Touching Evil

Douglas A. Blackmon is making the rounds with his book Slavery by Any Other Name and if one takes the time to hear him, one will undoubtedly have much to ponder. What stirred me after I heard him talk was not so much the suffering of African Americans in post Civil War United States because I’ve read many books about that subject–though I must admit it is not the kind of suffering one can easily dismiss– what gnawed at me as it has so many times before was how could someone inflict such harm, willfully, deliberately, repeatedly? How can one flaunt the absence of decency, morals, ethics, principles? How can one use, exploit, beat, imprison, mistreat, flog, deceive, torture another and do it, not in whatever small measure the people around us may sometimes do, but on such a large scale. How could one own another? I read this morning about sugar cane workers in Brazil who work up to 12 hours a day in the back breaking cutting down of sugar canes 6 or 7 days a week. I could not do that to another human being. The people I am close to could not either. And yet, history is filled with people who committed atrocities, from the Inquisition to the Holocaust to mention but two. And what of people who sexually molest young children?
Are we all capable of malevolence? Studies say most of us are. What is it in us that makes us so blind to others, to their suffering, to the consequences of inflicting pain? New research shows that during WW II ordinary Germans helped the Nazis and engaged in committing horrors.
We tend to focus on the results of perpetrators’ actions and on the suffering they cause perhaps at the expense of not sufficiently focusing on those who are responsible, the perpetrators themselves. We can be very judgmental about those who commit ordinary crimes, pass laws that are punitive and unforgiving. Yet so much of these horrors are not committed by criminals but by people much like you and me. Could we not learn to recognize them, to figure out what it is about them that lies behind their odious acts? Such closeness would be unsavory, like really touching evil. But I wonder if touching evil isn’t in order not only to better understand what makes human so depraved, but also help us to stem the smallness impulse from within us, and make it that much harder to engage in the worst of human behavior?

The Pain of Others

As soon as I heard the words, “I’m Jackie’s son” I knew something was wrong. Steven called to tell me his mother, my friend of over 30 years, had died. I knew she had a bad heart. A couple of years ago the doctor had told her she’d have two to five more years. Still I didn’t expect it, and since I so loved and respected my friend Jackie, as Steven spoke, I cried. I wish I could have stopped the tears but I couldn’t. I wish I could have said the right words to comfort Steven, but I was too busy dealing with my grief.
A little while later I called my old and very dear friend Susan to get news of her husband’s back surgery. The spine had been nicked, she said, and they were waiting to see whether the oozing spinal fluid would seal itself or require additional surgery. The news took me aback. It was to have been a simple enough procedure. I ought to have comforted her, I should have known the words, but my own pain was too much in the foreground.
Feeling pain for the difficulties of others is supposed to make us compassionate. And usually it does, but there are times when our own pain puts the focus on us, not them. Then we are whether we want to call it that or not, at least a bit selfish. Had I not been so preoccupied with my own feelings, had they not acted as a barrier between me and true compassion, finding the right words, comforting Steven and Susan would have readily come to mind.
I know better and more often than not practice it. While I can find excuses for myself, even reasons, this time I didn’t. For now, the regret of indulging my personal feelings over those who were in pain remains. Hopefully it will guide me to better recognize the signs so that next time I can put such feelings aside and focus on whoever needs my compassion.

Charging By The Byte–Consequences?

The three main Internet providers are thinking 0f a new way to increase fees for access: charging by the byte. Comcast, Time Warner and AT&T are saying that charging more will ensure access for everyone. The three giants agree that the way it stands now some people are using the web only for email and little else, while others use it to watch TV as in those who watch the many programs available on, and hog up the Internet. As the digital delivery of entertainment grows, along with such things as multi players video games and talk over video conference with family and friends, the bandwidths are soaked up. The three providers’ case goes on to say that in order to protect the Internet for everyone, curbing the traffic for some is needed. The industry maintains it is an old idea going back to the days of dial up.
It is of course to be expected that corporations with the clout of these three would be in a position to make a good case for themselves. They do have the resources to use the best marketing has to offer, to subtly and not so subtly sway people over to their side. It’s therefore up to us to think it through and see for ourselves how much weight their case carries.
The primary focus of these large corporations is profit. Their task is to increase revenue, and to make a case for extra revenue is a legitimate source of revenue enhancement. That is what corporations are supposed to do. But what about the consumers? What about us the users? The average person has a bill for cable, for phone–cell and\or land-line– for an Internet service provider, along with bills for other modern necessities. At a time when fuel costs are likely to stay high, when food prices are not likely to come down and when housing costs are an increasing percentage of one’s income, even thinking of adding to a consumer’s equivalent of fixed cost seems unfair. But more important, it may be unpractical. At some point there will be the drop that makes the bucket overflows, some increase, some cost, will hit critical mass, and increases will no longer be profitable. We’re seeing it with the number of defections on home loans driving home values down. As current trends continue, many consumers will more than likely find themselves in a position of having to choose between necessities. Profit (or is it its cousin, greed?) has a way of blinding people to reality. If, (or is it as) this happens to the three biggest providers, it’s only a matter of time before the cost of Internet access goes up.

Democracy: More Than a Word

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, sometimes so can a statistic–in this case three, which were published on the front page of USA today a few days ago (in an article unrelated to democracy).

  • The U.S. voting age population consists of 206 million
  • There are 173 million registered voters
  • In 2004, 122 million cast their votes

When I compare these numbers to the much touted 35 million votes cast for both Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton, I am no longer as impressed. Maybe a lot of new voters have indeed been added, but oh there’s a long way to go. While this long way applies to the presidential candidates’ individual campaigns, I believe it applies even more to democracy. We like to use the word, but perhaps we’re so busy using it, we forget how to practice it.
If there are 173 million registered voters and 206 million people of voting age, that means 33 million people are not registered–almost as many as those who voted for the two main Democratic party candidates.
If 122 million cast their vote in 2004, and there are 206 million of voting age, even if adjusting for population growth one were to say in 2004 there were 200 million people who could have voted, that means 78 million did not either vote or register.
One can go on and play with these numbers, but the bottom line would be the same: How democratic are we when a large percentage of our eligible voters do not participate in the system.
These are numbers that ought to give humility to presidential candidates. The percentage of the voting age population, and even more that of the population as a whole, who is supporting a given candidate is such a fraction of the whole. Let’s hope this inspires both to send a compelling message urging people to participate, or be resigned to accept a victory that is hollow and superficial, representing but a sliver of the real majority the word democracy would imply.
Of course we can’t put it all on the back of the candidates, we need to bear some of the responsibility. We need to do our part, be informed voters and vote. And if this seems too much–for it often is in a system so dominated by politics–then we must be willing to make whatever little sacrifice in order to ensure that democracy is more than a word.