Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

25 July 2010

It’s the Bystanders, Stupid!

[For a brief note on the surprising consistency of GOP propaganda, click here.]

Have you ever thought hard about why Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek”?

It’s not a particularly effective defense strategy. An enraged enemy might do you serious harm. Ending up broken, perhaps paralyzed―maybe even dead―would not advance the cause of peace. Your family and friends would just cry for vengeance, as was the norm in Jesus’ time.

And what if society, in accordance with law, “got even” by imprisoning or murdering your tormentor? Then your enemy’s family and friends would blame what was left of you for your enemy’s punishment, and the cycle of hatred and violence would continue. And as for the chances of provoking a personal epiphany in an enemy in full attack mode, aren’t they pretty small?

So what was Jesus saying? His advice makes no sense if you focus only on yourself and your enemy.

But widen the circle a bit and things come into focus. It’s all about the bystanders. Turning your other cheek can have a pretty profound effect on them. (In this analysis, think of bystanders as true neutrals, with no dog in the fight.)

No one likes violence, least of all when it seems unprovoked. When bystanders see you as a victim of what looks like an unprovoked attack, they instinctively favor you, for they put themselves in your place. You may be struck and spat upon, but you will have the community on your side. At least, that’s the theory.

The theory has worked pretty well in practice, too. Jesus started a religion that swept the Western world and changed human culture forever. Gandhi won a nation, and Dr. King and Nelson Mandela vastly improved their peoples’ lots. (Jesus and Dr. King lost their lives, and Mandela spent 27 years in prison, but no one ever said Jesus’ strategy was without risk.)

A lot more than historical speculation supports this point of view. Evolutionary biologists are now beginning to understand just what makes us human beings really unique. It’s not the size of our brains. Other primates have brains almost as large, and elephants and whales have ones much bigger. It’s not our language. Other species have languages, just not ones quite as complex as ours. Nor are our opposable thumbs responsible. Other primates’ hands may be more clumsy, but they can hold tools almost as well.

Recent experiments with chimpanzees have shown what makes us truly unique. Only we humans can get inside another’s mind and see, feel, understand or intuit—with or without the aid of language—what the other thinks. The “E-word,” empathy, is what makes us truly social animals and lets us cooperate so closely. It is ultimately responsible for atomic energy, air travel and the Internet—things far beyond the capability of any other species.

Of course the E-word is also what gives turning the other cheek such special social power. That humble act evokes bystanders’ empathy and brings the community to your side.

This insight helps bring a few things from recent political history into focus, too. All throughout the campaign, Barack Obama treated Hillary Clinton with kid gloves. He responded to her attacks with (at most) mild rebukes, calling her least credible claims “inaccurate.” He reacted to her veiled incitement of racism with only a professorial lecture on race. He even held her chair as she sat down. And he won.

With puzzling passivity, the President let the insurance and drug companies and their congressional shills beat him up for seven weeks before ever proposing a health-care bill, and then only in outline. And he won where no president had, despite a century of trying.

And so it goes. When John Lewis endured the spittle and screams of a vile rabble lacking his courage, dignity and sacrifice for his country, the President seemed strangely passive. We poor Boomers—increasingly conscious that our selfish lives did little to improve the world we were born into besides advancing the cause of equality—wanted outrage and fomenting. We got none.

When a scumbag blogger smeared a woman of transcendent character named Shirley Sherrod, we expected lightning bolts to rain down from the White House. There were none.

For eighteen months, ever since his inauguration, the President has suffered the worst sort of obstructionism and lies from his enemies. If you know anything about the history of cooperation between the parties, especially in wartime, you can’t believe the GOP is even on the same national team.

Yet does the President rant and foment? Not a bit. He takes it all in stride, sometimes with humor, calling his tormenters the “Party of No.” And he keeps trying to make amends and work together long after most of us would have given up the effort as futile.

In our day and age, the ruling class does not decide disputes with fisticuffs or jousting. Yet despite the lack of physical violence, politics in America today is rougher than anywhere else in the world and rougher than in most of human history. If you think of politics as a big fight—which it is—this is what turning the other cheek looks like.

I don’t mean to imply that Obama is Christ-like or divine. As a Jew, I don’t believe in Jesus’ divinity. But I do believe that Jesus was one of the most effective leaders in human history, and perhaps the one who best understood what makes us human.

History supports that point of view. Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar, Pericles, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible, Zhu Di, George III, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin and Mao are all gone, their regimes and ideas a fading memory. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR remain in our American hearts, but after only an eyeblink in history. Jesus Christ still has hundreds of millions of fervent followers in every corner of the globe, two millennia after his birth. And not only do they follow his memory; they pay close attention to what he said. No human has ever duplicated that feat, and perhaps none ever will.

So don’t discount Jesus’ strategy until all the votes are counted.

Of course the rabble who spat on John Lewis are going to vote in unpredictable ways. Of course Beck’s and Limbaugh’s duped followers are going to vote red. But they are not the bystanders. They are the attack dogs. The bystanders are the independent, non-aligned Americans who are too busy worrying about their damaged and frenetic lives to focus on November’s election until, at most, a week or two beforehand.

When these bystanders go to the polls, they are going to have to compare. They are going to put John Lewis mentally side by side with the rabble who spat on him. They are going to put Shirley Sherrod side by side with the blogger who slimed her. They are going to put the President, who brought them health-insurance reform and curbed Wall Street’s rogue bankers, however imperfectly, side by side with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell and their cult of “no” and business as usual. Finally, they are going to have to put their specific candidates for the Senate and House side by side. And they are going to have to decide with whom they empathize.

Two millennia of history say they will empathize with the ones who meekly tried to heal their hurt and turned the other cheek. At least, that seems to be the theory. God help us if TV and the Internet have fudged the human equation and it doesn’t work this time.

[For specific comment on the Shirley Sherrod story, click here.]

While on the subject of November’s elections, I thought I’d provide a link to a post I wrote in February 2009, about a month after the President’s inauguration. Entitled “Five Economic Lies,” it lists (and refutes) the GOP’s major complaints against the Obama Administration even before it had begun serious work.

What astounded me when I re-read the post was that these are the very same five lies the GOP is using now. Nothing in the seventeen-month interim changed the mantra one iota.

Think about that. When I wrote that post, no one knew what would happen or how the new Administration would act. The President and most of his Cabinet were new, with no track records in their positions. Since that time, we’ve had (some would say suffered) some of the most unpredictable and tumultuous events in our own and world history—an economic meltdown, reversals in Afghanistan, persistent unemployment, continuing offshoring of jobs, near-disapprearance of our auto industry, an unpredictable ecological disaster in the Gulf, and spectacular increases in concentration of wealth at the top of our society. Yet the Republicans’ complaints today, after all this history and turmoil, are precisely the ones they had the month after the President’s inauguration. Nothing that has happened since seems to have made any impression on them.

There are two possibilities. First, the party that ruined our international reputation, destroyed our economy, hollowed out our manufacturing base, and left us dangerously and stupidly dependent on foreign oil was so smart and clairvoyant as to have predicted everything that’s happened in the last seventeen months precisely as it did. Second, the GOP sings the same tune no matter what happens in the real world, and no matter how many times it’s proven off key. You decide.

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