For the past few days, these lines from Deuteronomy 22:8 have been resounding in my head with the regularity of a heartbeat: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet on your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.”
A statement’s appearance in a sacred text does not de facto render it true. To the contrary, if I were to make the increasingly common error of taking the bible literally, it would lead me into a life of lunacy: for instance, I would have to avoid wearing linen and wool together or risk the death penalty. So I am by no means a literalist; indeed, I shudder to contemplate the painful and foolish path those who profess literalism would have us follow.
But that doesn’t disrupt the deeper truths so often veiled by literalism. Deuteronomy 22:8 reminds me that to most of us, some things are morally self-evident. So far as I am aware, every major spiritual tradition sees it as the essence of human community that we honor this commandment to consider the consequences of our own actions and protect the defenseless from them. In fact, from culture to culture, the essence of evil is imagining the space where this value is not professed, not cherished. The stock footage unspools in my mind: the wicked gunslinger who torments a poor fellow with a wooden leg, laughing as he dances to the music of bullets; the jaded aristocrat who amuses himself by torturing peasants; and a hundred others.
Bloodguilt occurs when we see others as so separate from ourselves that their fates are of no consequence in comparison with our comfort. In the aftermath of Katrina, we are choking with it. Yet there are signs that people may be awakening to the way our public policies have made us a nation that gladly endures the suffering of the poor if only the rich gain by it. Some of of us have been saying this for a long time. How is it that such overwhelming suffering is required to initiate an awakening?
On June 12,1982, there was a huge anti-nuclear demonstration in New York, that city’s largest ever: most estimates said that a million protesters from all over the world turned out. I was involved with artists’ groups taking part; it seemed inconceivable to us that nations could continue to play such dangerous games with our lives. We could see no silver lining. I can’t recall if it was on that day or in the aftermath, but someone said that if God were to manifest now, what better form than this terrible common threat to humanity, the atom bomb, which evidently had the power to inspire legions to cross barriers of race, religion, nationality and class to join hands in protest?
It is a terrible truth that a great threat or a great shame may call forth a great fellowship, a collective remembering of our common character and common fate. The tragedy that is following this storm has exposed the consequences of twenty-five years of public policies that neglect care for the environment, infrastructure–indeed all forms of public provision–that treat poverty as a personal problem and deprioritize any public expenditure that doesn’t enrich campaign donors. Twenty-five years of building a new house for the privileged without a thought for who might tumble from its unprotected roof.
People whose eyes have been closed are seeing that we are perilously near the completion of a project to convert “public issues” to “private troubles,” as the great C. Wright Mills expressed it forty years ago. (If you want to read a little more about this, check out my blog of June 24th.) It is easy to see how far this project has progressed: people of goodwill and integrity often express how heartbroken they are at their inability to afford private solutions to problems generated and fed by forces far beyond their immediate control, as if the guilt were entirely theirs.
In my last blog, I wrote about Big Oil’s role in and reaction to Katrina. One of my readers replied: “I also have to say that blaming ‘Big Oil’ or ‘Big Labor’ or any of those ‘BIGS’ is still a form of scapegoating. We have seen what happens when the people of a country have had ENOUGH, and start being active in the public sphere. Like the Wall that came tumbling down. As long as we the people are driving around in Humvees with “Support our Troops” stickers on the bumper…and participating in the greed-fest and the corporate-sponsored culture, then the Bushes of this world will continue to be voted in, and it will appear that ‘BIG OIL’ controls the country.
“Even in my home, while both my husband and I greatly would prefer a Prius or other hybrid vehicle, our economic reality right now is that we still have our ’93 car, which, when it comes right down to it, probably is no better than an SUV for gas mileage. We do work out of our home which cuts the commuting time, but it’s a little hard to maintain the cognitive
It’s true that our individual choices have public consequences, and that if enough of us wake up, we can fix this. But very often, our individual choices are constrained by public ones we don’t directly control. Change is not just ordering different dishes, but creating a whole new menu. To do that, we have to weaken the forces that created the old one. Some of those are collective entities, like energy corporations, that have been allowed to gobble up far too much of our power, to the point that many of us have lost hold of the way our private troubles are actually public issues.
The primary questions animating collective, public values are these: What do we stand for? What do we cherish? What do we seek? If reducing emissions were the huge environmental priority it should be in the shadow of global warming, it would be public policy to subsidize the production and distribution of hybrid autos and effective, safe public transportation, so that people were free to make constructive individual choices without bankrupting themselves. If it were our priority to end global warming rather than to further enrich the highest income brackets, the billions that went into the pockets of the wealthiest would have gone instead into removing conventional autos from the road.
The spectacle in New Orleans is saying something stark to our country: “This is who we allowed ourselves to become. This is the product of our collective neglect. This is twenty-five years of chickens coming home to roost.”
I have heard many callers on NPR tell their stories of journeying to Louisiana and Mississippi to help. There’s one particular trope that keeps repeating: a white caller says he or she helped out “an African American family, just the nicest people.” At first, I felt annoyed. I wondered why it was necessary to identify the recipients of help by race. Would these callers say “I helped a nice white family?” It felt like a symptom of the same causes that left so many poor black people stranded in the first place.
But then I realized I was wrong. These helpers were feeling the injustice of treating the largely poor and black refugees of New Orleans as dispensable, less than human. When one NPR caller loaded portable generators on his truck and drove down south to hand them out to stranded African American families, it seems pretty clear he was trying to say, “Look, we’re not all so heartless as our government’s policies,” however clumsily he expressed it. There is a fundamental decency that seems self-evident to an increasingly large majority: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet on your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.”
It is terrible to imagine that such a painful experience is what may awaken our sleeping national conscience. None of us would wish this terror on a single one of Katrina’s victims. But what has happened can’t be undone. In honor of all the souls who perished from the neglect we allowed to grow during the last quarter-century of government by greed, may we act to ensure that some good comes of it.