Friday, October 10, 2008

Things Can Be Useful, People Can Be Helpful, Users Are Not by Anthony McCarthy

The extraordinary financial crisis should be a time for sizing up ideas and getting rid of those that don’t work. Why that wasn’t done in previous crises is an important question. What’s the point of making mistakes if you don’t learn from them?

If the S&L crisis had been taken as a learning opportunity, it’s possible the present disaster wouldn’t have happened. But the materialistic religion of the unfettered market, with enormous backing by those who could use it to steal everything in sight. had powerful and most interested parties to keep the swindle going. Instead of looking under the shells and getting rid of those with nothing but deceptive intents, successively larger shells were put over those in order to elicit higher bets from those foolish enough to place them. What else are the “new instruments” but just these kinds of empty shells covering up a lack of any real value? That a few were smart enough to pull out of the game and take their winnings before being subject to the big kill is only a confirmation of the nature of the thing.

As many of those responsible for this mess work in the mass media, pulling the wool over the eyes of the marks was the full time job of the “free press” during the last forty years. They have been the croupiers and floor show of the great “free market” con job. The few who weren’t part of the theft, generally didn’t prosper in their profession during the past several decades.

Maybe, eventually, those ubiquitous faces and voices who have been calling it wrong all along, will disappear into the ignominious obscurity they’ve earned by deceiving The People. Though that hasn’t happened yet. They’re still the guests that the talk shows have on speed dial, most of the cards in the Rolodex, the ones who the hosts allow to talk over other, more realistic voices. William Greider, please, don’t get discouraged.

But it goes deeper than that.

I really did mean it the other day, that there was a basic difference between the way liberals and conservatives think. It comes down to either seeing people as either possessing equal, inherent rights or seeing them as unequal. In some the majority of people are seen as either being of some utility, to be exploited, or entirely unimportant and to be disregarded or even disposed of. It is a narrowed class of people who are seen as having rights important to the conservative, they either don’t believe or don’t care about all people being created equal.

There is a turn of phrase in the English language that has always bothered me but it wasn’t until this week that I understood why. The idea of someone being a “useful person”, people being “of use” of the duty of people to “make themselves useful”, never sat well with me. It is exactly the concept of a person having economic value, of having some utilitarian measure of worth based in their potential for being exploited. The extension, that there are people who are “useless”, and so, perhaps, their very existence is unimportant, is inescapable. The relationship of this to the idea of the “worthy” and the “unworthy” poor and destitute is very important too.

I think a democratic way of looking at it would be to completely drop the idea of human utility, of having one person being to some extent at the disposal of another person. The idea and the language should concentrate on whether or not someone is helpful, whether someone lends aid to others, of people rendering help to other people on the basis of their own choice.

There is a subtle but very real distinction to make between the two ways of seeing things. Being helpful is an act of volition on the part of a person who would be the one used by a superior in the analysis of usefulness. Just for a start, it overturns the dynamic of dominance by a “user”, to the free choice of the one lending their aid. It is a lot more in keeping with both seeing people as equals having rights and with a more friendly way of conducting human affairs. You choose to be helpful, you are compelled by circumstance or by the will of others to be useful. Help verses use.

And I think there is a component of helpfulness that acknowledges that people are fully worthy of and entitled to help in obtaining what is necessary. It affirms the equal right to the necessities of life. I think that a person who is helped, without the nasty burdens placed on the need by our use-oriented thinking, would make the aid a lot more appreciated as well as those who freely give it as an act of friendship.

There is almost certainly an aspect of gender role in this. I’ve got a really strong suspicion that it is generally seen as manly to use people, to compel them to do something for you and to find those of no use to you to be “useless”. Asking for help, relying on help freely given, is seen as unmanly if not “effeminate”. You have to be stronger than someone else to compel their being useful to you. Without inequality there is no ability to enforce use. Cooperation is certainly seen as unmanly as compared to setting up a competitive dominance structure.

It could stem from the deep insecurity of self-centered people and their fearful, violent preemptive assertion of will over others. If that’s true, you would probably be able to elicit an overblown reaction from attempts to subvert this dynamic, along with the kind of coercive assertion of conformity, that is the hallmark of macho insecurity. I’d imagine you could run experiments on some of our more macho blogs to test that idea.

There is also a class aspect to it too. Wealthier, more powerful, people use other people but they abhor the idea of needing help, those who need help are lesser human beings. That is what lies behind the repulsive, and, most tellingly and entirely “unChristian”, phrase “as cold as charity”*.

It seems like a small point but it seems like a helpful way to understand the differences between two widely divergent views of live.

* I once heard an Islamic woman say that in her branch of Islam that there was a duty to give charity but there was also an equal duty to accept charity. It seems like a really good idea to do that, in order to prevent the view of “charity” prevalent in conservative “christians”. How did people who claim to be followers of Jesus turn what he called the greatest virtue and most compelling human duty into a dirty word? Paul went farther than that, he said that without charity all the other virtues are nothing. The Jewish prophetic tradition, of which Jesus was a part, was largely concerned with the government, religious authorities and The People in general practicing charity.