The last New York Times Book Review, the one with the review of the book about the holocaust on the front page, had an account of cruelty that I have not been able to get out of my mind. I won’t pass it on to you by giving details, but it was about a Jewish woman found in the process of giving birth -- neither mother nor infant survived. We have been asked to ponder torture in the aftermath of Abu Graib and the disclosure that US officials routinely keep adversaries in foreign countries in order to evade US laws that would make torture illegal. Bill Schultz, former UUA president ( who famously said when campaigning for the UUA head, “after this I only want to humbly serve a congregation” but who subsequently became the head of Amnesty International with a fabulous salary and an elegant penthouse condo) gave a speech at the UUA General Assembly this year that contained some very good tips for someone wanting to torture people. (No, not the fact that Lauren Bacall ran into him at a cocktail party and called him “a little man” which he is not, at least in terms of physical dimensions.) There were no insights into how to stop torture.
The African amputations horrified many so much that they no longer read the news. Suffering is advanced in political agendas of many kinds, each expressed in terms of individuals and stories, each more shocking than the next, often mixing sexual humiliation and abuse with common beatings and starvation, even in American cities. Native Americans have their holocaust stories. So do blacks and elders and out-groups of many kinds. The goal of the rhetoric in many cases is simply money: “I suffer, therefore you owe me!” “These babies suffer -- so you must allocate money for them.” And so on. We know, of course, that much of the money goes to the administration of whatever entity is pushing the agenda, not to the sufferers.
Humane societies are not immune from this strategy. One of the most productive abused animal ad campaigns showed a puppy bound and muzzled with a tin can over its nose because it was going to be eaten. The photo was from the Phillipines or Africa or some other place short of protein sources. Puppy eating is not that common in this country.
Should such images, plus stories of torture and suffering, be kept out of the media? We did that for a long time. We’ve always kept the suffering of the enemy out of our depictions of war and made the sufferings of our own people seem like heroism. Otherwise, any war becomes as unbearable as the Iraqi situation is becoming now.
But the ordinary miseries of our citizenship ought to be worth something, too, and the media often plays up stories of foster children starved, sub-teen girls forced into marriage, people living in “cardboard condos.” These are the things we agree to tax ourselves to eliminate so as to have justice and equity for all. But the money seems to evaporate.
It seems to me that we’re feeding on terrible images at the same time that we’re more callous. Maybe we’re splitting between those who face horrors and those who deny them so they can go on with their lives without having to think about it -- or give up any of their money. It seems to me that the real and best use of suffering is the deepening of human grief and empathy -- to look and forgive without turning way, even if it is necessary to weep. I despise “teddy bear” kindness that is willing to put a $10 stuffed toy on a tree for a child beaten to death but not give $10 to intervention. On the other hand, a tree full of teddy bears can be a powerful symbol if it is spontaneous and sincere.
This last week there were four school shooting incidents in the US. Some were students and some were deranged adults. The consensus is building that there is something wrong with our culture. There is admiration for the Amish girls, raised in a culture of simplicity and compassion with faith so strong that they were not afraid of death. The older girls asked the killer to shoot them first, hoping that this would create enough time for an intervention to save the younger girls, in complete faith that such an intervention would come. The killer is claimed to have been motivated by the death of an infant daughter buried with a pink heart-shaped headstone, whom he obsessively mourned.
Many of us are ready for a cultural shift that will take us closer to the Amish without having to revert to horse-and-buggy lives. Is this possible? Why not? What’s preventing us from even developing a national political consensus about basics -- unless you count the coalition of international corporate forces that have melded the Republicans and the Democrats into nearly identical “alternatives”?
Or isn’t our task to develop some other driving force as powerful as the craving for money? In other times we have clung to the notions of Heaven and Hell to enforce better behavior, but such ideas will not grip the educated in a world of cosmic forces, origins in an explosion, climate change, species extinctions, an uncertain future. It’s easy to say “love,” “beauty,” “harmony” “justice” and so on.
But give me three examples as good as those three little Amish girls. Tell us what the good stuff looks like. We may be a world caught in labor. Do not prevent this birth.