Saturday, August 30, 2014

Humanity's Inhumanity

A friend recently pushed a book into my hands with a directed instruction to “read this.”  “Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand (author of the best-selling book – and subsequent movie – “Seabiscuit”) is the powerful, moving, disturbing, and inspiring biography of Louis Zamperini (1917-2014).  A boyhood product of the Depression era, Louis was an incorrigible rebel who turned his life around as a teenager and became an internationally-known distance runner in college and the 1936 Olympics.  World War II ended his athletic ambitions, drawing him into the South Pacific as a bombardier in the war with Japan.  Following his plane’s crash into the water, he and his pilot friend drifted a record-breaking 47 days on a barren rubber life raft, only to be captured by the enemy Japanese.  Given up as “killed in action,” what followed was two years as a POW, suffering through the most unimaginable cruelty and torture – physical and mental – that human beings can inflict on one another.  The triumph of his physical survival was trumped by his post-war descent into PTSD – a national celebrity transformed into alcoholism, rage, poverty, near-divorce – until he finally made peace with his torment and his tormentors.

This biographical narrative is really two stores inside one cover binding.  On the one hand, it is a testament to human beings’ strength of Will and ability to survive against the depths of the most acute cruelty.  When that Will triumphs, our respect for the human spirit leaps forward, and the human species advances to yet another level.  But we are also reminded that, after thousands of years of human development, growth, knowledge and rationality, human beings can also operate as one of the lowliest species on earth.  Able to attack and kill other beings simply for the sake of doing it, rather than out of genuine need for survival.

World War II seems almost as ancient history to many of us, but it occurred only 70 years ago.  One lifetime.  My lifetime.  To younger Americans, it is simply one chapter in their school history book, important to memorize but of little relevance to today’s life.  When most Americans think of WWII, thoughts are generally of Nazi Germany and the European war, more predominately perpetuated in the films and literature of post-war America.  The Pacific war is typically skipped over.  But the unfathomable crimes against POWs and civilian populations across Asia were as horrific in their own way as the carnage perpetrated in Europe.  And in both theaters of war, racial arrogance was the parent of that comprehensive carnage.

Nazi Germany was the supposed “superman” of human development, the Aryan (White) perfection of the human race.  From that thinking, the elimination of the lesser elements of the human race – by war and by mass executions in the Holocaust – was an easy step.  Similarly, the arrogance of the Japanese military ruling class and their self-view of racial perfection over all other Asians – notably the Chinese and Koreans – allowed them to treat those lesser beings as mere props supporting their dominance.  Conscience and humanity towards others disappeared from the social fabric.  But there was one marked difference between Germany’s and Japan’s arrogance: Japan extended its captured POWs and enslaved labor no mutuality of wartime respect.  1% of American POWs in German captivity died; 37% of American POWs in Japanese captivity died.  Louis Zamperini managed to survive that grim statistic, even if only in body and not in mind.

So what does a horror of cruelty “so long ago” have to do with our lives today?  Simple.  Not much has changed since then.  Yes, war in Europe, a constant state for 1000 years, has been virtually eradicated.  No small accomplishment.  Yet the violence of war continues elsewhere.  But beyond war itself is the continuing inhumanity of cruelty, the wanton killing, the killing for intimidation to create power.  It is the killing from generations of handed-down hatred whose original source has long been rendered irrelevant.  So we have the attempted “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia; the carpet-bombings and “Agent Orange” in Viet Nam; the various ethnic slaughters across Africa; the perpetual state of recurring killing between Palestinians and Israelis; the fratricidal conflicts within Islam in post-Saddam Iraq; the indiscriminate killings in the Syrian revolution; and now the wholesale slaughter of anyone in its conquering path by ISIS in the old Middle East Crescent.  These are deaths not from “normal” war casualties, but from an abject indifference to the value of human life.  A state of mind less than those supposedly “inferior” animal minds that live in the jungles of the wild.

Why human beings are in such a rush to not just kill each other, but to do so in as painful and indiscriminate way possible, is near impossible to understand.  Are we still, after all of these centuries, still that afraid of each other?  Afraid of different opinions, religious beliefs, cultural practices, ancestral history, personal lifestyles, and genders?  Still trying to dominate others to mitigate our fear of them rather than coexisting with them?  Still killing each other over long-dead disagreements and birthrights originally fought hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago?  Does each party to this inhumanity still think it is the true victim, the aggrieved party, who therefore must now be committed to ever-lasting revenge?  Who really struck the first blow?

By October, 1949, Louis Zamperini had reached the depths of descent from national war hero and celebrity to alcoholic, his marriage in shambles with divorce papers in process.  Somehow, his wife nevertheless convinced him to go hear some unknown preacher then in town conducting open-air services under a big tent.  Louis went, but bolted out panicked before the end of the service.  She convinced him to return again another night, and he started to race out once again before the end.  But just before reaching the exit, a quiet voice inside of him echoed his words said during those many desperate days in his life raft, floating day-after-day seemingly to nowhere on the ocean currents, when he prayed out loud: “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.”  In that instant of remembrance, Louie recognized that part one was done – he had been saved.  Now it was payback time, because his life had become anything but “serving.”  Instead of leaving, he turned around and walked to the front of the tent, the tent where Billy Graham’s now-famous Los Angeles religious crusade first created national headlines and made Graham a lifetime religious celebrity.  In that instant, Louis Zamperini forgave his tormentors, turned loose his hatred, ended his nightmares of POW torture, gave up his thirst for revenge, and moved into the lifetime of positive service he had promised to his faith.

In the midst of continual inhumanity, we can still find our humanity.  Sometimes it is in the most unlikely places, at the most unlikely time.  It is only in this facing, and acknowledging, of our own inhumanity that we can thereby then find our own humanity, and let the past be past.  At the personal level; at the collective, national level.  One person at a time, one step at a time, one lifetime at a time.  And so civilization glacially crawls forward, moving inches in the continuous days after days.  In times such as these, discouragement at the human condition can be understandable.  The Louis Zamperinis remind us why we hold on to hope.  And why we continue to keep stubbornly inching our way forward.  One painful, beautiful step at a time.

©  2014   Randy Bell    

Friday, August 8, 2014

Demonizing The Poor

What is it about poor people that makes us so uncomfortable?  Or perhaps, even, outright angry or hostile?  We walk past the homeless person on the street, barely seeing or acknowledging his existence.  We resent the mother in the supermarket paying for her groceries with food stamps.  We object to providing our tax money to fund the welfare check that goes out to the family below “the poverty line.”  We resent our having to work while the government supports the unemployed who are not working.  We take a wide roller brush and paint all welfare recipients as deadbeats living on the dole; people receiving unemployment benefits as lazy bums defrauding the system; the homeless as morally irresponsible who have given up on their responsibilities to society; and gangs of inner-city youths as drug dealers and criminals.

Truth is, there are individuals in each of these groups that fit these stereotypical profiles.  As there are always given individuals that fit any kind of racial, religious, gender, sexual, economic, geographic, or other life-style stereotype.  Just as there are also many individuals in these groups who defy the stereotype, who operate independently of the circumstances that surround them.  The parent working 2-3 jobs who nevertheless still lives below the poverty level.  The inner-city youth going nights to community college to train for a job and thereby have a way out of the gang.  The homeless mother living in her car with her children, trying to hold the family together however possible.  The business professional still sending out resumes, attending job fairs, going in for interviews, who has not given up in spite of depleted savings accounts.  As any social or charity worker can tell us, for every story of fraud and failure, there are other stories of human determination and perseverance, of courage overcoming adversity.

Yet we live comfortably in our painting from our broad brush.  Or we make ourselves comfortable with leaving the reality of poor people to the responsibility of social service and charity workers, thankfully out of our sight.  Where does our blindness come from?  Is it that knowing “there but for the grace of God go I” makes us so insecure?  Does a part of us intuitively know that the fairy tale of our life that we have worked so hard to construct could so easily collapse upon the smallest turn of Life?  Does disparaging “the poor” allow us to mask an underlying prejudice of yet another, far less acceptable kind?  Is it that the arrogance of our success, and the effort we have put into achieving it, makes us forget how “lucky” we in fact have been, and how much help we had in achieving that success?  (Three or four “big star actors” may have drawn us into the movie theater, but the list of “credits” at the end of the movie goes on seemingly continuously.)

We exhort the unemployed to “just get a job,” yet most major corporate employers choose to cut jobs as their first solution to threatened profits.  We tell young people to “get an education,” yet state and local governments are cutting educational funding at every opportunity.  We tell the welfare mother to get out of the house and act responsibly for her children, yet we cut food stamp spending, prevent access to affordable health care insurance, and cut funding for child care support.  We need not reward indolence, but we should not punish acts of responsibility, if not courage.  For all the hard work we may feel we have done to arrive at where we have come, there are many poor who are working as hard in their circumstances just to maintain where they have managed to come.

In the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney was taped rabble-rousing a millionaire’s gathering about “the 49%” of Americans living on the public dole, expecting to be taken care of by government handout.  It played well to an audience hungry to believe that divisive electioneering.  Only later was the question raised as to WHO these 49% actually are.  And it turned out to include such people as retirees otherwise solely dependent upon their social security to survive.  Children unable to provide for themselves.  Military families struggling with low pay for extraordinary services rendered.  Disabled Americans struggling to get through the day while facing limited access.  Interestingly, the 49% did NOT include, for example, government contractors selling overpriced and/or unneeded products and services in the name of “saving jobs” (i.e. saving profits by corporate welfare); college professors living off of questionable research grants; state/local governments with palms constantly extended pleading for funding awards; or CEOs receiving hidden tax credits for their company’s special benefit (while tax credits for the poor are being cut).

Certainly punish the individual defrauders and abusers with the full force of the legal system.  But let us not slander all of a group for the callous, despicable actions of the individuals.  Lest all of us who are fortunate to live outside of poverty get painted with a similar broad brush.  (Witness the abuse of 300 doctors arrested last year for Medicare fraud and for supplying drug dealers with pills for illegal resale.  Or the financiers and mortgage lenders who defrauded the home-owning public and wiped out significant portions of the American economy.)  We should react to real individual people, not group labels.

Before we demonize the “Medicaid dependent,” let us think about the working poor paid a wage we ourselves would never accept.  Before we demonize the “unemployed bums,” let us think about the desperate breadwinner with the battered self-esteem from countless interview rejections because she is over 50.  Before we demonize the “food stamps recipient,” let us think about the military wife or the senior citizen who cannot afford the inflated grocery prices created by the “big Agri” food producers.  Before we demonize “the welfare mom,” let us think about all the dependent children, older parents, and others who she may be caring for in her home.

Each of the three great Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – exhorts us to look out for “the widow, the orphans, and the poor.”  We all share in that responsibility, and other responsibilities in situations where help is needed.  We meet that responsibility through our individual actions, our religious and charitable affiliations, and – when scale or efficiency deems it appropriate – through the mechanisms of our shared government.  But our actions are preceded and guided by what we think.  So it is by what we think, more than our actions, that we will ultimately be tested and judged.  Hopefully we will not be found as poor in our thoughts as the economically poor we excoriate.

© 2014  Randy Bell