We cheer for cruelty and say that we are asking for personal responsibility among those people who are not us, because the people who are not us do not deserve the same benefits of the political commonwealth that we have. In our politics, we have become masters of camouflage. We practice fiscal cruelty and call it an economy. We practice legal cruelty and call it justice. We practice environmental cruelty and call it opportunity. We practice vicarious cruelty and call it entertainment. We practice rhetorical cruelty and call it debate. We set the best instincts of ourselves in conflict with each other until they tear each other to ribbons, and until they are no longer our best instincts but something dark and bitter and corroborate with itself. And then it fights all the institutions that our best instincts once supported, all the elements of the political commonwealth that we once thought permanent, all the arguments that we once thought settled — until there is a terrible kind of moral self-destruction that touches those institutions and leaves them soft and fragile and, eventually, evanescent. We do all these things, cruelty running through them like hot blood, and we call it our politics.
And it's not that I think he's wrong. I wrote something similar, back in the day:
It's not mark of strength, it never is, to barrel down on somebody smaller than you. If you're really the leader of the free world, if you're really the strongest and biggest badass the land has ever known, you aren't threatened by anybody. Least of all another American speaking his or her mind.
But they never were our leaders. They told us to be afraid, and they turned us on each other, and they gave away our money to their friends and killed our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives. They sniped and they snarled, but they never did lead us. They never brought us an inch above ourselves, or a milimeter closer together.
It's that I think he doesn't go far enough. Cruelty is the deliberate infliction of harm; I think there's something far more insidious at work here. I think it's fear. Hear me out.
You step out of line, in this country, for one second, you get goddamn flattened. You work all your life, you pay all your taxes, and your pension goes up in smoke. You work all your life, you pay all your taxes, and you get sick and you get fired and you get left in the dirt. You work all your life, you pay all your taxes, and that buys you nothing, because this isn't a vending machine, because thieves get rich and saints get shot and none of us ever, ever get what we deserve.
Generosity has always been a radical act. Opening your home to the stranger has always been a radical act. Opening yourself up to the idea of caring for others goes against our every defensive human instinct. It means giving others the ability to hurt you. It means baring your wrist and handing someone the knife. And we used to not understand just how much of that we had to do, in order to live.
And I think in the past two decades we've managed to convince ourselves that that's the reason we get screwed. We ARE screwed, by the way: There's no way to make sure you live a reasonably secure life anymore (there never really was, but …) and being scared is a reasonable response.
So I think in order to protect ourselves, in order to defend ourselves from the howling horror that is the truth that we're all in danger and nobody's safe, we've perfected the shrug. We do not have the emotional energy, or so we tell ourselves, to give a shit about anybody else.
A toddler gets gravely wounded in a drug raid? Too bad.
A homeless woman gets arrested for leaving her kids in the car while she tries to get a job so she doesn't have to leave her kids in the car? Too bad.
People can't afford to pay their water bills? Too bad.
The war was a lie? Too bad.
It's all just become too much, and we've allowed ourselves to define "too much" downward so far that we're left caring out ourselves, and barely that. If we widen the circle any further, it might just blow us apart. I get it, I do, which makes it not one iota okay.
Because the circle widens anyway. If you think you can keep others' troubles away, you're kidding yourself. If you think you can keep the wolf from your door if he's already two houses down, good luck to you. We aren't that far from each other, and we never were. We just didn't, once upon a time, let ourselves think there was any other way to do this.
And now? Too bad.