My Turn: A self-evident truth amid uneasiness

For the Monitor
Published: 3/4/2021 6:00:16 AM

My spouse and I live in an 800-square-foot, climate-controlled home in a white-privileged retirement community. We have plenty of food stored in the freezer and in the cupboards. We’ve received both doses of the COVID vaccine. Yet, my retirement life is uncomfortably disturbing.

My uneasiness is prompted by the daily reading of the Monitor, the internet, and watching TV news while sitting in my comfortable Vermont Rocker. I’m constantly confronted with the contrast between my life and the stories of so many powerless, oppressed, threatened people living with the daily specter of suffering and an early death. The divide between us is abysmal.

The Monitor recently reported over 13%, or about 55,000 people, in New Hampshire have limited or uncertain access to food. Driving through downtown Concord we see homeless people standing on corners in rain, snow, and sub-freezing temperatures. The evening world news warns, “this report may be disturbing,” as it shows hungry, injured, displaced children living in unimaginably squalled refugee tent camps, with no foreseeable future. Their families are fleeing wars, famine, and natural disasters. I’ve met thirsty, hungry, terrorized migrants walking through the desert wilderness south of Tucson, Arizona. I’ve accompanied Mayans and listened to their stories about being caught between paramilitary and Mexican government forces. Christian and Muslim Palestinian friends report the refusal of Israel to distribute COVID vaccines in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, saying, “Palestinians must find their own vaccine!”

Sitting in my ergonomic rocking chair sets me far apart from these struggling millions of people who are systemically subjugated economically, ethnically, culturally, and by contrived racial identities. Their burdensome labor for penurious wages gives me inexpensive access to my daily necessities and luxuries. With each rock of my chair, I count the ways I benefit from their suffering. My light skin frees me from the subtle and not so subtle biases of oppressive systemic racism. However, with each rock of my chair, I also ponder what would it take to end this alienation from a whole swath of humanity, to live the “self-evident truth that all people are created equal.”

One attempt to empower change is the new surge of populism. The concept of “populism” grew from the Populist Party organized in February 1892 to promote issues important to farmers and laborers. By the 1920s it came to mean “representing the views of the masses.” From the 1950s forward it became the “anti-establishment” on either the right or the left. The right hand of populism lifts in defiance against the erosion of white supremacy and the resulting perceived weakening of white male power. The left hand of populism protests against systems of racism, economic injustice, the military-industrial complex, and biases against cultures, ethnicity, and gender identities.

Fueling this bi-populist movement are governments, the military, and corporations that thrive on guile, secrecy, equivocation, and accumulation of money. These dishonest methods communicate a distrust of citizens to fully participate in a democracy. In turn, the wider population begins to feel unworthiness, powerlessness, and failure. Some compensate for these feelings with suspicion, distrust, and anger toward any who perceive them as second-class ignorant people. Conspiracy theories have erupted. The results are solidified, non-negotiable positions and an inclination to use violence. The right and the left target each other. They each select adversaries from among the systems of the government, police and military, corporate leaders, the educated elite, and the extremely wealthy.

It seems populism has significant limitations. It tends to exacerbate the divisions that the right and left hands seek to overcome. “Paradoxically, to properly recognize the diverse realities that constitute the human experience, we must lean more heavily into our oneness, not tiptoe timidly around it” (“Toward a New Universalism,” Shahrzad Sabet, Hedgehog Review, Dec. 30. 2020).

Perhaps it’s time to move beyond populism to recognize that both hands are connected to the one body of humanity. Universalist ethics is conceived as a rational commitment to the equal moral worth and dignity of all persons by virtue of their humanity. This is a fundamental basic value, a truth that must be spoken.

Journalist Bill Moyers said: “Truth is the oxygen of democracy . . . and unless we see the truth, we are going to run out of oxygen.” The truth is in the certainty that no person is ever to be used or abused. Each person is of equal value as a potential contributor to the well-being of humanity and the planet. This certainty may free us and transform our democracy into an authentication of the universality of “love your neighbor.”

With that love, even the barriers around my retirement community may come down to welcome a diversity of people and demonstrate the “self-evident truth that all people are created equal.” That would get my chair rocking in joy and thanksgiving.

(John Buttrick of Concord can be reached at johndbuttrick@gmail.com,)


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