We have a civic ritual for national catastrophes. The media rushes in, pointing the cameras into the stricken faces, seeking excited explanations from the survivors. Then in due course the President emerges with carefully crafted words of solace and determination to move forward, all based on the notion that this is one nation, e pluribus unum, based on shared values.
It reached a repulsive nadir with the murders in Newtown, CT, where the dead and the survivors were a bunch of elementary school kids, and the horrid media shoved their mikes and cameras into the faces of six-year old kids. Then President Obama came out with his words of solace and promises to do something maybe someday, and his appeal to our better nature: “In the hard days to come, that community needs us to be at our best as Americans. And I will do everything in my power as President to help.”
It’s just like other disasters, Superstorm Sandy, the Great Crash, The National Debt, the terrorist attack of 9/11, and the wars that followed. The message from the elites is that we must pull together to solve these problems as a community. But we don’t.
The twitter immediately burst forth with the cries of the gun worshippers. The deficit scolds tell us we need bipartisan shared sacrifice to cope with the national debt. The financial sector tells us we can’t restrain their power. The neoliberals tell us we need more wars in Iran and Syria and everywhere else. Climate Change deniers laugh at the very idea that Sandy was the result of human activity.
Aid to victims of the massive storm is dragging through the Congress, another sacrifice to Mammon in the form of the Plutocrats who own Congress: we can’t afford to help, we need to cut taxes for the rich and their corporations. Shared sacrifice to deal with the national debt means sacrificing the old and sick to the insatiable demands of Mammon, whose share of the sacrifice is to consume it. It means leaving millions unemployed and hopeless, or willing to work for the plutocrats at starvation wages.
The financial sector has triumphed. No one goes to jail, profits are obscene, lending is down, fees are up. The pretend reform has been revealed as a sham by the Lanny Breuer’s refusal to indict HSBC for rampant criminality because it might wreck the financial sector, a judgment shared by Eric Holder, Timothy Geithner and President Obama. They repeatedly sacrifice the rule of law to the imperious demands of the financial sector.
The wars drag on. Around the world we kill children with drones, more sacrifices to save us from unknowable unseen dangers.
We can’t change gun laws. Guns are the Moloch of our day, as Garry Wills explains. Some of us believe that the right to own guns means that any sacrifice of the lives of others is justified so long as their rights are not compromised in the slightest. Those people are out in force after the murders in Newtown. You see them on the twitter, and in the comment sections of the mass media sites. The NRA and its twin ALEC have ducked and run from the only plausible outcome of their shared values of arming us to the teeth, but their worshippers tell us that Kindergarten Teachers need to carry semi-automatic weapons just in case. Their values are out in the open, as Adam Gopnik says in the New Yorker.
They have made a clear moral choice: that the comfort and emotional reassurance they take from the possession of guns, placed in the balance even against the routine murder of innocent children, is of supreme value. Whatever satisfaction gun owners take from their guns—we know for certain that there is no prudential value in them—is more important than children’s lives. Give them credit: life is making moral choices, and that’s a moral choice, clearly made.
Our elites, political and plutocratic, claim that we need to solve these problems as a community. That claim rests on a widely-held belief that we are a nation of shared values. The failure to act tells us that we are not.
A large portion of the country believes that the Bible is a better source of understanding of natural phenomena and contemporary society than science and careful thinking. They think women should be treated like slaves, barred from making their own decisions about their bodies. They view murders like that of Savita Halappanavar who was killed because Irish doctors refused to abort her dead fetus are natural and just, a fair sacrifice to oppose abortion. In the same way, they believe the deaths in Newtown are a fair sacrifice for their Second Amendment fantasies. An even larger group believes that Climate Change, with results like Superstorm Sandy, is a just sacrifice for preserving their way of life and their Biblical understanding of the natural world. Others are so fixated on free market ideology that no sacrifice of the lives and fortunes of others is too great.
Their values are so central to their existence that they are willing to allow millions of people to suffer and die if only their values can be put into practice.
I don’t share those values. I don’t want any part of the death and misery they bring to my fellow citizens, and to people around the world. President Obama wants to find common ground between me and them. There isn’t any.