Sunday, July 10, 2016

Lives Matter (But Most, Individually, Not Much)

"A bumper sticker is not a philosophy, Charlie Brown."
But, then, a carefully worked out philosophical
statement would make a lousy bumper sticker.

Before we get too deeply into "Black Lives Matter" or "Police Lives Matter" or "All Lives Matter," we might ask "To whom?" If you mean in some absolute sense that such lives goddamn bloody-well matter, a realistic response would have to be, "Do you mean they matter to God?" 'Cause if not, no, in absolute terms, in terms of The Big Picture — that universe of Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson's "billions and billions of stars" — all life on Earth may matter, but not much. And in the multiverse of any number of universes, possibly an infinite number of universes, our mattering approaches zero.
         So let's ratchet down meaning to just our little planet and human scale. In that case ,"All Lives Matter" can be like "All life is sacred": two statements you shouldn't pronounce while eating a hamburger or even carrots (especially not baby carrots) — or in my presence. That's "not in my presence" because I used to do lab work for summer jobs and in that line of employment killed a significant number of rats, a few dogs, one cat, a rabbit or two, and, in two microbiology labs, bacteria by at least the billions. I feel guilty about the mammals and now decline to eat mammal meat (or octopuses since I encountered one very smart one), but I don't regret the bacteria and to this day still feel some smug satisfaction at having steamed to death any odd billions of Mycobacterium tuberculosis I autoclaved in used sputum samples from TB patients.
         So come on! The vast majority of people who say "All Lives Matter" don't give a rat's ass about bacterial life or, for that matter rats, or for the vast majority of living things on the planet. In context, all but the Jains and most rigorous eco-freaks mean that all human lives matter, and that's a statement of faith. As the Good Book saith, or at least Koheleth (Ecclesiastes, "The Preacher"), "For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that man hath no pre-eminence above a beast […]" (3.19).
         For excellent practical reasons, we humans arrogantly see ourselves as special and insist that (at least generally and in theory) "All Human Lives Matter" a whole lot more than the lives of such old and successful fellow critters as bacteria, jelly fish, round worms, social insects, and even sharks or such relatively close relatives as sheep.
         And then the question becomes how serious we really are about "All Human Lives Matter" and/or just whom we see as fully human.
         And that can get complicated.
         Racism is a relatively recent invention, and it is an invention. Bigotry and xenophobia are widespread and part of the figurative DNA of the human species; racism is an ideology, with a history very much in relatively recent historical times. In the ancient world most places most of the time, most people were willing to treat some other people as things to be bought and sold — slaves — without racial theories to deny humanity to slaves. Indeed, the Spartans kept Helots, publicly-owned slaves who were fellow Greeks, and the Romans were cheerfully equal-opportunity enslavers of prisoners of war and the children of slaves and of the desperately poor.
         For understandable reasons, we accept as fully human and proper recipients of our care and regard, to start with, ourselves and then working out to immediate family, extended family, village … and then further out until we get into increasingly abstract social structures of clan, tribe, and country. Perhaps God and a few saints manage to truly love all of humanity, but for most of us the circle of concern is small, and we really do care about only a few people because that's all we really can care about.
         Look: If God loves us and says we're important, then we're important because God loves us and says we're important, not for any reason intrinsic to us. If there is no God, or if God has better things to do than concern Him/Her/Itself with recent species on minor planets, then we're not important and don't matter. That's the one hand. The "on the other hand" is the practical necessity to affirm human value precisely because in a merely material(ist) universe there's no good reason to believe in human value but strong reason to accept an absurd belief in it so we feel justified to forbid unnecessarily killing or otherwise harming one another.
         In the US of A, we need assertions of "All (Human) Lives Matter" and stronger assertions that "X", "Y", and "Z" lives matter when X, Y, and Z are subgroups whose full humanity has been seriously questioned in American history, e.g., by dispossessing and massacring people, such as Indians, or buying and selling them, such as Blacks.
         The United States has not been a melting pot, reducing Native Americans and then the later immigrants to "atomized" individuals: and our not being a melting pot — a terrifying image — is a good thing. In fortunate times, we're more like a mosaic or stew or that all-American dish, chop suey. When things aren't so good by us in America, we're a race war waiting to happen, a potential chaos of ethnicities, regions, and tribal enclaves that could make the Middle East or the Balkans look like Denmark.
         So let us assert strongly that "BLACK LIVES MATTER" and recognize simultaneously the humanity of all police and the necessity for policing, and let us insist on the decency and loyal service of most police officers most of the time. If you're an American of mature years, you're familiar with Rodney King's rhetorical question, "Can we all get along?"; there's an answer to it, and it's that we Americans had damn well better get along better, or we're going to be in big trouble.
         We are in for a literal "long, hot summer" in 2016, and for a number of years to come as Earth goes through another warm spell and this time around humans add significantly to it. We're also in for another period of large-scale migrations and more and less fanatical and massive mass movements, with ISIS as the harbinger. We in America can't afford another figurative "long, hot summer" of racial violence.
         So, yeah, "BLACK LIVES MATTER," and, indeed, be nice to nice cops. And "If you see something, say something" about terrorist preparations, crime, and/or about any criminal cops.

         And finally, please recognize that for the sort of people who read blogs, the USA is a safe place, where you can (usually) leave your guns at the shooting range or in a locked locker at home.  

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