A moral imperative for government
What kind of a nation would we have if politicians put compassion first?
The vacillations of King Louis XVI aren’t the only leadership model for today. (Photo of a Mary Nisbet doll)
There’s a midwinter thaw Upstate most years now, and it’s happening as I write this. The break from longjohn temperatures is welcomed by even those of us who like all four seasons. It can lift your spirits enough to make you think more broadly — to imagine what might be, rather than only fuss about what is.
So this isn’t a column about cynical politics, though that’s a tempting topic, after this week’s refusal of Republican senators to support border security measures they have long advocated — a shift Donald Trump demanded so that Republicans wouldn’t give Joe Biden a policy victory. No, we’re not going to be fixating on that transparent and shameful example of partisanship winning out over patriotism.
It’s also not a column about the dangerous distortions of truth that damage American interests, despite the prime example of that this week when far-right TV commentator Tucker Carlson eagerly gave Vladimir Putin a propaganda platform. Putin blamed Ukraine for Russia’s murderous invasion, and preposterously claimed that his troops are fighting only because they’re “protecting our people, ourselves and our homeland.” Carlson lapped it up, just as Trump embraced Putin’s denials over American intelligence evidence that Russia helped Trump win in 2016. It would be easy to focus each edition of The Upstate American on evidence that the right-wing media is a key cause of American political dysfunction, not just a reflection of it, but that’s not for today.
And on that point, this is not a column about dysfunctional government, which could likewise be a weekly theme. The inability of the Republican House majority to pass a budget — or any meaningful legislation, for that matter — and the collapse of months of bipartisan Senate negotiations over border security and international aid make it clear that the party of Trump has lost its capacity to govern. That is, unless you define “governing” as destroying anything that’s not put forward by extremists.
No, those are useful points of conversation, but not what’s at issue here. This essay is about a trait and practice that is as essential to politics as it is to everyday life, and that is embraced by every religion and moral code — a quality that is nevertheless tragically absent from much of the decision-making in contemporary public life. This is about compassion.
Compassion isn’t just a tender feeling. It’s a word that derives from the Latin term that translates as “to suffer together with,” but the meaning goes beyond awareness of pain. In fact, compassion implies an active wish to relieve that suffering. A person with true compassion cannot help but act.
If you mention compassion as a task of government, though, you’re likely to encounter a sneer from self-described pragmatists — as though anything apart from self-interest as a motivation, and any public policy that doesn’t put competition as its first principle, is a mark of liberal wimpishness. We know how wimps fare in public life: France’s King Louis XVI, caught between Marie Antoinette’s imperiousness and his subjects’ demands, famously wept on his ministers’ shoulders before trying tried to flee the country. Czar Nicholas II of Russia, dominated by his wife and a monk named Rasputin, begged revolutionaries to let him retire to his garden. Both leaders were executed.1
And that’s what happens to the nice guys, we hear. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “The tough shall inherit the earth?”
Oh, sorry — that’s not the correct translation, is it? No, in fact, the phrase in the Beatitudes suggests that those who are honored as the earth’s heirs in Christianity’s most famous teaching are the “meek” — or, as other translations have it, the “gentle” or “powerless” people.2 You would think that with a new House Speaker who claims that his conservative religious beliefs underlie his political work, and with evangelical Christians as the Republican party’s most dependable voting bloc, we might see the task of government more often in light of such religious precepts — that is, we might view government as a tool for exhibiting compassion toward those with less power.
But the expectation of compassion applies to not just those narrow-minded folks who still claim this as a “Christian nation” (never mind our Constitution’s imperative to separate church and state). The call for compassion is shared by all faiths. It is seen as among the highest of virtues in both Judaism and Islam: The Talmud frequently uses the Aramaic word rahamana for God, which means “the compassionate,” and the first line of the Quran, before any chapters begin, describes Allah with the Arabic word araheen,3 which likewise means “compassionate.”4
All well and good for religion, you say, but what does that matter for government? There we rely not upon sacred texts, but upon the civil framework of our Constitution. Its preamble establishes the role for our government, saying that “a more perfect union” is charged with specific tasks: delivering justice, tranquility, defense, general welfare and liberty. Nowhere does the Constitution require compassion.
But suppose it did. Or suppose what might transpire if people who hold to a standard of morality would adopt compassion as a guiding principle for society’s organization. Then we might see government as not just a means of establishing order and protecting borders, but as a tool for humans to share in the task of making their society better. We might imagine government as an organized effort to extend compassion to those who suffer, both in our own country and around the world.
Imagine, then, what a compassionate country would be doing right now. There are many ways that America might change; I’ll cite just five.
First, a compassionate America wouldn’t demonize migrants, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without an opportunity to support their families or live here. Nobody is advocating open borders, despite partisan claims of that. But nobody should be pushing strangers among us into abject poverty, either. Research shows that immigrants are not only less prone to crime than native-born Americans, but also that they grow the economy. “If you want jobs, you need investment first, and immigration is a precursor of investment,” said Zeke Hernandez, a University of Pennsylvania economist whose book The Truth About Immigration: Why Successful Societies Welcome Newcomers will be published in June. Fear of immigrants may be an effective political cudgel, but it’s irrational, and it inspires malevolent responses.5
Second, a compassionate nation wouldn’t be as tenuous as America has been in demanding that Benjamin Netanyahu stop the slaughter in Gaza. That’s not to excuse the horrific assault by Hamas on Israel. But it is to say that the response of Netanyahu’s government — like its prior treatment of Palestinians and its manipulation of their political system — has transgressed the values of decent humanity. Thomas Friedman, the eminent New York Times columnist, declared recently that Netanyahu is “not only the worst Israeli leader ever, but the worst Jewish leader ever” — that’s covering about 4,000 years of history. Compassion for the millions of Gazans who have lost their homes, livelihoods and loved ones — who are left with nothing, and no hope — would dictate that America now energetically extend aid and comfort to the afflicted, while still protecting the existence of Israel.6
Third, compassion dictates that America not shirk its defense of democracy in Ukraine, where citizens for more than a year have bravely resisted an invading force bent on subjugating them and eventually overpowering their nation’s allies. Allowing Ukraine to fall to Putin — which is what Trump’s habitual kowtowing to Putin would yield — would empower a new imperialistic ethos, and convince Putin that he could march on other lands with impunity. It would give Russian-style authoritarian regimes influence worldwide at the expense of the democratic rights that ought to be available to all, and would destabilize the western alliance. Compassion for the good people of Ukraine means delivering aid to help their nation survive.
Fourth, a compassionate government in America would move energetically to reverse the wealth inequality that has been growing for more than 40 years. In the 1970s, the top 1 percent of Americans owned about 20 percent of the nation’s household wealth, a share that is now up to 35 percent; meanwhile, the bottom half of Americans hold just 2.6 percent of the wealth. That is, the 1 percent hold 15 times more wealth than half the nation altogether.7 So a huge share of the nation is scraping by or living in poverty, which the richest nation on earth shouldn’t tolerate. Thanks to tax and spending choices in Washington influenced more by interest group lobbying than human needs, our middle class has shrunk dramatically. Where’s the compassion in lawmaking that robs ordinary citizens of their financial comfort, and their chance for opportunity?
And, fifth, if we were truly compassionate, we wouldn’t tolerate politicians who ignore the toll of gun violence. Nearly 43,000 Americans died from gunshot wounds last year, and more than 36,000 were injured. Long after victims are buried or treated in hospitals, the impact on the economy and on citizens’ mental health lingers. A compassionate nation wouldn’t raise a generation of kids who have to be afraid of a live shooter in their schools.8
Those are just the opportunities for change that I can count on one hand, new directions that we might take if compassion were to be a foundation of government. You could name many more.
I’m sure this notion arises in my mind jus now because of a little book I’m reading this week: The Amen Effect, by the remarkable Rabbi Sharon Brous, who leads a congregation in Los Angeles. Brous, described as “a leading voice at the intersection of faith and justice in America,” argues that healing the bruises of our society can’t begin until we make real human connections across tribes.
“We desperately need a spiritual rewiring in our time,” she wrote recently, summarizing the book in The New York Times. She urged “sincere, tender encounters that help us forge new spiritual and neural pathways by reminding us that our lives and our destinies are entwined.”9
You may consider it unsurprising that a member of the clergy would call for a spiritual renewal. That’s their line of work, after all. And since so few Americans are engaged with religious institutions nowadays — fully a third of us never attend church or synagogue, and only 20 percent are weekly attendees, with the other half in the “yeah, sometimes” category — it’s hard to imagine that religious leaders could spark a massive movement toward the kind of deep interactions that Brous believes might rescue us from the country’s current course.10
How, then? Well, there’s government — though most of us wouldn’t expect a spiritual awakening to come through politicians. Though before we dismiss the idea entirely, there’s this advantage to consider: Government is everywhere. Indeed, it is perhaps the only ubiquitous presence in all our lives. And public officials are rather obligated to interact with us. So it makes you wonder: Might political pressure yield a spiritual movement within government? If it did, could we trust it?
Imagine if we demanded that politicians discuss, with thoughtful clarity, the values that underlie their decisions, and demonstrate adherence to those principles. Consider what might happen if we evaluated their work in Washington, in state capital cities and in local communities — and thus their fitness for election — by the compassion they show. Suppose we exerted pressure on our fellow citizens to vote on that basis.
It’s a far-fetched idea, I suppose. We don’t usually apply such so-called “soft standards to our voting decisions. But the coarseness and cynicism that’s emblematic of today’s politics is intolerable. There’s no harm, surely, in advocating something that might bring instead kindness and honesty — which would have to result from a commitment to compassion. And, by the way, those who stand for compassion aren’t wimps — that is, they’re not Louis XVI or Nicholas II. They might instead be you and me.
Compassion for all, not just attention to the few, would impose a requirement for action that could change the nation’s course. The more you think of it, the less outlandish the idea sounds.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Asheville, N.C. (Asheville Citizen Times, citizen-times.com)
Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. (Cape Cod Times, capecodtimes.com)
Rockford, Ill. (Rockford Register-Star, rrstar.com)
Salem, Ore. (The Register-Guard, registerguard.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes on some Wednesdays, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Racist attack targets noted chef’s new venture
Chef Ashleigh Shanti has been featured on Bravo’s “Top Chef” program and was a James Beard Award nominee. But Mitchell Black reports in the Citizen Times that when Shanti opened a restaurant in Asheville aimed at preserving Black history by bringing the food of Southern fish camps and Gullah kitchens to a trendy neighborhood, she ran into lingering racism: While diners were still in the restaurant, a group of people shut off the outdoor power switch, then pasted a sticker on the door. It read, “How to ruin a white city” at the bottom. Above the lettering were four buildings, with a hand in one corner holding a can reading, “N-words,” and falling out of the can were small illustrations of people. On the cuff of the sleeve, there was a star of David. “A lot of people want to say, ‘We are a nation of merit,’” Mars Hill University history professor Jonathan McCoy told the Citizen Times. “Her character of a chef is top notch, but because of her color, her gender and sexual orientation, she is judged to be less.”
Right whale’s death worries experts
There are perhaps 356 North American right whales alive today, scientists say, and few are females who can give birth. So the mammals are tracked carefully, and when a 3-year-old calf washed up on a Martha’s Vineyard beach, scientists were concerned. Reporting by Heather McCarron in the Cape Cod Times notes that the whale had lived half her life with fishing line wrapped around her tail and flukes. As whales grow, such entanglements become more constrictive and potentially deadly, so scientists made two attempts a year ago to disentangle the whale — to no avail. Fishing gear entanglements have for years been known as a threat to the species’ survival. “The loss of this juvenile female is not only sad, but also represents the loss of tremendous potential for this species,” a scientist with the New England Aquarium said.
Effort to help street people runs afoul of the law
Carly Rice used to live on the streets in Los Angeles. Now she owns a home that used to be a Buddhist temple in Rockford, a city of 150,000 near the Michigan state line, which for several years has been the base of a charity for unhoused people. According to Jeff Kolkey in the Rockford Register Star, Rice “has taken something of a punk rock approach to her charity work — throwing herself head-first into helping people, not worrying much about politics, what others think or what, to her, seem like arbitrary rules.” She has rooms filled with blankets and clothes, and she prepared sack lunches for a crowd every day. Several times she has used Narcan and CPR to revive people. But while donors came up with $175,000 to buy a former social lodge next door to expand the operation, the city has ordered Rice not to occupy it because she hasn’t fixed code violations in the existing building —including a requirement to install sprinklers throughout. “I don't have a lot of friends in high places, and we have a real problem navigating that unfortunately,” Rice said. “I would have hoped that our work — the merit of our work — would speak for itself. I didn't want to accept the fact that you have to go and build those relationships.” It appears that the effort will soon be forced to shut down.
States moving to make standard time permanent
Hawaii and most of Arizona (but not all) don’t observe Daylight Saving Time. Dianne Lugo reports for the Salem Journal that West Coast states and British Columbia all passed legislation prior to the pandemic to move to daylight saving time permanently, but Congress has not acted, so everybody will shift their clocks forward an hour on March 10. But now there’s en effort to make Pacific Standard Time permanent, rather than daylight saving time, in several western states: California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. That wouldn’t require action by Congress. The California sponsor says putting an end to shifting clocks seasonally would "promote the health of the people of California and across the American West.”
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