Masks and Trash Pickers

Nextdoor for those of you who may not know is a web service organized by neighborhoods where one can ask for recommendation about plumbers or painters or post questions and grievances. A few days ago a woman posted that she came home to find 2 men rummaging through her trash, and what upset her was that they wore no masks. Somehow the post took flight. A man with a Hispanic surname (thus debunking many stereotypes one may have about Hispanics) said that trash picking was illegal, they were stealing from the county who would otherwise benefit from the sale of the recyclables. Someone else agreed. Then someone said the trash pickers were like environmentalists recycling what we threw away.  Someone then posted it’s like the French revolution, Marie Antoinette wanted them hungry people to eat cake because they were hungry and had no bread; he explained, these are hard times, people are scrounging to survive. Someone then replied how she felt for those people. The person with the original post said I just wanted them to wear masks, so someone said, then maybe leave some masks out for them. Then a new person wrote they were criminals and another answered if it is illegal, do you want these people prosecuted? Is that how you want your tax dollars spent? It’s a very small fraction of the crimes occurring, that would be a misuse of scarce public resources, that person added. And many agreed.

Rare is the neighborhood who doesn’t have people rummage through the trash bins for recyclables, things they can reuse, or maybe resale somehow. I remember a documentary about a couple who rose at 4am to rummage through the trash, and that is how they made their living. What a hard job it is, what an unpleasant one, thus my respect for people who rummage through our trash. Yes, they usually don’t wear masks, they leave the bin’s lid open, they can have loud music, but they are to me a part of modern life, a benign one at that. What was striking to me about the Nextdoor postings, was how divided the exchanges were, how many people were willing to condemn the practice, and how many reacted with no compassion. But If I had to put a percentage to that portion, it would be 40%. The rest reacted and defended the original offenders. It all left me asking, does the incident represent the state of the nation these days, condemning people trying to survive and showing no compassion, versus those who strove to understand? And if it does, then compassion won! There’s hope. Let’s take heart!

Can Evil Be Defended?

If one considers slavery evil, as I do, then can such evil be defended? It can be chronicled, described, documented, explained, talked about, criticized, shunned, reviled, ostracized but not defended. At least not if one believes in making a better world, lessening suffering, in decency, morality, compassion, ethical behavior, harmlessness, social responsibility, justice, human dignity or even love. Yet directly or indirectly it seems that is what Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark, is endeavoring to do. In a recent interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, he is calling slavery a necessary evil and  linking that characterization to the greatness of the US, a country founded he reminds us on the proposition that all mankind is created equal. He has introduced a bill, Saving American History Act of 2020 that would prohibit the use of federal funds to teach the 1619 Project in K-12 schools or school districts. The  Pulitzer prize winning 1619 Project was undertaken under the aegis of the NYT and traced the consequences of slavery to today’s problems thus documenting the long arms of the evils it represented and unleashed. In an age of the Black Lives Matters movement and protests, this is not a proposal that can be ignored. Mr. Cotton was duly elected and has a following which make him a possible presidential candidate in 2024. I am not in the habit of writing about politics and I admit that I may be overly direct in stating Mr. Cotton’s argument. But this is not about politics, it is about how to move forward, how to recognize evil including the evil of slavery, address it and repair the harm it has caused. Defending slavery does not fit into a race-relations agenda that as far as I understand is necessary to save the future of the United States.

Compassion, Harmlessness and Mary Trump

Compassion is not only a basis for Buddhism it is also one for Christianity since love without compassion would hardly be love. It thus unifies Eastern and Western traditions and is a trait without which our humanity would be in question. Like so many I endeavor to deepen my understanding of compassion and look for its manifestations as some sort of assurance that humanity is moving forward. It is with keen interest that I watched Mary Trump’s ’TV appearances and read the interviews she gave. She was poised and her manner did not fall prey to wanton criticisms, her view evolved from facts and the inward search those facts seem to me to have elicited within her. Her honesty underlined how articulate she was and her perception though unstinting was not without cause. While some may call it cold and unsparing, I would call it compassionate. Why? Because as best as I can see she wasn’t interested in criticizing but understanding, and her efforts led her to see her uncle, our president, in relation to the context that gave rise to his behavior. She came to the conclusion that that behavior and way of being and living was dangerous, and when asked if she had compassion for him, she said she used to but does not now. Should compassion extend to actions and behavior we deem dangerous, or in my own cosmology, harmful? I would say no.  In the Mary Trump instance a chief reason is that the danger her uncle poses represents a conclusion of her analysis and pondering. She did not decide he was dangerous and then tried to prove it. That conclusion does not undo the underlying compassion that got her there, the need to understand, to sort out, to make sense, to not judge without cause. When things or people are harmful, compassion has a totally different role, and Mary Trump indirectly perhaps helps us better see that role .I, for example, do not feel compassion for Nazis or slave owners because some actions go beyond the reach of compassion. Despite some exceptions, as adults slave owners and Nazis chose to be cruel refusing awareness of the harm they were causing, just as to the best of my understanding this president is choosing harmful policies without caring about the suffering they lead to.

Colonial Art Thefts

Racism is not only a problem in the US, the restitution of art to former colonies in Africa reminds us it’s been widespread for centuries.  African art and treasures have ended up in European museums for many to visit and enjoy, but the problem is how they got there, through armed pillage, military expeditions, missionary collections or taken without sufficient compensation. Colonial powers had not much respect for the indigenous traditions and cultures they encountered, nevertheless they managed to realize the importance and unique beauty of the art, art which we now know inspired artists such as Picasso and Matissse.  Unlike Western art African art is part and parcel of the culture and of everyday life, masks were not ornamental, for example, but part of important ritual practices. In November 2018 France’s President asked for a report on the restitution of African Art, but since there has been no movement to follow through on the recommendations or to return the art. Both France and the UK, the two major colonial powers in the continent have done little to address the resistance returning these pieces has engendered. It’s a legal issue, a political and cultural one, but it’s also a moral and an ethical one. Part of the problem is that often museums themselves fear that restitution would deplete their collection, which considering they only exhibit a portion of it at a time may not be valid.  Another contributing factor is that African nations do not always have the necessary museums, which they are trying to remedy. Unchanged racist attitudes have made the debate contentious, nevertheless African Art pieces not properly acquired need to be returned.