Sunday, June 07, 2015

Take Off The Top Plate

At cafeterias when I was a lad, bowls and plates were stacked into tubes with a spring-loaded platform at the bottom.  As you took your plate off the top, the stack would rise accordingly.  In the short run, it seemed a sort of magic to a boy:  there was always a full stack of plates, no matter how many you took. 

Something similar happens in improving the justice of American society.  We take off a plate and there are handshakes all around.  A poor man can prevail in court if he is right. Hey, people can keep their property even if they are Quakers.  The woman of the house has authority over the farm when her husband dies, even if her sons object.  A free black man can vote.  A woman can become a doctor. 

On and on goes the list of increasing justice. Plates keep coming off the top. Yet to each generation, the stack looks the same.  How could you?  This injustice has been going on for centuries and America did nothing.  Only in our new moral age, which began last Tuesday, have there been people who really understand justice.

We quickly take standard-of-living improvements for granted.  We forget how poor even Americans were in living memory.  An easy-to-remember set of numbers: In 1949, 41% of Americans lived below what we later defined as the poverty line. In 1941, 49% of Americans were below the poverty line.  And that was after the Great Depression was over. Death in epidemics remained high. Medical care was mostly useless. 

The politics of outrage knows no history.  So you had starving children, and relatives dying in pain? What of it?  You came to America because no one would kill you for being Jewish, or Laotian here? Too bad.  Get with the program because people are really suffering today, having to pay for their own birth control and being spoken of disapprovingly for their sexual behavior.  It just proves that America is racist because we can still find some racist people. 

CS Lewis mentions it in Screwtape, that what a human being comes to expect he rapidly convinces himself he deserves, and is put out of sorts when he doesn't get it, however little he has done to earn it.

It might be argued with a bit of fairness "Well, fine then.  You did those wonderful things and now we are down to the last few things that need to be made fair.  What's stopping you now?" I have seen a few answers, but here is mine:  we are down to ambiguous cases.  There are competing values, not merely interests and traditions. It's tradeoffs from here on in. If you can't see that government paying for abortions;  or affirmative action; or women in combat; or a dozen other things we argue about are ambiguous, then I must conclude you are not a deep thinker.

I long ago said that in much of depression, people are first depressed, and then attach it to life circumstances.  The paranoid style comes first, then goes looking for conspiracies. I think social justice outrage comes first, then goes looking for causes.  That's not necessarily all bad.  A subset of the tribe that is hyperalert to underdog-rooting probably improves the general lot. But it's a good thing only insofar as it counterbalances societal inertia.  It's not a stand-alone virtue.


Sam L. said...

We said in the service that you can't be completely happy without something to gripe about. Seems today a lot of people like to gripe about existentialist problems that don't affect themselves or anyone they know, and this makes them very unhappy.

I am so totally bummed for them, mannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn.

Unknown said...

Certainly harping, carping, pissing, and moaning are part of the human condition, as are Monday Harping, carping, pissing and moaning are all part of the human condition, as are Monday Morning Quarter Backing, Second Guessing and of course the always evolving "The Sky is falling".
I think for a lot of people it is about creating some drama. Think about it, we have these big brains, evolved to make split second decisions of self preservation, and when do we use them. I know one of the most exciting things I do is open an electric bill at the peak of summer. That said there is a subset of the population that is preoccupied with butt sniffing, correcting and scolding others. For them it is about "oneupsmanship" or parading their bona fides.
But, it does seem, maybe because of the media, to have become pathological for some. I am thinking of the manufactured hoaxes and the false narratives. I wonder if it is some sort of variant of Munchhausen's.

Unknown said...

Oops sorry First sentence should be "Certainly harping, carping, pissing, and moaning are part of the human condition, as are Monday Monday Morning Quarter Backing, Second Guessing and of course the always evolving "The Sky is falling".

Texan99 said...

Hey, wouldn't it be nice if we read about thoughtless injustices of the past and our reaction was, "Now, what would I have done if I'd been raised that way? What strength of mind, what virtues, would I have needed in order to understand that I should stand up and say, 'That's wrong!"? What might I be doing today that's analogous?"

You read a novel of a century ago and run across "If a woman is beautiful, education is superfluous. If she is not, education is no help." Or a casual and completely ordinary snipe about Jews, not even pertinent to the plot or intended to illustrate anything special about the character. A throwaway assumption that black were some kind of lower order of animal. The author wasn't a terrible guy. He wasn't an idiot. If he could make that error, what might I be doing today without realizing it?

But it's more fun to dwell on the crushing injustices that other people are perpetrating.

I admit that I can get very irritable about nostalgia for the good old days when some of this stuff was going on. Not that the good old days didn't have their benefits in other ways, but some of that old picture I'm more than glad to see in the rearview mirror.

lelia said...

I want to push a like button for what Texan 99 said.

Texan99 said...

I think you just did! Thank you.

bs king said...

It's interesting to think about this in the other direction too....what will the norms be 100 years from now?

It's certain that some issues people advocate for now will consider wrongheaded fads.

It's certain given that some issues people say are minor complaints will be considered huge basic rights/completely obvious givens.

It's certain that some issues people are concerned about will have completely resolved in ways we don't expect, and our fixation on them will be considered quaint.

It's interesting to wonder which of our beliefs or beliefs we oppose will go in which category. I'd wager even the best among us are only 70% right if we use a 100 year lens.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I grant the point that we would not want to live then because of the attitudes, but I want to state my point more strongly. We underestimate their poverty, their suffering, and their distractions from issues of social justice we feel are just obvious. They pushed justice incrementally forward despite this. Novelists, writers, and those who lived better-off may have less excuse, because they could perhaps have some distance in observing. Yet even they were not far from a time when there was no comparing the value of education and beauty because women weren't educated at all. People disliked those outside their tribe rather automatically, because they were still in a time when trust outside the tribe was unusual - not because they just hadn't become enlightened, but because you might get killed.

Texan99 said...

Not disagreeing. I don't at all grant myself the right to lord it over my benighted ancestors because they had no concept of social justice and suddenly we do today because we're so great. At the same time, from the benefit of our perspective we can see some things were mistakes. No matter how understandable the mistake, and no matter how little excuse I have to claim I wouldn't have made the same mistake, I have no business wishing I could turn back the clock. They really were mistakes. They shock the conscience, and those weren't the good old days. They were just days with fallible people in them, like today, making perhaps different kinds of mistakes from the kinds we tend to make now.

Unknown said...

I think it is arrogant for comfortable, safe contemporary people to expect people of past generations to look through our lens. Our ancestors had their hands full with eking out a living, filling their bellies, clothing themselves, and staying warm and dry; not to mention that they were frequently isolated and mostly rural. There were no charming 5 generation photos on the mantel, few people, regardless of status, were spared tragedy and loss: mother and infant mortality, child hood diseases. accidents, no relief for chronic diseases. Although, newspapers may have been available, literacy was by no means universal. People lived most of their lives within a few miles of where they were born. Consider that radios were not mass produced until the mid 30s; even when I was a kid, newsreels were still shown in movie theaters.
Yet, for example, it is astounding what Harriet Beecher Stowe galvanized. I understand that it is eyeopening to read the diaries of the yeomen farmers who made up the Army of the West, and what they had to say about slavery.

Texan99 said...

Agreed--it would be grossly unfair to judge their actions then by what we may have learned since. On the other hand, we have learned since, and it's not unfair to judge ourselves harshly if we hanker to return to their mistakes. They may not have known better, but we do. This may seem obvious, but I'm often troubled by talk about the good old days, because I have a pretty good idea what would await me if we returned to them.

The Mad Soprano said...

It feels as if this culture has tried too hard to correct past transgressions. In trying to get rid of the old biases, it has only brought in new ones. Now you can't call out someone of a particular race, sex, or whatever because you'd be accused of being biased whether you are or not.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Mad Soprano: I am reading Theodore Darymple's In Praise Of Prejudice, in which he shows that we cannot remove any prejudice, only replace it with another one.

Better, we hope. I may post on it soon.

james said...

Seeing how fashions in prejudice sometimes turn on a dime(*), I have to decline to guess what people will consider normal 100 years hence. Some nonsense never dies, it just takes on new jargon, but other things (e.g. Manifest Destiny) vanish with apparently no trace. But I'd not care to bet that Manifest Destiny in some guise or another won't reappear here. The Chinese aren't shy about theirs, and I suspect that in the long run those governments that fail to react in kind get replaced by others which do.

But as king wrote, some of what seems perfectly obvious now will be known to be unworkable later. Or perhaps I should say "known by attentive people to be unworkable." Communist doctrines keep springing up century after century despite the track record.

For example, the penitentiary is (evidently not) a place to repent of your sins. We stick people there for punishment. But they used to put people to forced work instead, or use public shaming, or lash or hang them. It doesn't follow from any kind of first principle analysis that shaming is worse than prison time, and forced work isn't obviously out of court either. (There are self-consistent analyses that rule out capital punishment. These are disputed, so the answer isn't obvious.) Will these be back in use in 100 years? Will we be rich enough to be able to afford prisons in 100 years, and questions about them be moot?

(*)One advantage to having enough years to make a few joints creak.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

For the record, Manifest Destiny, at least the American version, was actually not that common an idea in the 19th C. It was imposed retroactively as a description by historians looking for a narrative. It wasn't based on nothing, but neither was it some large motivating idea.

Where I hear it now is in the expectation that human beings will settle other planets.

Sam L. said...

I suspect those who do see it as a goal for humanity to pursue, and in order that a catastrophe on earth does not kill off our species. You may call them dreamers; i say, way forward thinkers.

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