Taking Sides

June 2004


Discussion about different viewpoints on what it means to be human in the modern world.

There are two competing views of mankind. One says that people are essentially bad, selfish, opportunistic and typically too stupid to survive unless they're told what to do most of the time. The other says that people are essentially good, often selfless, caring and have the right to self-determination that should not be infringed upon.

The latter view is the liberal philosophy characterizing our democratic republic, and the former view is why our government very frequently forgets that its role is to operate with the informed consent of the governed.

As with most philosophical dichotomies, the truth probably falls somewhere between the two extremes. People have the capacity for great goodness or great evil. It is generally true that people who have more fully realized their personal potential for evil tend to subscribe to the theory that everyone else is similarly evil. Whereas, those who are basically good think the best of people and give even strangers the benefit of the doubt. There are notable exceptions, like H.L. Mencken and Mark Twain, who were very pessimistic about humans in general, but nevertheless led lives of service to others.

In our commercial culture, we are frequently urged to avoid becoming victims at any price. But rarely are we warned against making victims. We take great pains to avoid being stolen from, but take little care not to be thieves ourselves. The emphasis is not to avoid doing wrong, but to avoid being caught. But doing wrong is just as harmful as being wronged. When we want something enough, we start making ourselves selectively stupid so we can have what we want without guilt. We make ourselves less able to understand things and less willing to try.

We've become a nation of manipulators. Instead of being straightforward, we work by stealth. We hold people at arm's length and then wonder why we feel lonely. We've learned to fear every inflection of action and we're depressed when we realize we've been running scared. Even the people who work to end bigotry, prejudice, and oppression become little more than merchants of another kind of orthodoxy.

It is a daunting reality. On the one hand, people tell you it is no use caring because the people you would care about are not worth caring about, and on the other hand, a fragmented rabble of well-meaning but divisive dreamers tell you that you are evil unless you agree with them. That is what happens when the people in power hold all the trumps. They get to define everything, even what you're going to argue about.

But you know, it doesn't really matter. My mother used to say that the only thing that counts is what you do with what you've got. And she was right. In the final analysis, it doesn't matter who wins. It only matters what you did. I stand with the chumps of the world. I stand with them because I think they're better people and I would rather be a chump than the alternative. I will pass the test, and when I die, I will be my own person and not a reflection of someone else's greed or fear.

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