This interruption of the "West-by-North" trip narrative is prompted by a reaction I had to the Friday (Sept 16) air-show disaster in Nevada that relates to our current socio-political contentiousness.
As I was watching MSNBC evening commentary (probably Lawrence O’Donnell), a news-update announced a plane crash at a Nevada air show, with possible audience fatalities. My initial reaction was concern and anxiety for anyone who might have been hurt by the fallen plane and its scattered debris. As information came in periodically, we learned that some twenty individuals had been transported to a local hospital, but there were no fatality numbers. Then we learned that the plane had hit in an area of VIP seating – "CEOs and their guests" – and I had an odd reaction of relief, almost satisfaction (not quite schadenfreude, but close). Something in me said: “It’s O.K., it was just the big-wigs who got hurt, the guys who have all the money and don’t work for a living. Maybe some of them will realize what it’s like to experience loss and pain.”
As I had this reaction, I was amazed at my own cold-heartedness toward a certain category of human beings. I realized, again, that I bear considerable mistrust, even contempt, for the wealthy, most of whom I view as social parasites – basically useless and often harmful to the body politic. And then I thought of the Tea-Party crowd cheering at Rick Perry’s claim to have executed more than two hundred prisoners in Texas, and of an audience agreeing with Ron Paul's comment that a person in poverty, without insurance, should be left to his own devices if he becomes ill.
And I realized that these different reactions reflect, at a gut level, the two sides of our political argument – the different views of who is useful to our culture, and who is parasitic – as embraced by liberals and conservatives. In general, conservatives (despite a purported Christian ethic and Jesus’ claim that the meek shall inherit the earth) believe that the poor are useless (although they do much of the manual and menial labor – the “real work” – that keeps the country functioning). And liberals think that the wealthy mostly want to drain resources from those who work, and from the world in general, while rarely doing an honest day’s work themselves (although without accumulated wealth, there would be little or no commerce, art, or science).
Considering someone socially worthless probably means you don’t mind if they die. In fact, you may view the world as a better place if they do. I remember a time, early in my life, when I felt no grief at the news of the death of a former eighth-grade classmate whose behavior had been irritatingly asocial. He laughed when others were hurt or disturbed, and he befriended a large, mentally challenged class-mate whom he prodded into outrageous actions. I viewed him then as evil; I didn’t believe his home life was at fault, because he had a very likeable younger brother. Today, he might be called a sociopath. Perhaps his pre-frontal cortex had been damaged during a forceps delivery (common in those days). When I learned, several years later, that he had been killed in a car-train accident, I was not sorry; rather, in a way, I felt relieved.
Similarly, I felt relieved when I was told, as a child, that Hitler was dead, or later, when Stalin died, or recently, when bin Laden was killed. Maybe this is why so many in Muslim countries cheered at the twin-tower attack and its aftermath of carnage; they viewed wealthy and greedy America and Americans as somehow inherently evil or dangerous.
To be sure, there are enlightened, wealthy and liberal individuals of conscience, just as there are lower-middle-class conservatives whose paranoia and political blindness keep them from seeing their own best interest. Social chaos often stems from a huge disparity between the wealthy and the poor, as now exists in this country. Such large economic disparity certainly helps fuel rebellions that currently roil the Middle East. Looking at history with hindsight, it seems obvious that a blind disregard for the plight of the poor by French aristocracy--the “If they have no bread, let them eat cake” delusion--led to the guillotine and other angry excesses of the French Revolution. If the Decembrists of Russia had been heeded, instead of being jailed, killed, or deported to Siberia, that country might not have been blighted by a century of communism and its aftermath. In the ancient Roman Empire, Christians survived and ultimately thrived while everything around them was tending to chaos, probably because they lived in a community in which they all cared for one another, including the least among them: the poor, the jailed, the widows and children.
Now that actual casualty figures from the air-show disaster have come in, and I know that ten individuals died there, I once again feel concern and sadness for them and for their loved ones. And I also feel remorse that, for a time, I did not view those victims as human beings worthy of mourning.