What is this neural spark inside us that brings about concepts such as one person, one vote; the idea we might ever achieve justice for all; the notion that any one of us could be president or famous or a millionaire? Why did we set up a society that strives so, against the odds, to give others a fair shake?
It seems counter-intuitive, given how so much of history is brutally feudal. And in spite of constitutional rhetoric about equality, societies are stubbornly hierarchical. The urge to better the Joneses, to feel superior, to play gotcha is so intrinsic.
The ancient reasons for these social stratifications are obvious and ubiquitous throughout nature. From ants with their queens, drones and workers through primates where only dominant males reproduce, social stratifications are the norm. The worker bees are necessary for the leisure class.
Worldwide people are now so hopeful with the inauguration of Barack Obama, it’s as if the immediate problems, pangs and longings are alleviated, or transferred in this one act.
It’s part of our national mythology, I suppose. Boy born in log cabin makes good. American literature at the turn of the last century was rife with Horatio Alger stories of the downtrodden rising up to make millions — a template well lampooned by Kurt Vonnegut in Breakfast of Champions. (If anyone can make it here and you’re still poor, what’s wrong with you?)
The first half of my gratitude about Obama’s election is as simply explained as removing a thorn from one’s backside; the pain of Bush is removed. After that, there is a sense of old wrongs being righted. It’s a joy to see so many people given so much hope — how realistic is it that many of these hopes for a better future will be realized?
Well, Bush is gone, that’s an analgesic start. And perhaps the derisive vitriole of the Rush Limbaugh / Anne Coulter schadenfreuders that has divided our country will ebb a bit, too.
It seems more than just a precarious balance to me, the Hegelian interplay of egalitarianism with stratification. Given not only how much history has been written but how many cultures we have to pick over, it’s easy to see how power is condensed, the stratifications are formed.
One can explain the sacrifices of soldiers as hope that their own tribe or family will succeed through personal loss, so teamwork is easily subsumed into the social Darwinism beloved by the far right.
But there is something else inside us, this egalitarian impulse. One reads a book and is happy for virtue rewarded or watches a movie and vicariously enjoys a hero or heroine’s success. It isn’t hard to see how the rights derived from the Magna Carta or the American Bill of Rights might be inspirational outside our own borders.
Children’s stories about animals are riddled with plots of love and sacrifice. The noble dog who gives his all for a master. Somehow this noble impulse has been married, within our human imagination, to broader social ideals.
I certainly hope the hope and promise of president-elect Obama is only the beginning of a more compassionate America — it’s about 30 years overdue. Given the give and taken between selfishness and the better angels of our nature, it would be wonderful if we were only at the beginning of three decades of a more equitable and just society, wherever the egalitarian impulse is derived.