25 May Value(s) Added
I don’t often write or speak about “values,” because value and values both are abstractions arrived at subjectively and, these days, bandied about by far-right religionists as if they had coined those words. But I’ve been thinking about values lately, as the United States enters this ordeal some call “opening up.” Remember the adage, “Crisis doesn’t build character; it reveals it”? Values are in effect the character of a society, and ours is definitely being revealed.
Trump and his followers claim that the “real folks”—white, working-class males—are eager to get back to work, and it’s only elite liberal intellectuals on the coasts who want to go slow until it’s safer, with better precautions in place. (I know, hilarious: Trump posing the situation as a class struggle.) The truth is that 74 percent of the U.S. population is very leery of these precipitous openings, and has made it clear that they/we want to open more gradually and cautiously. It’s the elite stock-exchange boys who are insistent on rushing. The truth is that Trump had to mount his demagogue’s pulpit to harangue his own troops that opening gradually would constitute a grave threat to their personal freedom. So freedom now appears in the guise of buddies showing up with their AR 15 semi-automatic rifles loaded, to “protect” an East Texas tattoo studio open in defiance of even minimal state restrictions. Freedom is now manifest in Trump’s edict to force meatpackers (real folks, Donald!) back to work, risking their lives in crowded working conditions or else being denied their rightful unemployment pay and watching their families go hungry. Even most of the business world and corporate boys are nervous about this hurried, mythic “return to normal,” as well they should be.
This is the most dangerous period yet: when people get cocky, when the desire for it all to be over becomes the belief that it is over, when the young return to thinking they’re immortal, when contempt for the lives of the old becomes shamefully evident, when rules are relaxed and observance gets sloppy, when the weather gets warm, and when even wearing a mask is repositioned by Trump as a politically polarizing act.
Some people have posed this as a struggle between those who value money and business in our mercantile society versus those who value life and health. But just as it’s not a class struggle so it’s not any other bifurcated either/or choice. It’s no use making a living if you’re not alive. But if you can’t feed, clothe, and shelter your kids or yourself, you learn the hard way that poverty is death’s receptionist. These are unacceptable choices. So what about a third way?
That’s where good government enters the picture. There are moments in history when the collective force of a people makes itself known. The form can differ. It can be as dramatic as a march on the Bastille or the Czar’s Winter Palace; it can be deceptively passive, as in a general strike. It can even be official—via the state—if the state at that time is steered by visionaries willing to be responsible to and for the powerless. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did this with the creation of daring, massive programs that pulled the country off The Great Depression’s bread lines and into national projects that constructed highways and bridges, brought clean water to places that had none, wired entire areas of the country that had lacked electricity—projects that got everybody involved, working together, feeling part of a shared vision and a collective will, and even paid. This, despite the fact that then as now it’s always neck and neck in those historic moments, because at the same time the people are trying to speak with one voice, there is at least one other voice, a dictator’s voice, trying to manipulate the people. The choices made at such cross roads define the future.
For instance: In previous blogposts I’ve referred to the so-called “Black Death,” the plague that swept through Europe in recurring waves from approximately 1347 to 1350, killing between a third to a half of all Europeans. In its wake, with the population of blacksmiths, carpenters, tanners, masons, and other workers so reduced, serfs deserted their masters to fill those jobs in freedom and with better remuneration, and the feudal system collapsed. But here’s the thing. The lords had a choice: they could raise their serfs’ wages or just let their fields lie fallow. Most chose the latter, which is why the feudal system crashed. In fact, in southern Italy the lords even passed laws to prevent peasants from leaving. In northern Italy, however, the lords chose to pay their serfs higher wages—and from that choice grew the development of a middle-class. Seven centuries later, modern Italy still reflects that division: a poor south and a prosperous north.
So here’s what the discussion is really about: how do we value a human life?
In 1972, a Nixon administration member of a task force regulating the auto industry placed a life’s worth at $885,000 in 2020 dollars.The value of a human life in dollars has changed with the political moment. The dollar value of life for regulatory decisions went down under George W. Bush and up under Barack Obama. The World Health Organization has a complex formula starting with dividing the annual GDP of a nation per person. But here’s the unspoken reality: until very recently, with the growth of feminist economics, all women were not valued whatsoever, nor were men of color. In other words, the majority of the human population was not considered to be really alive.
Now this pandemic intensifies the situation, rearranges our perspective, beams light into buried corners of history. This continent originally was innocent of pestilence. But this nation was founded on it.
The Americas, both North and South, were neither unpopulated nor unsettled; their populations approximated the same number as those in Europe, and some of their civilizations pre-dated those of Europe by many centuries. But the “discoverers” brought with them such communicable diseases as smallpox, cholera, typhoid, measles, malaria, and bubonic plague—importing these diseases to Indigenous peoples who had absolutely no immunity to any of them. The result? Approximately two thirds to nine tenths of the peoples in the Americas died. That was the Conquest—not the stories we’ve all been fed about explorers and settlers heroically fighting savages in the name of Christ.
We must make of the current pandemic a re-set. On this Memorial Day, we should add to fallen soldiers’ names those of sufferers taken by Covid-19. And we must somehow remember the names we’ve never learned, names of those who perished from then unknown viruses, bacteria, and invaders from the Old World.
We can no longer tolerate being a people who value guns and gold over life and health—our own, the lives and health of other humans, other creatures, the planet itself. We dare not forget where we came from, or we will never learn where we’re going. The 74 percent of Americans demanding careful, responsible re-opening constitute one of many signs hinting at hopeful change. Those are values to live by, literally.