October 2011

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by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Jesus' epiphany was to reduce the ten commandments to one, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." Plato reduced various categories of things and ideas to pale reflections of a fire inside his cave. Cuvier figured out which animals were descendants or variations of which others. Object oriented programming was based on the understanding that software tasks could usefully be ranked into classes reflecting real world things such as "invoice" and "customer inquiry", and then instantiated into individual software objects descended from these classes. I had my own modest insight some years ago that lying is a form of theft, and then that all crimes and sins are theft (murder is the theft of life). Human thought in part consists of usefully reducing a host of objects to a few basic ideas and categories. The Sesame Street set piece, "One of these things is not like the others," challenges children to reason about classes of objects.

I had the realization this month that all of the world's problems are caused by the dwindling respect of humans for each other. We are in a respect drought currently, and it is causing death and suffering everywhere.

The basic issue in any human system--a nation, corporation, guild or club--is whether the people in it are to be treated by one another as means or ends. In the latter scenario, we mutually recognize that we each are individuals with beliefs, hopes and aspirations, and to grant one another rights which enable us to pursue those aspirations with mutual pleasure and benefit. In the other scenario, we regard one another as a kind of raw material, to be used and disposed of.

At the extremes, in the middle ages, the entire population of a country was considered the possession of a single individual, a king or emperor, to be sported with or killed as he saw fit. In the enlightenment and after, in the period epitomized at one end by John Milton and the other by John Stuart Mill, there was a blossoming of the idea that we are ends in ourselves, all valuable, free to bloom or wither as we see fit, without interference from others. The polity is a mutually consented environment in which we take care of fundamental business together--make roads, defend ourselves against external aggression--to create a framework in which we can live in relative contentment, pursuing personal goals.

Our much vaunted American democracy, embodying so-called "inalienable" natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the idea of a nation based solely on "consent of the governed", and the American narrative of a haven for Europe's "huddled masses, yearning to breathe free", was to be a machine protecting people as ends. That it has failed, is slipping far away from this goal, is evident in today's environment of brutal disrespect, of demonization of people and classes, of violent rhetoric and episodic physical violence. Government is stalled, deadlocked, because the Republicans do not respect the president nor, more seriously still, the voters who elected him. Howls of "socialism" and "treason", the encouragement of birther movements and anything else that will de-legitimize a democratically elected leader, Rick Perry's barely veiled threat of physical violence if Fed chairman Ben Bernanke visits Texas, are all hallmarks of a culture of disrespect. The loss of the fundamental insight that we are all in this together, are all partners in this American enterprise, is not accidental or a mere culture-wide psychotic break. It is driven by a quest for money and power, which is a drug to people who have no basic belief in the first place that others are entitled to respect. The epidemic phenomenon of men voting to impeach Bill Clinton for cheating on his wife, while avidly cheating on their own, epitomizes an amoral culture of lies and manipulation.

The politicians are not alone in this; behind them are the billionaire contributors, who put up the money to finance the politician's ambitions and who are committed partners in a culture of terrible disrespect. American capitalism began in the 1700's as a shopkeeper and small trader culture, in which small establishments served respected clients--we were all humans together-- but within a century had created robber barons. The ultimate resting place of American capitalism is in the rooms in which collateralized debt obligations were designed, in which Wall Street superheroes figured out they could sell Americans crappy securities, and then bet against them.

My basic test, the most important inference I can make about anyone I meet, is: will he or she treat me as a thing, or a person? This is a vital question in every walk of life, from romance and marriage to business, the university, team sports, any personal encounter, even friendships.

It wasn't written anywhere, it's not engraved in the fabric of the universe or in the inalterable nature of the institution, that capitalism has to be ferocious, disrespectful, devouring. Like any human institution, it depends on the values inculcated by the people who create it. It could have been run on the basic rule that we are all people, all entitled to respect. Instead, we have seen a cult take over these last sixty years, that says the billionaires are a higher life form, and we must let them devour whom they will, somehow for all of our residual benefit ("job creation"). As I have already pointed out, this is a frightening return of the medieval to our supposedly modern world, the creation of a new baronial class.

War, of course, is based on a lack of respect. The Israeli refusal to pursue meaningful peace negotiations with the Palestinians, the Al Qaeda methodology of killing anyone at hand, civilians and even babies, is born from a lack of human respect. The death penalty, famine, waterboarding, rising prices, the inability of most Americans to afford health care, unemployment, union bashing, Chinese land appropriations, the murder of abortion doctors, all originate from respect deficits, which have become almost universal in our world, in dictatorships and once proud democracies alike.