Most of us in America — rich or poor, female or male, religious or not, from the right or left, in all ethnic or racial communities — have it somewhere in our political DNA the ethical imperatives to be helpful and to be good. That is the foundation for all realistic hopefulness in this time of political and moral chaos.
Am I being naively optimistic? How can it be true in such a violent and politically riven country as our own? How can helpfulness and goodness be in the political genetics of a country now ruled by the selfish and self-pitying economics of a ravenous and rapacious oligarchic class that asks under its breath, “Why should we help these deadbeats and their kids? What will they do for us?” Aren’t the unconscious workings of our national psyche plagued more by tribal hates and paranoia than emboldened by goodness? Haven’t we been made sociologically sick by a cynical pessimism that drives us to demonize difference and compete as if every transaction were taking place in a war zone in which the hearts and minds of malleable consumers were at stake? Probably so. But it’s not most of us, by any means.
The majority of Americans feel compelled to evoke in their daily lives the reality of those “better angels” of our nature. And this is particularly so when it comes to children. As Fred Rogers said famously on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, the ethical imperative of a healthy society is to “take care of your children.” And if you’re an American who thinks there’s more to life than the slavering pursuit of self-interest, “your children” means “all children.” It’s also the “better angels” benchmark of all public policy.
Economic and political ideas that debase and abuse children are promoted by people who are without compassion and therefore behave like the sociopaths they are. There’s no other word for it except, perhaps, heinous. That’s why so many Americans were moved to their core by the mistreatment of immigrant children by the Trump administration, separating children from their parents, detaining them in barbaric conditions, and, of course, often losing track of them, especially if they are babies. We feel the same visceral repulsion when we realize that once again New Mexico ranks last in the country as far as child well-being is concerned, according to the 2018 Kids Count report, and first in child poverty, as we have been most of the 8 years of the administration of Trumpian surrogate Susana Martinez. Whether she likes him or not, it’s all on her and her party. It’s not Trump. It’s the To-Hell-With-Everybody Republican party, the party of economist James M. Buchanan who sees the rich and corporate oligarchs as victims of democracy and the one percent as helpless prey of the 99%.
What does it mean to be a poor child coming from a poor family? Homelessness is surely a terrible nagging fear. Chances are most parents struggling to stay financially afloat do just about anything they can to take care of their children, including depriving themselves of food when necessary. Poverty does not mean lack of love. It does mean, however, that the ruling class doesn’t give a hoot about those they lord it over. Of course, to be a poor child means to be a hungry child, often a cold or overheated child, a tired child, a child in a family that is in a frantic, anxious, often desperate struggle to make ends meet. Love goes a long way, but it can only go so far in a political system that sees being helpful and good as foolish, even subversive, wastes of time and money, a political system owned at the moment by people who apparently care nothing about children or anyone else besides themselves.
The stark nature of the divide in our country is seen fairly clearly in the contrast between the thinking of James M. Buchanan and the thinking of Fred Rogers.
In her powerful book, “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” Duke University historian Nancy MacLean puts Buchanan’s economic philosophy at the center point of the political strategies of oligarchic corporations and the Far Right’s hatred of government. As Lynn Parramore from the Institute for New Economic Thinking says, Buchanan is the “economist behind the one-percent’s stealth takeover of America.” Buchanan “wanted a private governing elite of corporate power that was wholly released from public accountability.”
MacLean quotes Buchanan as saying that people who “failed to foresee and save money for their future needs” are to be treated “as subordinate members of the species, akin to … animals who are dependent.”
“To value liberty for the wealthy minority above all else,” MacLean writes of Buchanan’s clarion call, “and enshrine it in the nation’s governing rules … play by play, is to consent to an oligarchy in all but the outer husk of representative form.”
Compare this brutal, ugly, heartless vision of America with the message of tolerance, courtesy, respect and love that Fred Rogers, a lifelong Republican of the old school, brought to America’s children and families on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood for more than three decades. Don’t tell me Mr. Roger’s view of how the world should be is sappy and naïve. Its presence in the hearts of so many Americans is the grounding of hope in our times. Take for instance, the heroism of three Albuquerque women who were arrested in Santa Fe on June 29th and spent the night in jail protesting in a non-violent and peaceful way the separation of immigrant children from their parents at the border. They, I think, represent the spine of the American ethos of helpfulness and abiding good. Their names should be remembered with profound gratitude and gladness — Susan Joy Schuurman, 56; Eleanor Chavez, 64 and Sister Marlene Gail Perrotte, 75. They literally are, in person, the better angels of our nature.
What can we all do to be of help? The first and most obvious action we can take is to refuse to be gulled by politicians who belong to a political party in bondage to Buchanan’s form of treacherous elitism. We don’t have to be geniuses to know what to do next — support early childhood education, support any and all nutrition programs for poor children, support the kind of economy that is based on a livable wage, support economic policies that allow those who are not well-off to earn a decent return on their savings and support policies that aid people who can’t help themselves.
But perhaps the most important of all is to keep ourselves full of hope, along with our anger and dismay. Hope empowers us with a realistic belief in the genuine decency and kindness of most people, even those we don’t agree with politically, to know by heart that the better angels of our nature have not been snuffed out, that helpfulness and goodness are qualities native to our species and not confined to any one religion, ideology, system of belief or financial status.
If we refuse to tolerate the mistreatment of children, anyone’s children, anywhere, perhaps we can turn our compassion to acknowledge and aid all of us who are desperate and in need. After all, isn’t that what citizenship in a democracy is all about, at its spiritual core: a belief in the worthiness of everyone?
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Image of James Buchanan from Atlas Network)