Last week I hosted a show about the housing crisis on my local community radio station. Like a lot of the country, we have a chronic housing shortage, especially affordable housing, and as a result, thousands of people sleep outside, or in their cars, on these cold, rainy winter nights. After the show, a woman approached me to make a comment. She told me that the people she sees on the street don’t seem very friendly to her. She noticed that the people who carry big backpacks and appear to be living outside, mostly talk to, and associate with, each other. They don’t make much of an effort to engage with the rest of society. She seemed to think that they owe us more of an effort.
I told her that I didn’t think poor people owed her anything. By the time you’ve made someone sleep outside in the rain, put up fences and bars everywhere, and paid cops to roust them from every dry, sheltered place they can find, you’ve pretty much blown your chances for friendship, and you should not be surprised to find them in a bad mood. Everyone seems eager to offer helpful criticism to poor people as to what they could improve about themselves to better deserve our compassion, but I have to ask, and I wish I had asked: What about mainstream society deserves respect? Why should poor people voluntarily participate in a system designed to oppress them? More importantly, why do any of us participate in a system that excludes so many people and denies them even the most basic of their human needs?
Once upon a time, we would say that our society deserved respect because we followed God’s word and we endeavored to obey God’s command, so only God could judge us, but to disrespect our society was to disrespect God himself. A whole lot of people still believe that, by the way. There’s really no point in talking to those people. Rational arguments only go so far with them, and I respect that. Belief is a powerful thing. A shared belief brings stability and cohesiveness to a group, even if those beliefs destabilize the climate, disintegrate the ecosystem, and contradict compelling evidence to the contrary.
These days, the rest of us mostly fancy ourselves rational, intelligent creatures capable understanding the world around us, and of making wise decisions for ourselves and the common good. This is every bit as stupid and crazy as believing in God’s word, but it is also just as important to our identity as Jesus is to Christians’. What’s more, this idea is foundational to the concept of democracy, which has become our new religion.
The News has replaced Mass, and elections have replaced The Holy Communion, but it’s essentially the same mass stupidity. Still, you can talk to these people, because they believe deep in their heart that they can solve any problem with rational thinking and creativity, even if they have no real experience at doing either.
If you believe in the supremacy of human intelligence, and your own ability to think something through, this is one of those things that maybe you ought to take the time to think all the way through: What about our society deserves your respect? And more tangibly: What about our society merits your participation? Think about that for a moment.
Off hand, I can think of a lot of reasons to be ashamed of our society. We should be ashamed of global climate change, and what it means for future generations. We should be ashamed that we have exterminated half of the world’s biodiversity in the last 40 years, and that we squeeze more than a hundred species of plant and animal out of existence and into extinction every day. We should be ashamed that today, having practically exhausted the Earth’s resources, all we have to show for it is a few billionaires, a host of toxic gadgets designed to exploit our every thought, and poverty, poverty everywhere.
Historically, we should be ashamed of genocide. We should be ashamed of slavery. We should be ashamed of internments, witch hunts, lynchings, black lists, prohibitions, Jim Crow etc. We should be ashamed of US foreign policy. That’s just off the top of my head, but it’s already a pretty serious list. I could go on.
I’m not trying to make you feel bad, I’m just pointing out that we sacrifice a lot, and we excuse an awful lot of really bad behavior, in order to participate in this society. If we could each choose whether or not to participate in modern society based entirely on principle, I’m sure that a lot of people would find our society too distasteful.
Unfortunately, most of us choose to participate in this modern society out of economic pressure, not principle. You work hard and pay taxes, not because of your burning desire to glorify the proud fatherland, but because you are hungry, and because you want to have a roof over your head. We participate in this society largely because of economic coercion, but we tell ourselves that somehow we are in control, and can fix it all with an election, because we are intelligent, rational people capable of understanding the world and making good decisions. That’s the mythology of a democratic society.
In reality, we mindlessly help the likes of Bill Gates, Elan Musk and Donald Trump mine whatever is left of the Earth’s natural abundance to further their plans to re-engineer the world, escape from the consequences of that re-engineering and put their name in gold letters across whatever is left of it, respectively. Not only that, we step over the broken bodies and spirits of our brothers and sisters to do it. Honestly, there’s nothing sane, rational or respectable about any of it. That’s the real crisis today. There is nothing respectable about modern society. It’s a crime, a disaster, and a failure all rolled into one.
Today, we see democracy for the fraud that it is, a thin veneer of populism over a machine built with violence and coercion, for the purpose of violence and coercion. We have plenty to be ashamed of, as a society, and our complete failure to meet the critical challenges of our time, only adds to that legacy of shame.
We no longer believe in God, but now democracy has failed us too. Our gods have died. Only crazy people worship dead gods, but worship them we do, because we have no idea what else to do. What’s more, we still expect the people we sacrificed to these gods to worship them too. And you thought the homeless were mentally ill.