Breathing the same air

Last July, Eric Garner was killed by police who choked him as he repeated “I can’t breathe.” He cried out 11 times, but eventually succumbed.

We didn’t need yet another example of police killing a young, unarmed black man. Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and way too many more reveal a pervasive inability of some individuals, and more importantly, of our entire legal system to recognize that we all breathe the same air.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program at first seems worlds away from the racism and social injustice of America’s cities. But it too reveals racism and social injustice. It too shows how those in power use that power to oppress even admittedly innocent people. Often, the “crime” was to have a different religion, to wear different clothes, to speak a language other than English, or to be poor. The parallels are disturbing, even without considering how a favored torture technique of the CIA was waterboarding–to deprive people of air.

In the commentary regarding both of these cases I’ve been struck with how little there is about the victims as living, breathing individuals. Those who rightly argue for legal due process for the police or agents involved, talk about mistakes the victims had made, but not about them as people. Some mainstream news coverage does point out a little, that Garner was considered to be an even-tempered, good-natured presence in his community. He was the neighborhood peacemaker. He had asthma and sore feet. And yes, he had run-ins with the police before. But as one neighbor said, “His last penny was your last penny.”  (see “Friends: Man in NYC chokehold case ‘gentle giant’“). Rapidly, however, the real “Eric Garner” vanishes from the discourse as a person and becomes just a term to signal a point of disagreement between factions that seem to have little ability to understand one another.

In the last chapter of her 1902 book, Democracy and Social Ethics, Jane Addams writes about racism and corruption of a century ago, and the consequent need for political reform. Her examples draw on the glaring disparities in wealth of the Gilded Age, which are unfortunately being reproduced today.

Addams talks about the “honest absence of class consciousness” among the immigrants she worked with. That absence supported their faith in American democracy. They were taught ideals for “honorable dealing and careful living. They were told that the career of the self-made man was open to every American boy, if he worked hard and saved his money, improved his mind, and followed a steady ambition. [sic]”

Addams then recalls an anecdote from her childhood: “the village schoolmaster told his little flock, without any mitigating clauses, that Jay Gould had laid the foundation of his colossal fortune by always saving bits of string . . . as a result, every child in the village assiduously collected party-colored balls of twine.” In this way, children failed to learn that “the path which leads to riches and success, to civic prominence and honor, is the path of political corruption.” The end result was that every citizen participated in that corruption, even those who suffered from it. Her statement of this shared responsibility still holds today:

This is the penalty of a democracy,–that we are bound to move forward or retrograde together. None of us can stand aside; our feet are mired in the same soil, and our lungs breathe the same air.

The penalty that Addams describes is also the basis for making a democracy possible. Ethics cannot be limited to the individual virtues, such as honesty, courage, or duty, but must encompass social relations as well, the social ethics of her book’s title. That idea is expressed well in an essay she had written a few years earlier, called “A Modern Lear.” It’s about the railroad czar George Pullman:

Our thoughts . . .cannot be too much directed from mutual relationships and responsibilities. They will be warped, unless we look all men in the face, as if a community of interests lay between. . .To touch to vibrating response the noble fibre in each man, to pull these many fibres, fragile, impalpable and constantly breaking, as they are, into one impulse, to develop that mere impulse through its feeble and tentative stages into action, is no easy task, but lateral progress is impossible without it.

Addams knew that democracy was a hollow ideal without social ethics. So, it’s depressing to realize that the inequities of wealth, the racism, and the corruption of her day are still with us, and in some ways have become worse. Our social ethics appears piecemeal and ephemeral. At times the “mere impulse” seems nonexistent.

Can those who defend the CIA or the all-too-common official homicides imagine how they would feel if their own child, lover, or best friend were subjected to the same treatment? Could we instead see every person as a citizen who shares in a community of interests, regardless of race, religion, or official papers? What would it take to recognize the humanity in every one of us?

I’m reminded of the ending of “Salute to Life” by Pablo Casals:

Each second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that never was before and will never be again. And what do we teach our children in school? We teach them that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are?

We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all of the world there is no other child exactly like you. In the millions of years that have passed there has never been another child like you. And look at your body–what a wonder it is! Your legs, your arms, your cunning fingers, the way you move! You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must cherish one another. You must work–we all must work–to make this world worthy of its children.

One thought on “Breathing the same air

  1. Thanks for giving words to the feelings of many of us. The unconscionable inequalities of wealth, opportunity, putative “rights”, and the failures of the justice system have diminished the whole notion of democracy. Money is corrupting our political system and our sacred vote. Racism has become open and accepted; xenophobia, hatred, intolerance rampant. How to make a better world for our children in the face of all this? Maybe only better children can make a better world.

    If we don’t find a way, there is only the cold comfort that nature will have the last say.

    Like

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