Hillel the Elder famously and somewhat enigmatically posed the question “if I am not for myself, then who is for me?” And while on its surface, and being read with a modern eye, this question might appear to be a simple prod for pushovers everywhere to show some backbone and stand up for themselves, the next part of the quote invites a more subtle reading. The quote continues: “And being for my own self, what am I?” And then it finishes with a phrase that taken together, perhaps implies a still deeper meaning: “If not now, when?”
Maybe these are fragments of a long lost bout of self-indulgent hand wringing, self-condemnation or existential angst, but perhaps not.
What kind of person are you? Do you have an advocate, a defender? Are there others like you, and if there are others like you, who is speaking up for them? Are you advocating for yourself, and in doing so what are you advocating for? Fair treatment for a particular race or religion or gender or peculiarity? Postulate: by defending ourselves, we are defending others who are like us. The converse, inverse and contrapositive of this statement are all true. In speaking for others, we are speaking for ourselves, and failing to speak for others, leaves us defenseless. By raising a shield in our own defense, we also partially cover those around us and behind us and those cowering at our side.
And in this perhaps we see the rarely articulated nucleus of the American character, a primordial appeal from which the concepts of liberty and justice and freedom are merely descendants: the paradoxical injunction that we are a union. We are the keepers of our brothers and sisters. Our neighbors are ourselves. Our countrymen are us.
It is insufficient to say only that we neglect and abuse them at our own peril. It more firmly drives home the point to say that we as individuals are unmade in the abuse and neglect of our fellow citizens. All hatred is self-hatred. All murder is suicide.
Yet this is a hard lesson for us to learn. In conflating a capitalist economic system with a capitalist political system we inflict upon each other a variety of injustices which the abuser is educated to believe are his right to inflict, and the abused is cowed into believing he deserves.
What are the injustices we live under? They are difficult to discern from within. Is there still a particular class, race, gender or occupation which is targeted for discrimination in our society, or are the injustices distributed relatively equally among all groups?
What injustices do you suffer personally?
We may feel that being surveilled without just cause or due process is an injustice. Our government now claims and exercises this power, though it is expressly forbidden by our constitution.
We may feel the injustice of being forced to comply with so-called lawful orders issued by police, which in fact conflict with rights we know we possess.
We may feel it is unjust that we are denied the right to self-determination and representation in our state, by having insurmountable requirements placed before us to create new political parties and associations.
It is unjust that we are not permitted to select our representatives based on their ideas, or the content of their character, but rather on the happenstance of their geographic proximity. It is unjust that in a two-party system where approximately 50% of the citizens ally themselves with one party and approximately 50% of the citizens ally themselves with the other party, that invariably approximately 50% of the citizens who vote are granted no representation in the legislature. It is much worse when we consider that only a subset of our population may legally vote, and of those who can vote, only 50%–60% actually do.
It is unjust that we all, as free citizens of this country, are subject to the humiliation of a tiered system of justice, which provides a different standard for the wealthy and powerful from the standard afforded to the poor and weak.
The injustice of violence is being suffered by our fellow citizens daily, whether it is because we are black or brown, or mentally ill, or poor, or stupid or gay or simply insubordinate. Poverty itself, a most egregious form of violence, is a systemic consequence in what the winners sardonically call the free-market, and it is inflicted on more of us than is tolerable.
It is unjust to make war, and it is unjust to make war in our name for the benefit of the wicked few.
It is unjust that the common resources, the land, the air, the water, the public spectrum and the common conduits of data, which should not be squandered, hoarded or abused, are prostituted to the wicked few, instead of being conserved.
It is not enough to be born to one of the lucky classes who, through an accident of birth, find themselves spared the downside potentialities of these injustices. Our failure to oppose injustice inflicted upon others is in itself an additional injustice. Cooperation with or acceptance of injustice is injustice.
Are these injustices trifling? Do they amount to suffering? For some yes, but for others they do not rise to the level of outrage. For distant observers of these injustices, isn’t it impolitic to complain? Most of us have the luxury of lamenting fires which are still somewhat distant. We live fairly well, and though it may be costly, we have access to relatively acceptable health care, food, clothing and shelter. However, the opportunities for our people at the lower and middle levels experience the heat of oppression more intensely. They are closer to the fire and the fire is always spreading.
So what are our demands, or more politely, what do we insist upon for ourselves and others? We already enjoy many freedoms, but what freedoms denied to us can we demand from those who currently have the power to do the denying? What current injustice is so heinous that it might spur the masses to demand change? I can think only of a few, such as the unfair treatment of racial minorities by state and local police forces. This has certainly spurred a retaliatory response from the citizens of Ferguson, New York City and Baltimore. We should all hope that some sort of resolution will be forthcoming to address the concerns of those communities. However, we can be sure that the crises in these cities will not result in systemic improvements throughout the country, because the abuses and conditions which resulted in the violence are currently not seen as being systemic.
I am increasingly inclined to see all real problems in society as systemic, and by that I mean inherent in the complex interactions between individuals, not owing to the particular failings of one individual or another. Society by its very nature must be composed of individual actors who are all drawn from the teeming stagnant pond that is humanity. From this pool are drawn both ethical and unethical individuals, the smart and the stupid, and the whole sordid gamut of men and women may at times take their turn at the levers of the governmental machine. Any system, any government, must not only withstand the occasional incompetencies, errors and malice of those who hold office, but it must also continue to fulfill its most crucial functions under this collective degrading onslaught.
The alternative to seeking systemic solutions is to seek individual solutions. This is the preferred method for an America that has held a centuries-long infatuation with the idea of the quick and easy, plop and fizz relief for any problem. We seek heroes, larger than reality demigods who can swoop down from Olympus and with a few strokes of the pen, or with a few angelic trumpet blasts broadcast live from the Oval Office, sweep away the injustice, set the economy right, cut through the red tape and dispel whatever fear is gripping us at the moment. The insidious appeal of this strategy is that at times, it can actually work. America has been blessed, at least during its younger years and even through its middle age, with the occasional great leader. The cult of president worship, our one true national religion, will not permit us to forget their names. They are no longer history, they have passed into folklore and myth. We ascribe godlike power to the office itself, as if the president weren’t just an executor of the people’s will, but a kind of brief king. We place so much faith in the man – and up till now it has only been men – who attains this office, that we willfully neglect to understand that he is but a politician, and his powers to do mischief within the borders of the country are paltry when set against the collective power to inflict and sanction suffering that rests in the hands of Congress.
It is much easier to glorify or condemn a single man, than to glorify or condemn the true seat of American power, upon which recline hundreds of ostensibly elected men and women, the arithmetic mean of our pettiness, cowardice, incompetence and depravity.
So it can be shown that Congress is the true meat market. If we want to set things right, it is the legislature that must brought to heel, tamed and retrained to serve.