Recently I received an email that went something like “We have it so well, we shouldn’t be “whining” about the problems we see in the world- more specifically in a world defined as this country under the presidency of George W. Bush. In other words- don’t be one of the “nattering nabobs of negativism”- to use William Safire’s memorable alliteration.
The upshot of this was that as a people living in a prosperous nation we really should be grateful for our blessings and shut up about our concerns- espciecllay those concerns we have with domestic issues.
I don’t think that anyone would disagree with the fact that those of us who have the education and technology to write critical pieces like those that appear on this blog and countless others are blessed.
I am aware that my education and many of the opportunities afforded to me have made my life very good. Yes, I have disabling AIDS and I feel the sting of prejudice that comes from being gay- even in the gay Nirvana that is San Francisco. But my life is better than most in the world and many in this country. I have days where I am quite ill and days where I get immobile due to depresseion but I know that I am rather fortunate – I have a relatively good income and decent healthcare.
Bottom line- I am privileged. But does this not give me the right (if not the duty) to ask society to be better? Do we not all have the right to point out the problems in our country and our world?
On a recent trip to Washington DC to talk about problems of the implementation of the new Ryan White Treatment Act with members of Congress, I brought my pile of unread magazines to entertain me on the no-frills (i.e. no video programming) flight. One article I read in “The New Republic” struck me in particular. I unfortunately left the issue in my hotel room and am not able to cite it directly. But the article essentially read that although we live in an age that seems horrific where violence is rampant, humans have become less violent and more humane since our cave dwelling dawn and have evolved in this regard progressively thoughout our history. I remember distinctly that the article opened with the description of a medieval entertainment common in Paris. A cat would slowly be lowered over a fire and the audience would squeal with glee as they watched cat’s unspeakable torture and ultimate death. Although certain forms of animal cruelty exist in our culture- it is no longer considered acceptable by our society. We (society) are repulsed by such actions.
Have we evolved as a species because we allowed the status quo to be maintained without any thought or have we evolved because a voice within society criticizes the status quo and dares us to be better? I would posit the latter.
We can always be better. We can strive at being a model of humanity at its best. We have the responsibility to question and look at creating the best possible society- the best possible world. John Winthrop- the creator of the phrase “a city on a hill” in 1630 (NO it was NOT Ronald Regan!) was referring to a narrowly constructed puritanical approach that is not unlike the purity demanded in Islamic jihadists although he did also mention the concept of “Christian charity” as a hallmark of the new society in New England. John Kennedy used Winthrop’s sermon in one of his important early speeches just 11 days before his inauguration. He laid out four principles that he felt should be the guiding principles of government that would lead to being a shining example- “a city on a hill”. Those principles are: courage, judgment, integrity and dedication. These are noble principles and they should guide our actions.
Maybe one calls it noblesse oblige, I call it a social conscience. I believe strongly that we all have an obligation to be critical of power and the status quo.
If we didn’t have a history of questioning our values, where would we be. A vox clemantis in deserto – a voice crying in the wilderness is originally from the scriptures in Isiah, but the term came to be synonymous with a voice that points out the corruption of society after it appeared in the elegic poem “Vox Clemantis” by John Gower recounting the 1381 Peasant Revolt in England.
We should never stop criticism of where we are and where it looks like we are going only because we are satisfied in our own personal lives. We should think bigger than that. We should always be critical of how power is used, how society devleops and how we can vision a world where want is no longer, where violence is no longer and where society is the epitome of humane behavior and compassion.
Is it possible to attain that world? Are we still too attached to our most basic “lizard” brains? Maybe at the moment. But look how far we have come since our early days as a species over the past 100 millenia. We have a long journey ahead of ourselves if we don’t destroy the world first.
If we languish in the status quo and do not continue to ask hard questions and conitnue to be the voice crying in the wilderness- we will never evolve further than where we are. The greatest gift that we have been given through evolution (or God – if you wish) is a mind – one that doesn’t just accept without question. Being critical isn’t negative it is the most positive action we can take.