Thursday, September 22, 2005

Expanding "We" Means More Help for "Me"

In a complex society, individual freedoms and opportunities depend on a shared sense that in the final analysis, we're all in this together. "You'd do the same for me" is the basic bargain of civilization, the confirmation of the faith in each other and in our institutions necessary to make it all work.

Civilization may be nothing more and nothing less than a society's commitment to particular values, reflected in its philosophies, institutions and actions, continually renewed and extended. It is finally expressed and confirmed by individual citizens and their associations.

The world saw our civilization break down in the Katrina zone, and we saw that, contrary to recent rhetoric, the failure of government can be catastrophic. But civilization reasserted itself, based on a principal civic value, which can't be expressed any better than in the phrase, "you'd do the same for me."

It turned out that people from all over the world were frantic to help the suffering strangers in New Orleans. They risked their lives rescuing people, they opened their homes to strangers. They sacrificed for others, as they worried about what might happen to them if disaster struck their city.

It is the basis for heroism, as in Star Trek, or as spoken by fireman in the aftermath of 9/11, explaining why he was starting a 24-hour shift digging through the rubble of the World Trade Center to search for fellow firefighters buried there. They were his brothers, he said, and "they'd do the same for me."

But in more modest, everyday ways it's the basis of hospitality and sharing in time of trouble that characterize traditional cultures all over the world. It is more subtle than the Golden Rule, for it carries expectation as well as personal responsibility. "You'd do the same for me" is a challenge in the form of a statement of faith.

We are challenged today in several ways by the ramifications of Katrina. As yet another horrific hurricane moved towards land, and cities with other dangers were reevaluating their preparations, the Mayor of San Francisco (vulnerable to an inevitable future earthquake) said that the lesson of Katrina was that we are all on our own.

Certainly we must all prepare to sustain ourselves in such circumstances, and certainly we have learned that the enormity of some disasters as well as the laxity of some officials, we can't trust entirely government or anyone else to come to our rescue. But surely the message of Katrina is also that we are all in this together. We will survive only if we help each other, not just in disasters that have happened, but in anticipating and preparing for them.

There is another, perhaps tougher lesson that some draw from what happened in New Orleans. Economist Paul Krugman reflected on the role of race in the disaster and in America generally. "Consider this: in the United States, unlike any other advanced country, many people fail to receive basic health care because they can't afford it. Lack of health insurance kills many more Americans each year than Katrina and 9/11 combined."

Why is that? What isn't access to health care a major political issue? "...one reason is that it isn't yet a crisis among middle-class, white Americans (although it's getting there.) Instead, the worst effects are falling on the poor and black..."

So why do Europeans extend universal healthcare to everyone in their country, and Americans do not? Krugman writes: "And who can honestly deny that race is a major reason America treats its poor more harshly than any other advanced country? To put it crudely: a middle-class European, thinking about the poor, says to himself, "There but for the grace of God go I." A middle-class American is all too likely to think, perhaps without admitting it to himself, "Why should I be taxed to support those people?"

The thrust of Krugman's column is simply that somewhere behind the consciousness of white America, the "we" in "we're all in this together" doesn't include people of color. This is the basic problem of the alien that is central to Star Trek. We define ourselves in contrast to those who aren't us. We're constituted to be aware of anything that might be a threat, which includes any change in our environment, from a sudden movement or an unfamiliar sound to a stranger. They all engage instinctual reactions that are glandular before they are conscious. Difference excites---sometimes in a good way, but often in fear.

But humans have consciousness as well as instincts. We learn and even educate our reactions. Not long ago, racial prejudice was expected to disappear when everybody becomes middle class; that is, in ways important to Americans now, everybody would be basically the same. To a certain extent, this has happened, and various races are excepted according to their income and conformity to the upper middle class standards. But considering black people and poor people as “them” seems still present.

Yet even within white America there is much more knowledge and appreciation of others for their beauty, intelligence and style---and an appreciation of how much we have in common, yet how much richer we are by being different.

As humans, besides being afraid of difference we also crave it. We have learned to value the different ways of approaching the world represented in different cultures, just as we value the different skills and perspectives of individuals. This is another impulse that's become a social one, a basis for society: we like to have some idea of what might happen and alternatives to cope with any threats, or to take advantage of any opportunities. This is a human survival strategy.

We're back at the practical benefits of diversity, and the fundamental identity of our species, even of life itself. We share so much with so many. The basis of being able to live long and prosper together is "you'd do the same for me." Our heroes can take it to the limit with the ultimate self-sacrifice. But the rest of us can be courteous and thoughtful, look for what we have in common and provide the help we can when it's needed. There are plenty of real threats to deal with or avoid without inventing and creating dangers, or creating unnecessary us/them situations. We especially must be on guard against being manipulated into false us/them perspectives that really benefit a small group that's trying to accrue power and profit.

Sooner or later we come to understand that by expanding a sense of "we," we are multiplying the number of people who might help us when we need it, because they know we'd do the same for them. It's quite practical, and as things become more complex and perhaps more dire, it becomes more necessary.

In the Star Trek 22nd century, the "us" has expanded to include all humanity on earth, and in the 23rd century the "us" is expanding to include alien species. In our time, we can't go on pretending to share the identity of a country, a species and especially a civilization unless and until we expand our concept of "us" or "we" to match our reality. It's especially meaningful to me because those word were etched into my soul by hearing them from a black man. "You'd do the same for me" is our faith in civilization and each other. It's a faith we ought to spread, and not limit to the Star Trek future.

2 comments:

Rocket Pistol said...

William,

You really do have the Roddenberry spirit living within you and it shows in your writing. I have to say that I enjoy how you relate current events to Trek the most. You avoid making overtly political statements and present your observations in a very human and universal way.

I would direct you to continue to speak for the spirit of Roddenberry and relate it to what we are living in the here and now. We need his voice in today's world and you speak with it in a very moving way. Keep up the good work, and as always...

Best wishes,
Rocket Pistol

TJ Schick said...

Your reflections on the issues exposed by Katrina are thought-provoking, insightful, and best of all moving. It's some of the best analysis of these issues that I've seen.

The Star Trek ideal provides such a great framework for thinking about social issues. Keep up the amazing work.