outrages that erupt directly in front of them.
I see the failure to ‘take collective action’ against the moral outrages of the obvious victimization of others, and the evasion of responsibility to do so, as the unspoken design criterion of American society. It is a labyrinth of advantage-taking designed by and for moral evasion. My attitude here is like that of Jonathan Swift: I can condemn human society as a whole, as a fractious collection of competing parasites, while simultaneously prizing those many individuals — few of whom I can ever know — who contribute what goodness and beauty and compassion and connection are available for experiencing when we need them.
Also, a ‘universally accepted moral compass remagnetizer’ does exists. Put yourself in the place of the victim you see before you and ask: minimally, how would I want those who see me in this crisis, to help get me out of it? That then is the personal remagnetization challenge. It is for me, too.