"Ask an impertinent question, and you're on your way to a pertinent answer." —Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man
As of October 2015, my goal for this blog is to ask 101 impertinent questions.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Mirror, Mirror: Who Is the Fairest in the World?

"United States is Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading to Poor, UN Report Charges: The UN Human Rights Committee says the U. S. should stop criminalizing homeless people for being homeless." — headline in the AlterNet.

The article goes on to describe how a sick and homeless vet ended up being "baked to death" in a Rikers Island jail cell. His initial crime was trying to stay warm by sleeping in the stairwell of a housing project. This condemnation of America came on the heels of a creditable international report warning that our planet is in trouble. While the problems of the poor and our planet are not news, the United States is being called upon to do some serious self reflection.

How do we as a people undertake such self refection when in our House of Representatives, the chair of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee does not believe climate change is a man-made phenomenon. And for decades, the mind of the American public has to a large extent been shaped by marketers so that today we have become a consumer society. The success of our economy depends on how much we shop, not on our skill as craftsmen. In fact, most of what we shop for is not made in America but in cheap labor markets overseas.

I was recently in a big urban mall for the first time in a number of years. Call me a rube, but I could not believe all the stores filled with stuff. So much stuff. Really cool stuff. But most of it not made in America—and in styles or with operating systems soon to be out of fashion or obsolete. With its vast space and tall ceilings, the mall felt like a cathedral to stuff. After having a new battery installed in my 2009 computer, I fled my desire to buy something new and beautiful and shiny, something to make me better than I am, smarter and more stylish.

As this week has unfolded with the grievous reports of the tragedy befalling our planet and the poor, I see the problems compounded by the ambition and lack of compassion among our politicians. Perhaps the most revolutionary act of social and environmental justice in our time might be to ask: How does every dollar I spend on stuff make me complicit in the suffering of our planet and the poor?

Asking such a question is pointless if we're not willing as individuals to change. Like basic manners, compassion and self-reflection are not skills encouraged in a culture such as ours where image has become so important. Instead of promoting self reflection, or schools promote it by fostering an environment where grades, winning, and popularity are more important than character and creativity. 

For decades, the American education system has been sending children into the world without the skills, historical perspective, and character required to become creative and compassionate problem-solving citizens. I keep hearing that America has the finest institutions of learning in the world. On the other hand, when we look at our leaders, most of whom have at least one degree from these fine institutions, we see a government run by people who appear to lack the nobility and know-how required to solve the problems that will make us the exemplars of human rights they claim us to be.