Thursday, November 13, 2008

Oh, just a little post about humanity and civilization

I read an awesome blog post yesterday and I am pointing you there with a big foam hand. Go read THIS. It's by Disco Mermaid Eve, who has been teaching writing in a Los Angeles juvenile jail. The way she describes the kids she's working with is very powerful. Go read it and come back ;-)




Back? Pretty awesome, huh? They are hungry. Their basic needs have never been met. It's so fundamental, so simple. Survivor: Lockup. It pretty much agrees with a basic philosophy that I have that civilization is just a thin veneer, that our animal natures are just a nail-scratch beneath the surface and under the right (or rather wrong) circumstances, our cultivated humanity can be overwhelmed by it. I don't mean to denigrate our cultivated humanity; I think it is an extraordinary thing -- how far we have come in a few millenia (particularly the last few centuries) to elevating ourselves, forming societies and judicial systems, etc. But I don't think those things are the human default setting. They represent our best possible selves, and they are only possible under certain conditions, basically: when human needs are met, we can thrive and live elevated lives.

And I'm not saying that you or I will become animals if we don't get enough food for a few weeks. I mean, we have already gotten a lifetime of programming; it would take more to make us start killing each other for food (I hope). But what about people who never had enough, over a number of generations, with insufficient food, medical care, and education? What does it take to overturn all the long years of human striving for civilization? I don't know the answer to that, but looking around the world to the awful things that happen, it's pretty clear that civilization needs to be carefully stewarded through each generation. Miss a generation along the way because of war, tyranny, famine. . . and you damage the cycle. You beget people who would stone a 13-year-old girl to death for being raped. Who would commit genocide, who would suicide bomb.

Horrible things happen all around the world. Headlines stun us on a daily basis. There are too many of them for us to write these things off as aberrations. The potential for extraordinary savagery lurks inside humanity, and if we don't guard the cycle of civilization that we have been building since the evolution of Homo sapiens from apes, it gets broken. Maybe across a whole war-torn country. Maybe in one family.

Obviously there's a huge difference between a conflict zone in Africa and a neighborhood in Los Angeles, but the essential thing is this: there are human beings in our society whose needs are not met and who, as a result, become people we consider threatening to the stability of our lives. They need to be locked up to keep the rest of us safe. Does it have to be that way? I mean, if they could have their needs met? I think we can all agree that if all young people in our country had stability, food, shelter, love, education, and opportunity, our jails would be much quieter places.

And that brings me a little bit to ideas that are always rolling around in my head that I haven't really found the way to express here in a concise way, like what it means to me to be a liberal. A huge part of what it means to me to be a liberal is this: Seeing every human being born into our society as worth helping (and around the world too, to the degree that we can help), and wanting to have strong systems in place for doing just that. That is the eeeeevil of liberalism that conservatives wring their hands about. This is the socialism that terrifies them: wanting to create a strong society by giving all those born into it a chance to thrive. I mean, does this not make sense? Even if you really don't care about the individual, like those kids in Eve's program (and I know a lot of people don't), then you should still -- for your own greedy self-preservation -- care about having a stable society full of educated, gainfully employed people. Noh?

And really, a lot of what we're talking about is helping children, helping create stable families, and what kind of a giant bastardface do you have to be to not want that?

There is a lot more to be said on the subject of being liberal, but that's my nutshell for this conversation. I had a troubling email exchange a few months back with a young conservative who, though religious, doesn't think people should be "forced" to help other people. That it should be up to you if you want to give charity, and that churches should be the institutions helping the needy, not the government. She also thinks people don't inherently "deserve" health care. I guess then they don't "deserve" public education either, and they don't "deserve" to have safe drinking water coming out of their taps, or roads that are paved, or meat that is inspected, or sewage that is treated, or police and fire departments that will come if you need them. All these things are government systems for the benefit of all (socialism! eek!), based on the belief that every member of our society deserves every chance at a safe --and happy* -- life. Why is health care so different? (Easy answer: because some fat cats figured out how to get fatter off of people getting sick and dying, and because we have been letting them. We have to stop letting them. Remember "we the people"? We are those people. Our leaders have to do what we tell them! So, let's tell them. I mean, we just did, didn't we? Woo hoo! Now, let's keep telling them. Our work is not done. Voting is not the end of our job as citizens.)

Okay, whew. I see that this could just keep going and going and going. . . but I'll stop now. Have a beautiful day!

*"life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," -- what amazing words.


Sara said...

Thanks, Laini, for pointing your foam finger to Robin's post. It was fabulous, and I followed some of the comments there to other great blogs as well.

Linda said...

I think the "sacrifice" that Obama spoke about in his election-night speech is another big part of being liberal, for me. It's about accepting maybe a teensy bit less for my own self, knowing that others can have some, too...whatever that "some" might be--health care, food, library books...
I'm not a religious person at all, and I don't think you have to be one in order to accept this kind of view. I try to give where I can, and support governments that support the creation and maintenance of public works and social services, and I don't need a pew to sit in to do it, necessarily. I can't imagine not feeling like society is better when more people have a chance to succeed in it.

I was incredibly dismayed at Prop 8 passing in California, and the conundrum of how the Mormon church, which has many members I admire and like, can foster such blatant discrimination. How disappointing that an otherwise productive, happy, and generous slice of our society could be so close-minded in that way.

Oh dear, sorry to get back on that again...

Alex S said...

Great post Dingy! It seems like among Republican circles being "liberal" is akin to a curse word, and you described it very well what it really means. Its ironic to me actually how so many Christians can not be liberals, if they truly are religious, because Christianity, at least I thought it was, in huge part about goodness, about being responsible for one another's welfare, helping those whom, for whatever reasons, may not be able to help themselves, and most importantly, not pausing to judge, not pausing to "ask" if the person is "deserving" of charity and love or not. I have a very deep feeling that Jesus would be utterly sickened at all of the people who inflict so much pain upon others in his name. It seems like Jesus was busy really loving people, so busy that he wouldn't have had time or bothered with trying to support b.s. like Prop 8. Instead, we see people like those who left comments on your Prop 8 posts before cherrypicking who deserves to be married, whose love and commitment is somehow more sacred than another's. And on a separate note, what is so evil about equality? about sacrificing a little more so that others less fortunate can suffer a teeny bit less? It is very convenient for people whom are not poor, or who don't suffer from mental or physical illness to point and say, "They should be doing more to help themselves." It is much easier than summoning the compassion to instead try and understand how they might be feeling and what they might really need and how you can really help. I am so grateful that Obama won, that there are some people, esp within the Christian community,who honor the separation of church and state, and yet, also see that one can be a true Christian by embracing liberalism, which really is just being liberal with your heart and voting with your conscience as much as with your pocketbook.

kendalee said...

Great thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Again! Thank you.

myrna said...

Hey Laini! I just got some beautiful Ladies in the mail yesterday! Thanks!

And you are so right that society would be better if we could meet everyone's needs. The only real problem, if you look at history, is that those in power tend to abuse their power. I see it all the time in my state. Government officials get thrown in jail for accepting bribes all the time in Nevada. Oh, and they vote to give themselves raises too. And the schools in Nevada are funded through tourism and property tax, so can't afford to function properly anymore. I was at a meeting a couple of weeks ago where our elementary school principal was trying not to cry while she explained that she was going to have to let teachers go next year, when they're already understaffed.

Communism was supposed to be the great equalizer, but look at what people have done with it. The people would have been better off fending for themselves. That's why so many people get upset about socialism.

But I agree with you that everyone should have health care. And food. And shelter. Those things are every bit as important as education. And they're more important than resurfacing perfectly good roads and so many other things our government spends money on. I hope Obama can put together a health care system that works for everyone and that he can fix some of the education (NCLB) problems too. I think he's intelligent enough to do it, if the other politicians will work with him.

Disco Mermaids said...

Wow, Laini! Wow.

I am all teary-eyed at reading your post referring to my post.

It's amazing how you can so clearly articulate all my "liberal" opinions. Will you be my spokesperson?

I agree with everything you say, and if more people thought like you, I guarantee the world would be a better place. Then again, I'm a Communist at heart...and that ideology never seems to work in practice, so what do I know?


Wyman said...

Interesting post. If you have never read or heard of the famous "Stanford Prison Experiment" of Philip Zimbardo, then you may wish to look it up on the internet and read about it. This famous experiment may offer you insights on things you mentioned in your post. I first encountered this experiment while taking a General Psychology course at my local community college. If you have read it and factored this into your post, then my apologies.

Laini Taylor said...

Hi Eve! Thanks for writing such a great post!

And Wyman, I have heard of those experiments, and though I wasn't thinking of them consciously when I wrote my post, they certainly fit my feelings of how very thin is the veil of human civility. You don't even need to deprive people of basic needs to bring out the worst in them; giving them power can do the same thing. We're a dangerous animal, and I am amazed that, considering the inhumanity we are capable of (and which is perpetrated every day all over the world), that we manage to hold onto the humanity that we DO have.

tinker said...

There is so much that could be done - and it's heartening that people like Mermaid Eve (I love that name), ARE doing to help fill the I wish that gap didn't exist in the first place - and that people could get past the semantics and rhetoric about buzzwords, like 'socialism' - and really SEE what a difference some programs - and individuals too -can make. I think that some abuses and loopholes in earlier welfare programs unfortunately soured a lot of people's opinions - but that doesn't mean that all forms of assistance are bad for our society. I hope we get it right - soon!

Nancy Arruda said...

I'm a big fan of organizations like They've got a feature up now on Obama's legacy to the world's poor and his humanitarian objectives. And re: health care for all-- it shouldn't even be a consideration. Everyone should be entitled to good preventative health care services not just crisis hospital visits.

TadMack said...

Appreciated the big foam finger -- too many great blogs and I miss gems like Eve's all the time.

Carrie Harris said...

"Voting is not the end of our job as citizens."

Can I print this on a t-shirt? I'd wear it every day for a year. Drives me nuts when people complain complain complain (and obviously, I don't mean you!) about what's happening in our world or on their block but don't do a darned thing! Find something that moves you and DO something about it. And to me, that's what's most moving about Eve's post is that she is.

It's a part of my schedule. Volunteering. Making some kind of difference in the issues that matter to me. And it's not that difficult to make it a priority.

Wow. I'm sorry to rant at you, especially since I'm pretty sure I'm preaching to the proverbial choir. :)

Amber said...

Boy, Laini, this is a good post. I enjoy your thoughts here, because I also think about this stuff all the time, and think about how to put it in words...

I would like to drop the tags of Liberal and Conservative, because I think both terms have been hijacked to the extremes.

First let me say, that overall I agree all the way with your deeper point here: People need help, and it is better to help than not. I also happen to agree with alex, that it is in fact what Jesus would do, and want.

Just tonight at church, our pastor spoke to the direction we have to love people. ALL people, and ESPECIALLY people we "think" are very different from us. He spoke to not judging, and instead just reaching out in love. He spoke to admittng that Jesus made it very clear that we would not always know God's wishes, thoughts and plans...And how none of us should pretend we do. It got very quiet in that big-ass room. Heh.

Your post here reminds me of Man's Search for Meaning, and what a thin veil it is indeed, that keeps us in line as decent human beings... And how amazing it is that some people can still stay decent in the face of horror and want...

You know my back story. And you know what kind of work I feel called to-- to work with the kind of kids Eve wrote about. Because those kids and I have things in common, and I could have easily been one of them. Period. My brothers were one of them, and all my cousins. We are generational welfare,poverty, drugs, prison, etc.

And here is where I struggle to say what I mean... As much as it is our ugly human nature to be "hungry" and lose our way, it is ALSO our ugly human nature to give up, when everything is done for us. To stop striving all together. I am a firm believer, because of where I came from, that it is possible to do too much for people, and that that is JUST as damaging and even abusive to the human spirit.

Now, I am not talking about things like healthcare and food for children, or education, all of that that seems that it should be obvious. It is not Love to allow people to die and starve. End of story.

But what I see as a danger to thinking all the answers come in just "making life fair" for everyone,is that this other part of human nature will so easily just give up! Learned Helplessness is NOT a myth. It is real. And people totally lose touch with their own VALUE. They learn to take take take, and they never know the joy of contributing. Of being a giver.(see my own parents). And the same thing happens to the Haves, too! Kids who are given EVERYTHING, and asked for nothing-- they also feel no value! They get just as lost!

What I love about Obama the MOST, is that he seems to marry the facts, puts down the emotion, and comes out with a reasonable truth about what can and SHOULD be done...and what can and SHOULD be asked of us ALL.

Please understand that I understand better than most, I think, that people sometimes need a freakin' hand! They need people to give a crap! They need people to believe in them!They need people to give chances! And if this is done PROPERLY, then what we create is a better society. We must give, but it is JUST AS IMPORTANT to also EXPECT. It is not helping, to my mind, to pretend it is okay for a person to live their whole life on the system, allowing them to live as beloved victims, and never give a thing back to the world-- except maybe a few more damaged children.

What I love about Obama, is I see that he understands the deep importance of inspiring people to believe they can be and do more. God, I LOVE that about him. I love that he is an example of that himself.

Yes, we need programs to give people a leg up...And in addition, we MUST also get the message across on a deep level that the people who get such help will be asked, as Obama said, to reach back. This is what I see lacking in much "liberal" thought, these days. As if it is rude to point out that when you CAN stand on your feet, you MUST.

What makes me the sad about the kids in that post, like the kids I worked with-- is nobody expects ANYthing from them. And so the message is ingraved on their beings, that they must be worthless. That is bullcrap! They are NOT worthless! And you can tell and tell them that, but unless you treat them as if you expect more from them-- they will never believe you. Ever.

...I remember a long time ago, when I wrote about my cousin Reese getting a full ride to Berkeley, and how you said how great that was! But that also, it is too bad people may hear that, and think EVERYone should "pull themselves up by their bootstraps"... And I thought, um, wha?? Because what was so beautiful to me about what she did, is that she was proof that IT COULD BE DONE. And, by just about ANYONE!! Because that is what we neeeeed to tell kids! And that is what we must help kids like her to achieve!

We need the ladder there, when people are ready to climb. We need to help hold it steady, until they get up. We can't think people will be able to get up without a little help-- especially when we are talking about generational issues-- AND we should make them use their own legs and arms to climb.

Like all things in life, it is about a BALANCE. There is a Yin and a Yang to everything...even how we "help". I think some people who go to the far end of, "eff them, who cares?"...actually are just out of answers. It is easier to say "Do Nothing", than it is to tackle the problem.and they can feel safer, because it is not them. And I think people on the far end of, "give give give", actually have also given up on people, in a way. And they can feel safer, because it is not them.

...I worked my ASS OFF to climb that ladder out of where I came from. And many, many times, I needed help, and NO ONE gave a SHIT... But, it was those moments that people did give a shit, AND I was ready to climb that made ALL the difference in my life.

I am sorry this is soooo long!! Forgive me! I hope you understand what I am trying to say. It is a very important dialog. And I think now is the time to have it! I actually have so much hope. I think we have the leadership to strike the balance, now.


Laini Taylor said...

Hi Amber! Thanks for taking the time to write such a thorough comment! I totally agree with you about everything -- as for the "bootstraps" comment, I don't remember that specifically, but I am sure that I in no way meant to diminish your cousin's accomplishment or imply that everyone should not strive for that. I just think that so many people think everyone should be wholly self-sufficient and that if they're not smart enough for scholarships, or strong enough to overcome their circumstances, that they're somehow not worth helping, or don't deserve a decent life.

I know just giving people money is not the answer. I don't have a comprehensive idea of the ideal set of programs, but I think of mentoring programs, after-school programs, scholarships, paid internships, summer camps, all kinds of things that can give kids that "ladder," so they can find the way to climb up it. (Like you did!)


Heather said...

Beautiful as always Laini! Do you know if there is some way we can donate books to the juvenile centres? I have so much YA that I'd love to pass on and it would give me some more shelf space!