Tuesday, May 30, 2006

[Week of the Dead]

On Human Life.

Here's a paradox: we celebrate birth but mourn death, yet the very cause of death is, in an absolute sense, birth. In one way, no concept is clearer or more absolute than death, and yet it is almost an entirely subjective construct, a concept we relate to through deep filters of culture and religion. Put another way, how we relate to death is a religious and cultural mirror of our views of life.

I heard a story once about an observation the Dalai Lama made when he visited Thomas Merton at his monastery (I can't vouch for the story's accuracy). He noticed that the monks were very quiet and serious. It was a contrast to the Tibetan monasteries he knew, where monks were playful and laughed often. After awhile, he realized what the difference was--the view of death. Catholic monks had just one life, and so no extraneous time for levity. Buddhists, with a view of reincarnation and no sense of permanent damnation, had a more spacious sense of their days.

I understand Islam far more dimly, yet it's hard to avoid the observation that the Muslim conception of the afterlife colors this one. It could be that suicide bombing arises purely from need, and yet it seems a particular feature of Islamic terror. The IRA and Basque ETA did plenty of bombing, but all from a safe distance. (Islam also highlights peace, of course, but metaphysically, the notion of "surrender"--the translation of "Islam"--place war and peace at God's, not humankind's feet. This creates a particularl cultural relationship to death.)

So if the way a country deals with death indicates its relationship toward the value of human life, what does American culture tell us about these things? We are undeniably a Christian country, at least morally. This is odd, given our birth as an enlightenment-era country. But how else to explain our judgment-based morality? Americans value human life to the extent that they are judged to be morally (read: religiously) wholesome.

One example: of all the first-world democracies, only three allow the death penalty (the US, Japan, South Korea), and the US executes far more of its citizens. For cultures where all human life is valued equally, the idea of capital punishment is anathema. It is our culture and our view of human worthiness that permits it.

Of course, this isn't new. For centuries, Americans have stood in judgment of each other, from the witch-burners to the slavers to Pat Robertson, who judged sinners in New Orleans and explained Katrina as God's retribution. We have long been a country of judgment, and we value lives accordingly.

It is therefore no surprise that Americans were willing to sacrifice Iraqi lives to punish Saddam Hussein. Going in, we acknowledged implicitly that we were willing to sacrifice innocent life to exact this punishment. That Iraqis would suffer under such a man was evidence of their poor bearing--after all, we passed a similar test when we stood up to the Brits. If some needed to be sacrificed for the greater cause, judgment allowed it.

More evidence: our relationship to social programs is pecularly American. Everything we offer, we offer conditionally. In other Western democracies, the idea of a safety net makes good policy sense. In America, it is filtered through a lens of judgment: are the people receiving the state's dollars worthy of them? The solution to the poor policy of welfare was to limit it to two years. This wasn't a policy solution so much as a judgment: if you can't get out of poverty in two years, we judge you unworthy of further help.

More: Our drug laws. They reflect moral judgment, not policies designed to protect or heal. We punish recreational marijuana users as severly as rapists, and for the truly addicted and addled, we offer punishment rather than rehab. Speaking of rehab, our criminal code is based on punishment, and quite explicitly so. We spend a huge amount of money exacting our cultural revenge, rather than trying to address the problem. The states where judgment is more stridently a part of culture (the South, parts of the West), the more punitive the laws. We could offer rehabilitation, but criminals have morally forfeited their right. Again, judgment.

(It works the other way, too. The only way Social Security legislation passed in the first place and the only way it remains popular is that it pays out to the wealthy. While from a policy position this makes no sense, culturally, it's a no-brainer. The rich, who have paid in all their lives, deserve it. That's not policy, that's culture.)

I'll conclude this wandering exploration with the full disclosure implicit throughout: I believe in the moral (and immoral) equality of humans. The act of judgment plays to our biases, our confusion, our bigotry and belittles us as a culture. When we approach human life through generosity, we don't necessarily produce perfect law (as welfare and other failures of the Great Society demonstrated), but we at least approach law with the spirit of justice. Forgetting that, we become lax with the meaning of death, which allows us to commit the blind violence of, for example, invading another country and killing innocents. America seems sick to me; we've forgotten the value of life and therefore the meaning of justice.


iggi said...

i'm disturbed by the culture of punishment and unforgiveness that we propagate. for example, when someone does prison time, when they get out, they are treated like a second-class citizen - no vote, no right to privacy, no chance in the workplace. often tracked and monitored or forced to announce their crimes to their neighbors.

i think it's an old Zen saying - "to forgive but not to forget is not to forgive"...or something along those lines. that we continue to punish someone long after they've supposedly gone through the punitive system definately says something disturbing about our national character. this is especially so for a nation that regards itself as "Christian" in character.

Jeff Alworth said...

when someone does prison time, when they get out, they are treated like a second-class citizen

Yeah, you're right on this one. It's more of that culture of judgment. Having committed a crime means being judged as something less than a full human. We continue to punish people, not to sound like a broken record, because we must make a judgment about them, not because it's good public policy.

I think this happens because of the nation's Christian protestant heritage. Particular strains of protestantism--notably Puritanism--held that a person's character was seen in their prosperity. Therefore, society's "losers" were seen to have been judged by God. This strain informed a lot of our early thought and seems to be a taproot to our national character.

zemeckis said...

nice post,

wondering what your use of 'justice' means there as your last word?