Monday, June 21, 2010

Where Was I?

Modern day Goldilocks
eats, drinks, sleeps in bed,
is arrested for burglary.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, talking about the disappearance of the concept of doing the “right” thing. I conceive of leaders, especially elected leaders, trying to do the right thing for their constituents. That is, when the group is confronted with a problem the leaders sit down together and try to figure out what is the right thing to do. This no longer happens in our government. The right thing to do is totally irrelevant. There is no attempt to do the right thing. In our current government the goal is not to do right, but to do what is feasible. For example, during the great health care debate no attempt at all was made to do the right thing, but, rather, to pass what was considered feasible. Given the nature of our current system the best that can be expected is to pass some kind of compromise. Thus what might be right is not even considered, it is a concept nowadays completely foreign to our legislative process. Now you may argue, as many do, that the process of government is to arrive at compromises, decisions that provide the best outcome for all concerned. While that may be satisfactory, it has nothing to do with what might be conceived of as the right outcome.

Being a cultural anthropologist, or perhaps an ex-cultural anthropologist, I am well aware of the unsettling and often useless idea of cultural relativity. Yes, it is true that values are relative to the cultural context in which they are found. Infanticide and senilicide are acceptable in some cultures as a matter of necessity. Even cannibalism can be seen as understandable in some contexts, as can such rather bizarre customs as circumcision, subincision, cliterodectomy, suttee, and so on. But even extreme cultural relativists inevitably encounter practices that seem to demand the idea of absolute value. The original proponents of cultural relativity, Melville Herskovits and Ruth Benedict, had to draw the line at Nazi Germany. And we here in the U.S. profess to believe in absolute values: killing is wrong, torture is wrong, child abuse and adultery are wrong, and so on. In practice, however, we do not seem to hold to these values very well, some perhaps better than others. Our claim that killing is wrong is obviously absurd given the frequency and willingness we have to make war. Adultery is far more common than we are willing to admit. We probably come closer to enforcing prohibitions on child abuse, but even child abuse in the U.S. is not uncommon. These are supposed to be basic values, those that we commonly profess to hold. Yet I find it curious that we are much more likely to observe cultural proscriptions about eating cats, dogs, and horses, than we are to observe these supposedly more basic and important values.

Even murder, the most heinous of crimes, is negotiable here in the U.S.: who was killed, who was the killer, was it premeditated or a crime of passion, were there extenuating circumstances, insanity perhaps, was there a history of animosity, was hate involved, what was the relationship between victim and perpetrator, was it first, second, or third degree, was it justifiable homicide, and on and on and on. Some people who believe killing is wrong believe it is wrong in all circumstances, it doesn’t have to be negotiated. War crimes are said to be wrong, illegal, unconstitutional, immoral. But we have war criminals walking around free and boasting about their crimes. It is regarded as unfeasible to do anything about it. Even massive crimes like the BP oil spill will take years of litigation before it is settled, if, indeed, it ever will be settled. In China the officers of BP might well have been executed already, in Japan they might well have committed suicide. Here they go yacht racing, comfortable in the knowledge that their legions of lawyers will keep them free most likely until they die natural deaths. To say, as some do, there is no justice, is to say basically, there is no “right.” Our most basic value seems to be the belief in endless litigation.

The partisan, when he is engaged in a dispute, cares nothing about the rights of the question, but is anxious only to convince his hearers of his own assertions.

Aardvark cubs are weaned by 16 weeks.

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