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The Common Wisdom


Here’s something to take into the voting booth.

Even though life is complicated and the complexity is compounded by the acceleration of information being fed to us every day…we already know what to do. No one needs to tell us how to live or how to vote or what decisions to make.

If you are a governor of a state and you are married with children, it is possible that you might somehow fall out of love with your wife and fall in love with someone else. That can cause an irrational reaction. But you know what is right.

If you are an athlete away from home, with many people asking for your attention, and many of them being attractive young women, you may be tired and tempted to do something you shouldn’t. Whatever you do, you know what you should do.

If you have been working hard your whole life to be a good politician and you want your government to be lean and kind and strong and austere and world-leading and modest…you may need money to keep going, to pursue what you feel is the most important thing in your life…your vision of what America should be. And if you are offered money for your vote…you know what is the right thing and the wrong thing to do.

In all these cases, we know what is right, don’t we? None of us are immune from mistakes. But we all know when something is a mistake. It is in our DNA.

You don’t have to believe in God or Allah or Buddha to know deep inside that all human beings should have concern for their fellow man. We don’t deliberately run people over with our automobiles even in situations where we could get away with it and where we might just be in the mood to do so. Normal human beings do not go around shooting people for no good reason. They may do so to animals, which is also wrong, but they recoil automatically at the idea of simply killing another individual. When we see other humans our instinct is to smile, not frown.

We all have an intrinsic mechanism that tells us what is right and what is wrong at the basic level. That instinct changes as we grow and as outside influences modify our behavior. But we never lose our internal understanding of right and wrong.

Our natural instinct is to help others. We feel an emotion of regret if we truly believe the person is in need and if we could help but do not. One of the basic plots of fiction is the comeback of the underdog. That is because we all have faith in humanity, that human beings, others like us, have such wonderful, even splendid, potential. Our instinct is to reach out to those other human beings.

In this election year, in an era of great need in this country, you may not be able to help every person out there, even though you may have the instinct to try to do so.

If you do not have that instinct, if you do not have that tug on your emotions so that you do not feel regret at not being able to help, then you have lost an important part of your humanity. In other words, you have been somehow co-opted by philosophical forces in society that tell you that your compassion for your fellow man in trouble is either unnecessary, foolish, a waste of time or contrary to your own best interests. There are those among us who have been made to believe that our own interests are paramount. In fact, some Americans believe that this should be their entire motivation…their own personal satisfaction and gratification.

That, however, is not the natural order of things. So, some justify to themselves that they may overlook the suffering of others, they give money or goods to a charitable organization. Obviously, this is a good thing, whatever the motivation. But then they would say that government is not the proper place for charity.

But they are wrong. And here is why. While charitable donations are commendable, charity is not a certainty. Charity is a random response to a societal problem. Government is a permanent fix to a societal problem. Yes, it may go too far and spend more than is necessary. And that must be fixed. But government says who you are.

You elect people to act on your behalf. If you say: go to war, then government (you) goes to war. If you say that the elderly should have at least a minimal existence and an opportunity to receive health care while at the same time being able to live in one place, not on a street corner or in a cardboard box, then you elect officials who will get that done. You vote. You are what you vote for. Government, ultimately, is you.

Let’s assume for a minute, for the sake of argument, that there is no God or Gods. If that were the case, and yet we can see that we still have religion, it would mean that Man created God for his own purposes. Maybe it was to allay his fears in a time when there was only the enormous power of nature and many very large predatory animals. Or maybe it came later, to bring order out of chaos.

If there were no God to reveal truth, then Man in each area of the world actually created religion based on his conscience. In other words, the invention of religion by those who felt that they were inspired by a higher being was done in each society to respond to our best instincts. The laws and prohibitions were determined by those who were inspired to set down rules based on what was the “good” for society. To give them authority, the rule makers said, and perhaps believed, that they came from a higher authority…God.

But the simple fact is that we know, independently, don’t we, what is right when it comes to our fellow man? If we were hungry we would want our fellow man to offer sustenance. If we were homeless, we would not be too surprised at the kindness of those who could find some space for us to inhabit. If we had no job, no money, no family…we look, not to animals nor trees nor rocks…but to those on the planet most like ourselves…our fellow man. We know we should not kill. We know that we should not take what is not ours. We know that lies only confuse the conduct of society and hide reality. The rules are simple and flow naturally to facilitate social interaction.

We can make all kinds of intellectual constructions that rationalize our attitudes about our fellow man. Their faults. Our good qualities. But it comes down to the one thought that should guide us. Turning Milton’s phrase on its head, we could call it: “Man’s humanity towards man.” In other words, what is one man’s obligation to his fellow man and what is that other person’s obligation to you? Is it kindness–generosity of spirit? Is it merely acknowledgement? Or is it at root a competitive, animal instinct? Are we better than other animals?

If we are the ones who invented religion then religion comes from our best hopes and most frequent impulses for good and for a perfect world. All religions have these same similarities…seeking the good (God) as we know it. In every single case, our religions…our own impulses…what we are telling ourselves…is that we should treat our fellow man with respect and kindness and justice and dignity.

It is what we all want…all religions are the same in that respect. We are all human. We have similar bodies, with almost perfectly similar genes. We are all capable of the same reasoning process. So why should we not all get along, as Rodney King so famously said?

Society changes us. Men gathered together can always find a way to override each man’s individual instinct for goodness. Mobs make mischief. Only a mass of people, caught in emotion and in the unbelievable stupidity of persecution would have participated in the torture and burning of human beings in the Inquisition while at the same time condemning the cannibalism of savages in South America.

If we are condemned to lives that are “…solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” as Hobbes has said, then we have only two choices. We can become brutish or we can change society. The history of Western culture is that over the centuries we have changed society into a place where humanity…concern for one’s fellow man…predominates. Any other philosophy is regression.

So when you go into the polling booth, ask yourself this one question: which candidate will most clearly help his or her fellow man to have a decent life, with respect, with kindness, with justice and with dignity.

Don’t single out a group…black or white, Catholic, Jew or Muslim. Don’t single out an economic level…the poor or the billionaire. Don’t single out those who agree with you…Republicans, Democrats or Tea Party members. Think of yourself. Ask yourself which person will create a society that is best for you, for your children, and for not just your immediate family but your extended family…your fellow human beings.

You must ask yourself which of the people you choose will do the things that are necessary to help the greatest number of people in our society. We have a society in trouble. Before anything else–God, or even the God of our invention would say–we must help those in greatest need. And then we must bring society to the point where we can all have a good life, with each growing to the maximum capacity of his or her personality and effort.

There is a point “…beyond which…” There is a point beyond which we cannot spend all the money we can make, use all the possessions we can afford, find countries we have not visited, wear more clothes or drive more cars or or live in more houses than we can afford. Where do you go then to find happiness? Strangely enough, again and again, the richest men in the world have said that their greatest satisfaction has come…not from making money….but from giving it away.

And that’s fine, but not necessary. We only need people who will not loot our country, allow greedy merchants or greedy bankers to run wild. We need leaders who would not take us into wars and kill people where we would never go, as Americans, to kill but only to help. Given our nature, our goal is always, has always been and should always be, whether in Haiti or Hawaii, Pakistan or Pittsburgh, Baghdad or Baltimore to find the needs, to help, to clean up, to bring in doctors, to repair the roads, to endow the clinics…in other words, do all the things that we do here in America when we see a problem.

So why should we elect leaders who do things that make others hate us? Oil is not a justification for mass murder and intrusion into another country whether we call it thuggism or war. It makes no sense to free thousands of citizens by killing hundreds of thousands of others and destroying the entire social fabric of a country. If terrorists want to kill us because they lie about our being evil, then we should prove them wrong by not being evil. And we should come home from lands where do not want us and misunderstand why our Armies are killing their people.

Which will you vote for…someone who is generous of spirit, or one who condemns too quickly? Will you vote for one who enters wars reluctantly and exits as soon as possible…or someone who supports war, the greatest tragedy that can befall a nation? Will you vote for someone who wants to create opportunities for others, or one who wants to create wealth for a few? Will you vote for someone who will help others overcome their weaknesses or someone who will merely point out others’ weaknesses?

One situation is so unusual in one political contest that it must be pointed out. One candidate, who spent $150,000,000 to be elected in order to cut government spending, a person in a Party that not only caused the deficit to that state but also the national calamity, has said that she would like to return to the era when she was happiest, 30 years ago when she came to that state.

If she had merely invested that $150,000,000 in what she is supposed to know best, private high-technology business, she could have created thousands of jobs, tens of thousands more likely. She would have incurred enormous good will, helped bring back the kind of society that she says was so appealing and perhaps won the election with good will and very little expenditure. Ironically, that former government of 30 years ago had been run by the man who is now her opponent. And this is a man, who at that time, lived an austere life and had no money, having only recently left the priesthood for a secular career. Life is strange and unpredictable.

Forget the polls. Forget the television commercials. Forget the propaganda of the pundits. Find the person who will always speak to the public and has nothing to hide. Find the person who does not condemn but who offers hope and decries hate. Look beyond the rhetoric to the person.

And if you don’t know the person, then find the group that does the most good for the greatest number, the one that proposes to make society out of your best impulses toward your fellow man. Look away from the one who attacks the other. Look away from those who take money from those dark forces that will not let their names be known, but who revile others while they remain in the shadows, hiding their motives.

That is what God would want. And even if there were no God, it is still the same because then “God” is merely the expression of the collective good in all of us.

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