It’s only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the universe
The democratic republic of the United States that has existed for nearly two-and-a-half centuries is on hiatus. It was on hiatus during the first Civil War and it is back on hiatus now that we’re in the midst of a second civil war.
The Pulitzer Prize recipient and Princeton Historian James McPherson said the first Civil War “started because of uncompromising differences between the free and slave states over the power of the national government to prohibit slavery in territories that has not yet become states.”
The current civil war also started because of uncompromising differences but now it’s between the one-percenters (and their surrogates) and the rest of us over the power of the collective, the “we the people,” to provide for the needs of all as the planet and its sentient beings struggle to rise above conditions of enforced scarcity.
The new conflict has brought to the fore questions which the philosopher movie-maker Woody Allen raised in his two great tragi-comedies, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Broadway Danny Rose”: Is there a moral structure to the universe? Is there some accountability for people who make evil choices and commit evil deeds?
In “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” an ophthalmologist, Dr. Judah Rosenthal, is consumed with guilt because he put a contract out on his flight-attendant paramour who threatened to tell his safe-from-the-ways-of-the-world wife that a pillar of the community had been cheating on her.
After the murder, the doctor goes close to having a mental breakdown. He visits his childhood home to see if he might get in touch with the values he grew up with and they might become a source of stability. In the old house — which the new owner has allowed him to walk through at his leisure — he hallucinates that all his relatives are sitting around the dining room table at a Seder.
He projects a question into their midst about the nature of culpability, and in response nearly every adult at the table offers an opposing view on justice. One of his aunts laughs at the idea that someone who has committed an evil deed will be brought to justice; she says people get away with murder.
That is the view of many people about how the one-percenters manage the world to suit their profit indices rather than to devise and implement strategies to meet the needs of all, health care and otherwise. Thus, for millions, that minority is the source of pain and suffering. And one wonders, if significant dissent arises in contradiction, will they be made to go away like the stewardess?
Standing in the way of any resolution to adopt a position on justice that takes into account the needs of all are the uncompromising differences alluded to. Soldiers on each side of the battle line cannot even agree on the physics of reality, on what sits before the eyes, that a can of beans is a can of beans, so they continue to lambaste each other with condemnatory stigmatizing rhetoric about their respective blindnesses.
Some people I talk to about these things are so engrossed in a knee-jerk meta-reality with no basis in the material world, that they’ve insulated themselves not only from the pain and suffering of others but also from their own need for an existence without cynicism.
In Allen’s “Broadway Danny Rose,” a theatrical agent, Danny Rose, manages a cadre of acts who others define as “losers” among whom are a one-leggèd tap dancer and a stuttering ventriloquist.
Rose is a personalist. He gives himself over to his clients without reserve; he is devoted to them in every way. When he resurrects the career of a has-been singer who winds up with a big hit song, that winner calls Danny Rose a “loser” and ditches him for a high-power publicity agent.
The singer’s girlfriend, Tina, sees the basic goodness in Rose and feels there might be something in him worth pursuing. But she ultimately calls him a loser and ditches him too. His personalism goes unrewarded.
But Rose is able to transcend because he is armed with ethical maxims he learned in childhood. Like a mantra he repeats what his uncle Sidney told him for getting along in life: “acceptance, forgiveness, love.” When things go awry, you accept the other, you forgive the other, you begin to love the other. However, for devoting himself to the lives of others unconditionally, Rose is called by the one-percent a fool.
Today in the United States, where religious views of acceptance and forgiveness have been jettisoned like infernal debris, people talk past each other as if an-other did not exist. Therefore a new measure of justice has to be created that will mollify the factions.
It resides in the question: To what extent and in what way have you relieved the pain and suffering of someone today? Did you meet people at the level of their wounds and bandages and make things better for them? Did you challenge the political economic institutions that keep people locked in poverty and distress though an ethic of enforced scarcity?
Last week, I mentioned to an older woman at the Y that Pope Francis had celebrated his 80th birthday by asking eight homeless people to breakfast. I related that he chatted with each person individually while sharing Argentinian cakes with them before saying Mass. Besotted in cynicism, the woman implied the Pope did this as a publicity stunt.
I asked her if she thought the Pope was stunting last Holy Thursday when he met with men and women prisoners at Rome’s Rebibbia prison and washed their feet like Jesus had done on the Thursday before his death.
I asked her if she had ever visited someone in prison who had no family or who had been totally rejected by society. Did she believe in acceptance-forgiveness-love? I must admit there was a great pause of silence.
In “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” the killer ophthalmologist finally pushes through his homicidal guilt, he is never caught, he goes on living his one-percent life with his one-percent wife. His aunt was correct, people do get away with murder.
There is an intermittent voiceover throughout the film; a philosopher, Doctor Levy, offers a vision of a way out of internecine conflict. He says, “We define ourselves by the choices we have made. Human happiness does not seem to have been included in the design of creation at all, it’s only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the universe.”
It is actually an optimist, democratic, republican solution to conflict in that it invites all to participate in creating human happiness. But sadly, things got too tough for Doctor Levy and he took his life amid the insensitivity.
But in a epilogic postscript to the film, Levy reminds folks that “most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, and even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.”
But will future generations understand anything unless the collective “we the people” becomes personalists, like Danny Rose, and dedicate ourselves to meeting the needs of the planet and all its sentient beings?
And when the woman, who called Rose a loser and derided him, fell on hard times and knocked on his door one Thanksgiving afternoon while the loser was feeding all his loser acts in his apartment (with TV dinners), all he could hear was Uncle Sidney: acceptance, forgiveness, and love.
He failed at first, he could not say the words, she left forlorn. But after a moment’s deliberation he ran after her. And there on Seventh Avenue in front of the Carnegie Deli, on Thanksgiving Day, was the incarnation of love.