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Our humanity should extend beyond season

The Christmas season – now upon us, ready or not – brings out our better natures. Maybe it’s years of childhood practice: behaving well lest we end up on Santa’s naughty list. Or maybe once a year we take to heart the message of community and goodwill towards men.

Whatever the case, we certainly find it easier to be generous and considerate when it comes to our fellow man (which, of course, includes women, children and small furry animals, in some cases).

Once a year, we take the time to think about others, at least for as long as it takes to share a smile, a greeting and perhaps even a bit of charity. The rest of the year? Well, not so much.

That dichotomy begs a host of questions, not least of which is what exactly is it that we owe each other as humans, citizens and residents? It’s a question that goes back millennia, and forms the basis of social contract philosophy, from the ancient Greeks through Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. Hmmm, I sense a yawn coming on, kind of like when I go on about pension reform.

At any rate, the topic flows naturally from a discussion of the impact of the Occupy movement – another recent hobby horse – and the current police crackdowns. Criticized for a lack of defined goals, the movement’s real purpose is to call attention to inequities and to challenge the rest of us to think about a political and economic system that in essence encourages us to be selfish and not to take into consideration what we can do for each other as a community – to forego our humanity.

The protestors give lie to the notion that our system of government – our democracy – is based on the consent of the governed. Government policies that run contrary to the public interest – an increasing proportion of its actions – surely are the opposite of what we’d consent to. They benefit the one per cent at the expense of the 99, as the memorable slogan reminds us.

Who is responsible for that? Certainly those who’ve benefited have fostered an unending propaganda campaign that’s been every bit as effective in sweeping aside citizenship as the corporate marketing has been in turning us into consumers. We’ve happily abdicated power and responsibility for the comforts of our lives. Excuses about being busy are just that. Still, we’ve opted for the distractions, and can’t even be bothered to show up at the voting booth for five minutes every four years. As a result, we’ve got the government we deserve, one that acts against our interests and against the common good.

We’ve tuned out, bought into consumerism and the ideal of rugged individualism while enjoying the fruits of what years of community-minded spirit and policies brought us.

It’s a trend that was identified in a collection of essays edited by American sociologists Howard L. Rosenthal and David J. Rothman in a book call What Do We Owe Each Other?, which, ironically, appeared in 2008 just as the Ponzi scheme that is the global financial system was unraveling.

“Income distribution is now as skewed as it was in the heyday of the robber barons. The Top 25 hedge fund managers on Wall Street earned in one year as much as 80,000 New York City schoolteachers did in three,” they not in introducing the text. Yet it wasn’t until recently that we’ve taken real note of that inequity.

Those who benefited from the arrangement did so away from the public view, as we went about our lives. The authors indentified “a conviction that most Americans were, bluntly put, selfish.

Ready to do everything possible to satisfy their own and their family’s needs, they were utterly indifferent to the well-being of others. Little or nothing was owed to strangers, whether they were fellow Americans or immigrants, documented or undocumented.”
Public sentiment has become more mean-spirited. Nowhere is that more clear than with attacks on public institutions, most notably through the tax system. Even governments have jumped on the pile.

“[It] appeared that both public and private enterprises did very little to promote or satisfy mutual obligations,” the authors note on the declining notion of the public good. “Tax policy at the state or federal level, and benefit and pension policies at the corporate level, did not push back inequalities or overcome indifference. Neither in the polity nor in the economy was a sustained and systemic effort made to promote the commonweal over individual self-interest.”

The political and economic systems we live under are both manmade constructs. We devised them, and they’ve evolved into something that no longer meets the needs of the majority of us. If the social contract means that there’s a greater, common good, then that contract has been violated. We’re going to need more than some Christmas cheer to get back on course.

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