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.