Saturday, June 2, 2012

The World Can Get Along Without Any of Us

This is not a political blog piece, believe me. Well, not primarily so. I’ve chosen to use a political hook to get at the point I want to make, but it is the point that is my goal. So please give me a couple of paragraphs to set it up. If you disagree with my political position you know that America is a “free country” and you have the right to your own opinion.

I’m supporting Tom Barrett in the upcoming Wisconsin recall election. And I’m supporting Barack Obama in the fall presidential election. But I am under no illusion that they are the best persons for the jobs they seek. Undoubtedly there are people with more skills and perhaps more integrity than either of them. But I am supporting them because I’m convinced that the alternative that is being offered to each of them, Scott Walker and Mitt Romney, represent real and demonstrated dangers to our state and nation that Barrett and Obama appear not to represent.

It is with trepidation that I label anyone a “danger” to society; I know my own propensities and the danger they pose to those over whom I have power or influence. (It is with even greater trepidation that I declare someone not a danger to society.) But it is both foolish and irresponsible not to call a known danger a danger. Scott Walker’s “bomb dropping,” “divide and conquer,” “hidden agenda” approach to governance is nothing if it is not a danger to good government in Wisconsin. Mitt Romney’s Etch-a-Sketch campaign and political career shows him to be a hollow man with no defined or definable principals upon which the voters can judge him. If that is not a danger to our national wellbeing I don’t know what would be. Our state and our nation will, in my judgment, be better off if neither of those men succeed in their elections this year.

But these two men really stand in for all of us. The world can get along without them. In fact, in my opinion, the world will be a more dangerous place if they are allowed to determine the course of events by virtue of holding the high offices they seek.

But the world can get along without any of us. That is the point of this little essay. The good that any of us can, or may, do can be done by others. In fact it will often be done by others more thoroughly and more effectively than we can do it. I’m not arguing that we should cease to do what we consider good. It is the major purpose of our life to do good. But we should not fool ourselves by thinking that we are “doing good” better than others, or that the good we are doing is unmixed with harms. And it is the harm that we are prone to do that concerns me.

History is replete with examples of those whose good deeds were built upon a foundation of evil. In our own history the “robber barons” of the late 19th century, after destroying the fortunes of their competitors, the health of their employees, and setting up systems to exploit their customers, became, in their repentant latter years, philanthropists (lover’s of mankind). Our history books still tend to emphasize the “beneficial” effects of their lives, suggesting that the harms they brought to millions of people are “necessary collateral damage.” If those “geniuses of commerce and manufacturing” had put their vaunted minds to the task of creating the same products and systems without the collateral damage to their fellow human beings we might be living in a very different society today. But instead we have allowed their methods to define for us the appropriate path to success.

It is an unpleasant fact that all of us are capable of doing great evil. All of us! Great evil! But we are stuck here, given a life to live in company with others equally capable of doing both good and evil. Our tendency is to compliment ourselves on the good that we believe we are accomplishing and ignore (or excuse) the evil we do. Perhaps we would do well to become experts in harm aversion; searching our own hearts and actions to determine when we are doing more harm than good; choosing to invest our time and our lives in those areas where we are least likely to be a danger. (Would Scott Walker, who touts his Eagle Scout status, do better working a 9 – 5 job and being a scout troupe leader in his spare time? Could Mitt Romney’s vaunted financial acumen be used to rescue struggling businesses without destroying them and impoverishing their workers and stock-holders?)

I’m not running for either Governor of Wisconsin or President of the United States. For a variety of reasons which those who know me could easily enumerate, my election to either of those offices would be a danger to our state and our nation. The world can get along without me in either of those positions.

Unfortunately, those who pose a danger to our society seldom sense that they do. They are doing what our flawed humanity has done for as long as records of human behavior exist; they seek their own best interest regardless of the danger their ambition poses to their community, family, or even their own future. It is rare that those who present a danger to society (drunk drivers, burglars, tyrants, unscrupulous business leaders, financiers, politicians, bullies, molesters, etc) reign in their harmful tendencies without the “aid” of laws and law enforcement.

Elections are an opportunity for ambitious people to seek offices for which they are ill-qualified and from which, if elected, they will do much harm. Elections are also an opportunity for those who stand to be harmed by ambitious people to say, “No,” to their ambitions and thus attempt to avert the damage they may cause. Food for thought.

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